As an African youth who has been educated and done research in the UK, I am disturbed with the apparent diminishing influence of the UK in the global sphere and specifically in Africa. It is disturbing me because having studied, researched, and taught in the UK, I have an unwavering admiration to its values and ideas, as well as much interest to its history. Since coming back home, to Tanzania, in 2012, I have been observing the trends of UK’s engagement with the external world. What I see is a gradual withdrawal of the UK from the global sphere.
If you ask most young Africans about an external great power that is influencing their country and daily lives- the quick answer would most likely be China or the USA. If you get specific and ask them, what about Britain- they would probably say: it’s too difficult to get a visa; or university fees are expensive; or they don’t want immigrants; etc. It is unfortunate that Britain is no more the first place young Africans are thinking of pursuing their university studies despite its world-class universities. This is obviously a change of attitude towards Britain as compared to the previous generation of Africa, of which Britain was their “mother” country. This change of attitude is to be blamed to the UK’s foreign policy decision makers and politicians. For example, when was the last time a sitting British Prime Minister visited Sub-Saharan Africa?
When I was doing my PhD in the UK, I closely read and looked at UK’s foreign policy. In my first year when I was lost in trying to figure out my research, I searched and read everything possible on UK’s foreign policy. Implicitly, I was in so much awe of how such a relative geographically small country could have so much power in the global sphere from time immemorial. Even with the passing of its empire, the UK’s place in international community remained a force to reckon with.
In my humble analysis of the recent history of Britain, I would, arguably, say that the two regimes of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, (despite all of their “weaknesses” and criticisms of their policies) restored/rejuvenated UK’s strong presence in the international sphere.
The Thatcher government did so through its promotion of neoliberal policies, which went hand-to-hand with the Reagan’s regime in the USA. In the same vein, they both oversaw the end of the Cold War and their countries became symbols and pushers of neoliberalism, which has since gained unprecedented momentum. Thatcher engaged with Africa more than current politicians even if her engagement was often reactionary. For example, she was involved in the independence process of Zimbabwe, the ending of apartheid, and the spread of neoliberal policies through the Commonwealth forum.
With regards to Blair’s regime role in rejuvenating UK’s position in the global sphere, there are a number of factors. His charisma was contagious across borders. His “third ways” policies appealed to people of both left and right sides. He championed international development by establishing DFID with cabinet status. DFID gave UK an upper hand in the poverty reduction efforts that culminated into the popular Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). During Blair’s regime, the UK initiated “Commission for Africa” in trying to clear “a scar on the conscience of the world” – a phrase Blair used to describe the state of Africa. In that he was reinforcing UK’s top position in dealing with some of the critical issues in the international community of which poverty remains a challenge.
Remarkably, Blair was an instrumental actor in stabilizing Sierra Leone- a country that faced one of the most cruel and inhumane wars in the modern world. To this day, in spite of poverty, Sierra Leone is now enjoying peace.
To understand my argument that the UK is diminishing its place in international community, it is important to understand the soft and hard powers that the UK possesses. I will focus on the selected soft power.
The UK’s continuing soft power in the global sphere is mostly through English, which is an international language. In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, English is “ the language of business, science, diplomacy, and academia”. The fact that English is a universal language gives the UK leverage in influencing the global masses.
Another UK’s soft power is encompassed within the framework of the Commonwealth, which has more than 50 member states with more than a billion people across continents. The members share a common history with similar institutional frameworks (parliamentary systems, constitutions, etc) that still governs members’ political conduct.
For many years, the UK used its soft power in a very smart way to influence world politics. I am calling it smart use because there were countries that were economically more powerful than the UK yet their influence in international affairs was not to the level of the UK in many senses. The Commonwealth thus became a reference point to what the French has been trying to have with Franco-Africa Summit, the Chinese with China-Africa Forum, Japanese with the TICAD, and now the USA-Africa Summit.
Even with those two embedded soft powers, the UK is not using them anymore as much as it did and could. Other great powers mentioned above are imitating the Commonwealth with very feeble foundation of no history yet they are gaining space and influence in the rising Africa full of energetic young population, business potentials, and stimulating significant amount of virgin untapped resources.
The UK needs to wake up ASAP before it’s too late and restored its vibrancy and lead in the global politics. Why is UK becoming like a follower of the USA’s foreign policy instead of having its own ground and lead in international issues? Unfortunately, with his effort to rejuvenate UK’s space in international politics, Blair supported Bush’s War on Iraq. Despite much criticism from local politicians, it seems like he set a precedent from which then the UK tends to wait and support anything the USA would decide on a certain international issue, be it Libya, Syria, etc. Even if they are “special friends” the UK, given its history and powers, needs to stand on its own and have a lead in most of the key issues.
In fact, due to its history and geographical proximity, the UK needs to be at the forefront of anything that has to do with Africa starting with the increasing terrorism threats in the continent from Boko Haram in the West to Al Shabaab in the East of the continent.
In the wake of #GarissaAttack in Kenya none of the UK’s political leaders strongly came out to denounce the act. #GarissaAttack was a major terrorist act that has claimed the lives of 147 innocent young men. The UK needs to securitize the issue of Al Shabaab and take a lead in fighting this terrorists group that is potentially become like or more than Boko Haram. The Somali originating terrorist group is now causing terror in Kenya and if not seriously fought it could threatened the security of the whole Eastern Africa region as well as the Horn of Africa.
Yet, the leaders of UK have been so busy with the elections campaigns that they haven’t bothered to take considerable actions to show that they care about what is happening in the outer world leave alone Kenya where it has (historically) massive interests and investments. It is apparent that they have been chocked by the elections campaigns to concentrate on anything else at the moment.
I listened to the elections debate, and it was unfortunate that the two major political parties (Conservatives and Labour) seem to have been occupied with issues that are usually subject matters of the small parties. All candidates focused only on domestic issues with no mention of foreign affairs. Anything foreign that was discussed had to do with retreating from the external world such curbing immigration and withdrawing from the EU. These are signs of inattention to the globalisation trends and only a narrow focus on inward issues.
It was a heart breaking to hear a candidate associating immigrants to HIV/AIDs. Relief came, however, when fellow politicians distanced themselves with such sentiments. Nevertheless issues of immigrations and ensuing debates on them are taking unnecessarily significant attention in the politics of a former empire. This is not right especially when we are living in a globalised world on which immigrations and cross-border movements are inevitable results of an increasingly connected world. As a result of such untimely debates, the UK has unfortunately found itself with policies that discourage immigrants who add value to its knowledge and economy. Counterproductively, such policies result in keeping the kind of immigrants who end up using social welfare benefits because they are the ones who are desperate and ready to manoeuvre through the hardship of being immigrant in the UK. They have nothing much to loose and no many options as those with adequate education who can move to anywhere in the world and still have a good life out of their education. The recent case of Dr. Miwa Hirono is a good example. Also are the increasing difficult requirements for a study visa.
Why is UK retreating? I wonder. Is it based on calculated rational national interests or what?
All in all, I urge British foreign policy decision makers and politicians to sit down and revisit their foreign policy…starting with Africa!
Britain, a historical “parent” to most African countries is loosing its space in the confident rising Africa. It is going to a time when the UK will have no voice in the continent that has so much in common with. Other powers are increasingly sidelining UK’s space in Africa.