Opinionista Babatunde Fagbayibo 5 September 2018

Interpreting post-Brexit African relations through Theresa May’s dance moves

What is the future of post-Brexit African relations? As I watched the British Prime Minister's uncoordinated dance moves, I could not help but think of it as a metaphor for what is to come.

Even if nothing comes out of her recent three-nation African tour, Theresa May can at least take consolation in the fact that her awkward dance moves has finally laid to rest any doubt on whether British colonialism learned anything from Africa’s well-coordinated and spirit moving dance routine.

The video of Theresa May’s hand flapping, robotic, and disjointed dance steps with students in South Africa and Kenya has gone viral in recent days. Had she danced during her visit to Nigeria, we could now be talking of a perfect triptych lens for gauging the link between performing arts and geopolitics. Perhaps the Nigerians thought she had exhausted all her dance moves in South Africa and would rather just get down to the practical details of diplomatic engagement.

May’s dance moves was no doubt a comic relief, one that some would even argue helped deodorise the desperation of her government to find soft landing in the increasingly likely event of a hard-Brexit deal. While the UK has spent years on prioritising a narrow consideration of aid to Africa over building substantial trade links, others like China and India have deepened trade ties with the continent.

How for example would UK-Africa relations trump already existing and much stronger EU, China or India trade arrangements? May’s plan to pump four-billion pounds into African markets through direct British government investment, with an equal amount from the British private sector, is not exactly enough to significantly change the landscape of investment in Africa.

What then is the future of post-Brexit African relations? As I watched May’s uncoordinated dance moves, I could not help but think of it as a metaphor of what is to come. May flapped her hands in different directions, moved her feet in the opposite direction of the rhythm and beats, while displaying a robotic, rigid body movement. Now what are we to learn from this?

Regarding the rigidity/robotic movement, we could guess that the UK is unlikely to make a dramatic shift from its pro-aid foreign policy objective regarding Africa. While there is a strong possibility of reduction of the amount of aid, mainly due to domestic imperatives and opposition, the architecture will remain.

This foreign policy objective is at the heart of how both Labour and Conservative governments construe UK-Africa relations, although the rhetoric may be different. Even within the EU, the UK was not exactly a major proponent of enhancing meaningful trade relations with Africa. The UK is an integral part of the short-term, crisis mode approach of the EU to throwing more money at security over developmental issues in Africa, with the overriding aim of reducing migration to Europe. Considering growing anti-immigration sentiments within the UK, it is highly unlikely that May, or anyone who succeeds her, would change course.

On the hand-flapping and unco-ordinated feet movement, I guess we can expect a not-so-straightforward, goal-post shifting post-Brexit Africa arrangement. Promises will be made, agreements will be signed, and a periodic UK-Africa summit would even be inaugurated, but the tempo will remain the same. As old habits do die hard, the UK is likely going to adopt EU’s divide-and-rule approach to trade negotiations with Africa.

The reality is that Africa’s aspiration for collective trade negotiations is of little relevance to the UK’s global ambition. UK’s domestic interest, which is also in tandem with the West’s, will be paramount, with Africa’s as secondary.

Micheal Jennings could not have put it better when he asserted that “May’s “new approach” is essentially the same policy wrapped in shiny new Brexit packaging. But as a mechanism for achieving a bright, post-Brexit future, it seems as convincing as her efforts at dancing. DM

Babatunde Fagbayibo is an associate professor at the University of South Africa

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