The UK-Africa Investment Summit, which brought an impressive number of heads of state and government to London on 20-21 January, was a ceremony to mark UK ambitions to create a ‘Global Britain’ following Brexit and still be seen as a major player in Africa. It was cast in the mould of similar events hosted by France, the United States (during Barack Obama’s presidency), Japan, Germany and Russia, as well as the triennial Sino-African summits that underline China’s African business dominance (AE 376/19).

In attendance were the leaders of Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda and others, all captured on camera with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince William. This impressive haul reflected hard work by British diplomats, amid reports of shambolic organisation in London, which officials said were due to delays around Brexit preparations, the 12 December general election and Christmas. Helpfully, many bigwigs were stopping off on their way to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Officially, the summit “laid the foundations for new partnerships between the UK and African nations based on trade, investment, shared values and mutual interest”. A government communiqué said “billions of pounds of new commercial deals were announced”, but the focus was on investment. With a relatively few old-style contract signings, the UK announced new initiatives and funding, including a new partnership with the City of London, and moves to “turbo-charge infrastructure financing, and enable Africa’s clean energy potential”. All this would “help to realise the UK’s ambition to be the investment partner of choice for Africa, create hundreds of thousands of jobs and ensure the mutual prosperity of all our nations”.

This was important symbolic stuff ahead of the UK officially leaving the European Union on 31 January. Former prime minister Theresa May’s August 2019 visit to South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria sought to underline post-Brexit Britain’s credentials as a commercial partner “second only to China”, but it was the first visit to Africa by a British PM since Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December 2015. To make things happen, state-owned investor CDC Group has been considerably beefed up and City powerhouses have lined up new investment instruments (AE 376/17). After years of austerity, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has far fewer diplomats at its disposal than rivals like France, but senior officials have been deployed to negotiate trade agreements and stimulate investment.

There are solid prospects from increased financing and general interest in Africa. Johnson’s period at the FCO in 2016-18 was not covered with glory, but he did visit more African countries than any foreign secretary in the past decade. He has held open the door to a new Africa-wide UK initiative that is better aligned with the African Continental Free Trade Area than the old-style EU association agreements.

How things progress will become clearer soon after the government’s Brexit party ends. Officials in Whitehall and British government agencies have been obsessed with the likelihood that a major reorganisation – driven by Johnson’s maverick chief of staff Dominic Cummings – will downgrade the Department for International Development (DfID), while giving more resources and restoring influence to the depleted FCO. DfID is not expected to disappear – and Johnson has outflanked many critics by saying the UK will maintain its commitment to allocate 0.7% of its gross national income to development – but the devil of future policy will be in the detail.

The UK is back on an international stage it never really left, albeit outside the EU with its comfort blanket of multilateral agreements and initiatives which for decades have employed cohorts of British consultants and contractors. With at least 11 months of trade negotiations ahead, there are at least as many uncertainties as were apparent immediately following the 2016 Brexit referendum (AE 327/1). Business abhors uncertainty, but the new situation also offers African partners opportunities that London may be equipping itself to offer (AE 327/4).