Chatham House Africa Programme Written Evidence Submission (ZAF0027)

Executive Summary

Dr Alex Vines OBE and Bob Dewar CMG

Strategic prioritization

The focus of UK Africa policy has moved from its traditional partners, based on historical colonial links, to states or sub-regions in geostrategic locations that offer trade opportunities, or that have high levels of poverty and complex security challenges that could directly threaten UK interests. For instance, the UK has built important portfolios and relationships with Nigeria – a former colony – but also Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).[1] The UK’s pivot to the Sahel – with a joint FCO-DFID Sahel unit, new embassies in Niger and Chad, and an enlarged post in Mali – gives increased priority to a crucial region with few historical ties to the UK. DFID has also increased available funding for the area.[2]

However, there remain opportunities to further UK engagement in the region. Sudan is the third-largest country in Africa and has a key geostrategic position but has been a low priority for HMG in recent years. The fall of former President Bashir in 2018 and the formation of a new government may represent an opportunity to reboot relations. In addition, South Africa is a key strategic partner for the UK,[3] though the relationship remains uneasy due in part to different approaches to the crisis in Zimbabwe, historical apartheid-era grievances, and visa requirements. A UK–South Africa target to double trade volumes during 2009–15 was not achieved, but a post-Brexit economic partnership agreement with South Africa and its neighbours (SACU+M) would be significant for both countries.


UK trade with Africa remains dominated by extractives. More than 40 per cent of the capital invested by UK businesses into sub-Saharan Africa since 2003 was in coal, oil and gas projects. At the UK–Africa Investment Summit in January 2020, the most important new investment announcements included five oil and gas deals worth £2.1 billion. Diversifying investment to include renewables, agriculture and other economic activities should be a UK priority. This may become more important after Brexit.

Prime ministerial trade envoys are a useful tool to engage with emerging markets with substantial trade and investment opportunities. In 2020, there are nine envoys focused upon 12 African countries. It would be prudent for parliament to annually review focus countries and assess envoy performance. The South Africa–UK Bilateral Forum was established in 1997 and the UK–Nigeria Economic Development Forum launched in 2018, to overcome barriers to trade and investment. Such forums may also present possible avenues for enhanced UK–Africa trade. 

International development

The UK is one of only a handful of countries to meet the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income on aid and, as noted earlier, is a major donor to key African states for the continent’s wider geopolitics. In 2019, the UK’s biggest overseas programmes were in Ethiopia, Nigeria and the DRC. Development aid has increasingly focussed on spending volumes, often delivered through multilateral organizations, contractors or NGOs, and often on short timetables.

However, sustainable change in many African states – where entrenched governance challenges and endemic corruption undermine progress – needs innovation, patience and risk appetite. Programmes may need to be staff intensive and long term. Equally, UK aid should be able to react swiftly to shifting strategic opportunities or priorities when states move onto positive transitional pathways or show signs of stress. This approach goes against the long-term trend of spending more with fewer people. Consequently, a rethink may be necessary. 

Soft power

Supporting higher education, youth engagement and quality English-language training through the British Council is an area that requires sharper HMG focus. The majority of the 19 British Council offices in Sub-Saharan Africa are in Anglophone countries (except for those in Ethiopia, Sudan, Senegal and Mozambique) and notably absent in Angola, the DRC and Cameroon. British Council engagement with non-Anglophone African countries should be expanded.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke of putting people before passports at the UK–Africa Investment Summit. Currently onerous visa requirements damage the UK’s reputation and hamper the projection of soft power. Citizens from Namibia, Botswana and the Seychelles do not require a visa to visit the UK and similar arrangements could be possible for other countries. Biometrics and technology could make UK entry procedures smoother and quicker.

Strategic issues

-          Staffing: Does the UK have enough core expert staff to realize these programmes in Africa? At present, there is perhaps too much reliance on consultants and insufficient language skills, notably in French and Portuguese. Equally, staffing levels in posts and DFID offices need to be sufficient to tackle the complexity and importance of the policy challenge.

-          Joined up government: Africa’s most pressing contemporary challenges – transnational security crises, climate change impacts and migratory pressures generated by rapidly increasing populations – are overwhelmingly regional.[4] Effective responses demand co-ordination between multiple diplomatic posts and departments. There has been significant progress on this, but tensions nonetheless remain between working cultures and objectives.[5]

-          Crisis response vs sustainable partnership: Africa is relatively unimportant in UK domestic politics, and suffers from patchy or poorly-informed media coverage and reactive policy formulation. Short-term crisis management can undermine the establishment of a sustainable two-way partnership approach, which is essential in an era of massively increased global competition for influence on the continent.

-          A strategic approach: The UK’s 2018 New Strategic Approach to Africa is a welcome development, but a public HMG strategy for Africa should be created, including setting measurable targets and delivering the means to implement them, owned by all ministers and government departments. It should relate to Africa as a whole, rather than merely 'sub-Saharan Africa’, and consider climate change and the continent’s growing young population in policy and spending decisions. The high ministerial turnover of those responsible for Africa within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) must also be addressed for this approach to be successful – since 1997 there have been 17 separate appointments to this position (see below).













Ben Shepherd

The DRC is the second-largest African state and will be the ninth most populous country in the world by 2050.[6] Kinshasa is projected to become the world’s largest city by 2075.[7] The country’s natural resources have a total estimated value of $24 trillion;[8] it is home to the world’s second-largest tropical forest and has hydropower potential that could supply electricity to much of the continent.

The DRC is at the geographical heart of the African continent. It has nine neighbours, many volatile, and straddles three of Africa’s sub-regions – Southern, Eastern and Central. The DRC’s population is concentrated on the perimeter of the country, and often has stronger economic and cultural links across borders than to the distant capital made more remote by degraded or non-existent transport links.

Generations of abuse by colonial authorities and meddling by great powers during the Cold War have left entrenched patterns of political corruption and a dysfunctional state. It has experienced two major wars and successive waves of conflict, many involving its neighbours, and repeated humanitarian crises. Its people are deeply impoverished. It is the 11th least-developed state in the world,[9] the 7th most difficult place to do business[10] and has 4.5 million internally displaced people.[11] There are some 70 armed groups active in the east of the country,[12] and it hosts the most expensive UN mission in the world.[13] The DRC’s 10th Ebola outbreak is ongoing.[14]

The DRC has the potential to drive growth across Africa and lift millions out of poverty. It could also be a vector for unrest and a terrain for renewed regional confrontation. Either way, it is of vital strategic importance. The UK has ramped up its presence from a low base. DFID opened a programme in 2003, and rapidly became the 2nd largest bilateral donor to the country. UK efforts here have largely overcome popular suspicion that the UK was an ally of Rwanda and Uganda, the DRC’s wartime antagonists. This illustrates the need to engage with complex political and economic dynamics that extend beyond the DRC’s borders, and demand coordination between multiple diplomatic posts, as well as DFID, the FCO and the MOD. The UK government established a joint office in Eastern DRC and appointed a Great Lakes special envoy to coordinate top-level policy.

Repeated further crises – political, humanitarian or conflict-related – are inevitable. The DRC is a low political priority for the UK, and both policy and material resources are scarce. Careful strategic planning is necessary to prevent crisis management from overwhelming long-term engagement. Finally, sustainable change in the DRC demands tackling entrenched patterns of corruption and neo-patrimonialism. Working on links between governance, conflict, democratization and accountability needs innovation, patience, risk appetite and flexibility. To be effective, programmes may need to be small scale, long-term and staff intensive.



Ahmed Soliman

Ethiopia is undergoing a tumultuous political transition. In the two years since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power, his administration has initiated a raft of reforms to overhaul Ethiopia’s authoritarian system, encouraging greater inclusion, economic liberalization and improved relations with its neighbours, most notably Eritrea – for which Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. But the same period has seen intensified regional conflict and heightened identity-based violence, accompanied by a sharp increase in lawlessness and worsening mass displacement.

Upcoming elections – scheduled for 29 August 2020 – will be a significant marker in terms of consolidating Ethiopia’s transition and shaping the nature of state-building moving forward. The polls will provide a re-examination of the viability of Ethiopian federalism and the role of sub-state nationalism. The opening of political space is likely to ensure the most contested election since 2005 and a peaceful, transparent and credible process is crucial for the country’s stability. The prime minister’s newly established Prosperity Party (PP), having replaced the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, faces serious challenges in several regions. There are warning signs around ethno-nationalist rivalries, particularly among the dominant groups – the Oromo, the Amhara and the Tigray – where formerly supressed tensions have surfaced. The 2020 election could further embed inter-ethnic and regional enmities, as political elites seek to manipulate communal divisions for their benefit. Without safeguards in place, growing insecurity and disorder threaten the viability of holding credible elections, and could lead to a reversal of the fragile gains and reforms made during the transition so far.

UK policy entry-points/recommendations

The UK is an important bilateral partner for Ethiopia, which has been one of the top recipients of UK bilateral overseas development aid (ODA) for over a decade, receiving over £300 million annually since 2013. The Ethiopian government’s prioritization of development policies to tackle poverty during the last two decades has improved the lives of millions – the proportion of Ethiopian’s living in poverty has declined from 44 per cent in 2000 to 23 per cent in 2018.[15] UK Aid supports Ethiopia’s development and is prioritized in the areas of education, humanitarian assistance, social infrastructure and services. The UK is well-positioned to maintain its positive diplomatic engagement with Ethiopia, including supporting the government’s reform agenda and a peaceful political transition. However, it is notable that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has not visited the UK and was not at the UK–Africa Investment Summit. Since coming to power he has been to Washington, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Brussels and Oslo. Bilateral ties should not be taken for granted and HMG should make continued efforts to strengthen the relationship.

Ethiopia is a strategically important partner for the UK and other western allies in tackling poverty, regional instability and irregular migration. The UK relies on Ethiopia to play a stabilizing role in the conflict-prone Horn of Africa region, supporting mutual interests in Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. Ethiopia is the largest contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping, with over 8,000 personnel, the vast majority serving in missions around the region, as well as contributing to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The UK has supported Ethiopia’s peacekeeping capability through its Peace Support Training Centre, focused on education and training in non-combat areas. The Ethiopian government has prioritized security sector governance reform and the UK could expand its support to non-military areas, such as policing, justice and law enforcement institutions.

Ethiopia has an ambitious target of reaching middle-income status by 2030. Strong economic growth of 8–10 per cent for over a decade underpins the government’s ‘Home-grown Economic Reform Agenda’. In order to generate increased domestic revenue and foreign direct investment, the government is seeking to reduce the role of state intervention in economic management, open key sectors previously under state control to private investment, and improve the regulatory and business climate. In doing so, Ethiopia hopes to tackle its employment and skills gap and crucially create millions of jobs for an increasing number of educated unemployed young people. The UK could play a role in advising the government on how to manage the process of privatization and generate employment, providing technical and regulatory support in key sectors.

Ethiopia’s new electoral board faces the test of organizing the most significant and challenging nationwide elections in 15 years, with under seven months to prepare. The electoral board’s capacity constraints are clear, having not yet published electoral regulations or conducted voter registration. Providing technical support and capacity-building to strengthen institutions such as the electoral board, human rights commission and judiciary is vital for credible elections to be held and to ensure that related conflict prevention measures are in place.



Elizabeth Donnelly

The UK’s relationship with Nigeria is among its most significant and strategic in Africa. With Africa’s largest population, of around 190 million people, and its largest economy by GDP, developments in Nigeria have consequences for its neighbourhood and for the UK. Known for its crude oil production, Nigeria has a wealth of other natural resources. It has a coastline of over 850 km and is important for maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea.

The UK’s relationship with Nigeria criss-crosses political, security, trade and investment, migration, and development cooperation. As the consequences of global warming take effect, climate change and green growth will be prominent features of the relationship. Long-standing links due to colonial history, close cultural ties and diaspora and family connections keep the two countries close. The UK is in a unique position in terms of its relationship with Nigeria and the potential for influence. Nurturing this relationship and sensitively wielding this influence is increasingly important for the UK as it seeks to strengthen engagement across Africa, while Nigeria faces severe domestic security threats, economic difficulties and confronts challenges of further consolidating democracy.

Development and governance

DFID has a crucial role to play in Nigeria, but corruption, mismanagement and ongoing governance challenges mean that it has not seen similar successes in reducing poverty and improving human development that it has experienced elsewhere. Poverty in Nigeria is sustained by a complex set of drivers. The Gates Foundation estimates that by 2050 more than 40 per cent of the world’s extreme poor will live in Nigeria and the DRC. DFID Nigeria’s planned budget for 2018/19 was £235 million. Spending was dominated by human development (43 per cent), economic development (19 per cent) and humanitarian programmes (15 per cent). If Nigeria’s population is to double by 2050 as projected, improvements in the health and education systems now are urgent. Crucially, to ensure that its work and spending has a lasting impact, the UK must seek to unpick those incentives that prevent progress and foster decisions by powerful elites that run counter to reform and progress: concurrent efforts to reduce corruption and foster improved and more accountable systems of government are crucial to this. Nigeria has made significant progress in democratization over two decades. Its return to democracy in 1999 and its regularly held elections have created space for more responsive government to emerge, as well as for civil society and media capacity to strengthen and play a significant role in demanding, protecting and supporting improvements for citizens. The UK must ensure that the space for Nigerian media and civil society organizations to operate is protected, as there are signs that this is under threat.

Corruption and asset recovery

DFID is working to support Nigerian actors in monitoring the use of returned funds as part of its Anti-Corruption in Nigeria Programme. The UK has made important progress on anti-corruption since the enactment of the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act and the 2017 Criminal Finances Act. But the UK National Crime Agency (NCA) notes that billions of pounds continues to be laundered in or through the UK every year (not only from Nigeria). Unexplained wealth orders are an important tool in the anti-corruption effort – but the UK will have greater impact, globally, through achieving high-level prosecutions. This would send a much clearer message on the UK’s stance and efforts on corruption. The federal government of Nigeria has focused on the recovery and return of stolen assets and the UK and Nigerian governments have a memorandum of understanding that commits both to ensuring that returned funds are not again used in corrupt practices and that returned assets will be used to benefit the poorest in society and to improve access to justice.



In 2018 the UK and Nigeria signed the first UK–Nigeria security and defence partnership. Largely focussed on equipment and training to combat Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) in Nigeria’s North East, the agreement also sets out how the two countries will cooperate on strengthening policing, reducing piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, and tackling organized crime and corruption. The agreement also established an enhanced human rights dialogue to enable the security partnership  and promises a regular forum for ministers to discuss cooperation on different challenges and priorities. Nigeria faces multiple security challenges, and some of these have implications for the UK’s pivot to the Sahel as part of its new strategic approach to Africa. The decimation of the North East and the adaptability of Boko Haram and ISWA are much in evidence and will demand the focus and resources of Nigeria and its partners for years to come. Spiralling banditry in rural North Western Nigeria is causing people to migrate into southern Niger. Equally important are decades-long, but recently expanded, clashes between cattle-herders and settle farmers: rooted in mismanagement of rural land and resources and environmental degradation, these conflicts are increasingly and reductively described in ethnic and religious terms. In the absence of justice it is these clashes that can spiral and spring up in different locations and generate multiple worsening local violent conflicts across Nigeria, tearing at fragile social fabric and further straining already overstretched security agencies. Delivery, not just in security and defence issues, but in development and governance is undercut by corruption – and interests in protecting patronage systems. The British government must ensure that through this defence partnership specific reforms in the security sector can be carried out to ensure better outcomes – and avoid treating consequences rather than causes and thereby perpetuating the status quo.

Trade and Investment

There is significant scope to expand trade and investment relations. The UK–Nigeria Economic Development Forum was launched in 2018 to overcome barriers to trade and investment, and the next meeting will take place in March 2020. Much will depend on the success of the forum in improving the investment climate – and much of this rests on efforts in other areas. As Nigeria is a signatory of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement, and as the landscape of trade changes across West Africa, the UK should work with Nigeria on regional trade and monetary policy negotiations; the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)  stands to benefit as a whole from Nigeria’s constructive participation within it.

The UK must also be realistic about the limits of its influence in Nigeria, even with the strong bilateral relationship. It will need to be smart and selective in identifying and acting on opportunities. It must identify, support and champion those actors within Nigeria who are seeking to protect and further Nigeria’s democratization, institution-building and inclusive economic growth.


Paul Melly


The Sahel encompasses some of the world’s poorest nations that depend on agriculture or livestock herding – sectors reliant on brief annual rains, which often fail. Serious droughts are frequent. Public administration and services are patchy.

Yet, from a low base, the Sahel has seen real progress including sustained annual GDP growth, improved citizen health and rising school enrolment. Most countries are governed by functioning pluralist democracies, albeit with serious challenges. To avert food crises a regional data reporting network monitors rainfall, farm output, cereal prices and food reserves. Gold mining (and uranium in Niger) generates the majority of export earnings.

However, this development model is now under huge stress from rapid population growth, climate change and jihadist and criminal violence.

Regional crisis

Local Tuareg separatists and Algerian jihadists were active in northern Mali from the mid-2000s. After the fall of Gaddafi, more fighters and weapons came in from Libya and jihadists took control – until French and West African forces intervened in 2013. The government and separatists agreed the ‘Algiers Accord’ peace deal in 2015 and there was a major military effort to restore security, but with limited success.

Since 2013, there has been a UN peacekeeping force – which UK troops are due to join shortly – in Mali (MINUSMA) with 13,000 troops. French forces totalling 5,100 troops are operating in the region under Operation Barkhane, which is an ongoing anti-insurgent operation fighting jihadists across the Sahel. In addition, the G5 Sahel countries (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) have a joint force of 5,000 troops tackling militants in border areas.[16]

Despite this significant international security engagement, violent instability has become more widespread and complex. In Mali, government and separatists have procrastinated in the implementation of the Algiers Accord, while jihadists still target local and international forces, community leaders and local officials. In Mali’s Mopti region, jihadist violence blends with tensions between Peul pastoralists and Dogon farmers.

Jihadist and criminal violence has also spread rapidly across much of Burkina Faso. In the ‘three frontiers region’ – where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso converge – the last six months have seen an accelerating campaign by ISIS-affiliated Etat Islamique au Grand Sahara (EIGS), which has carried out sophisticated attacks on Mali and Niger army bases and caused many casualties. There is concern that jihadists could infiltrate coastal states such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire or Togo, threatening the security of West Africa’s most populated and economically dynamic regions.

A revised regional and international response

International security engagement alone has not contained the crisis and Sahelian states and international partners agree on the need for development interventions to tackle the economic and social pressures that push young people into criminal trafficking, banditry or jihadist groups. However, this is difficult: intimidation and fear of violence drive teachers, health workers, administrators and development personnel away from insecure areas, worsening the situation in fragile states.

The countries of the region and international partners have now rethought their strategy. The 15-member ECOWAS has taken the political lead to improve coordination; Chad and Mauritania are not members of ECOWAS but are included in this initiative. In February 2020, the Malian government confirmed that it had tentatively put out feelers for talks with some jihadist leaders.

At a summit in Pau, France, on 13 January 2020, the G5 presidents and President Macron announced that the military priority would now be to fight EIGS jihadists in the three frontiers region, with G5 and French forces operating under a coordinated command structure. This would also be supported by Operation Takuba, which is the deployment of special forces from some European countries (such as the Czech Republic).

There is also an effort to rebuild public administration and services in northern Mali and Burkina Faso. The Mali army recently returned to Kidal, the former separatist heartland, a key breakthrough.

The context of UK involvement

The Sahel was a low priority for the UK government, which closed the UK Embassy in Bamako in the financial year 2003/4; a DFID bilateral programme to Niger was closed in the financial year 2011/12. However, the Bamako embassy was re-opened in 2010 and the UK’s 2018 New Strategic Approach to Africa gives increased priority to the region – with a joint FCO-DFID Sahel unit, new embassies in Niger and Chad, and enlarged embassies in Bamako and in Senegal. In Mauritania – where BP is developing a major gas deposit on the border with Senegal – a full UK embassy was recently opened (upgraded from an offshoot office of the embassy in Morocco).

DFID has also increased its available regional funding and the UK is now one of the biggest bilateral donors to Niger. The big UK-based NGOs have been active in the Sahel for many years and have deep expertise on development and environmental issues in the region.

The Sahel crisis has implications for the security of Europe and for the coastal West African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, where the UK has major interests.

Compared with the UK, the EU is a massive development, humanitarian and security partner for the Sahel states and regional structures (such as the Permanent Interstate Committee for drought control in the Sahel (CILSS), which coordinates food security monitoring and strategy). An EU mission (EUTM) trains the Malian army, while EUCAP missions help build up security and police institutions in Mali and Niger. The EU’s European Development Fund (EDF) and the EU humanitarian agency ECHO are significant donors to the Sahel.

Issues for the UK to consider

The UK’s recent policy pivot to the Sahel mirrors many other European nations that are opening or re-opening embassies in the region, such as Russia, Belgium, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and India; Germany has hugely increased its development aid. Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands have been major troop contributors to MINUSMA. Increased UK engagement in this region is welcomed by France and other European partners, both in political terms and for sharing the development and security burden. Increased UK engagement in this region has also been encouraged by other members of ECOWAS and at the UN. This increased cooperation fits into the framework for international support, the ‘Coalition for the Sahel’, announced at the Pau summit. However, after Brexit the UK must decide how to organize its continued engagement in practical terms.

Development: The UK has been a major contributor to the EDF and ECHO. If it wishes to maintain its current total bilateral and multilateral level of funding for the Sahel it could:


Security: The UK and France are already committed to a close defence partnership. France military strategists for Africa wish to maintain this close collaboration, regardless of Brexit.

The UK must decide how to best support security in the Sahel and there could be a strong case for continuing to participate in or support some EU specialist security missions and some other deployments in the region; for example, British forces have been major participants in EUTM in Mali. The UK must also decide:

-          whether to contribute special forces to Operation Takuba (not an EU mission).

-          whether to maintain helicopter support for France’s Barkane force and for how long to participate in MINUSMA.

Diplomatic presence: Despite a growing role elsewhere in the Sahel, the UK has no diplomatic presence in Burkina Faso. Meanwhile, the security situation in Burkina Faso, which shares a frontier with Ghana – a country of significant strategic UK interest – is deteriorating rapidly. The Burkina capital, Ouagadougou, hosts the headquarters of CILSS and is a key regional centre for development partners.

There is a strong case for a low-key UK diplomatic footprint in Ouagadougou, to cover political, development and security issues, perhaps housed within the mission of an allied international partner (this has been successfully tried in the past with Canada in Mali, France in Niger and the European External Action Service in Chad).


UK–South Africa

Christopher Vandome

The UK–South Africa relationship is deep rooted but needs reinvigorating if it is to pay dividends for either partner. The UK has an old and complex relationship with South Africa that is marked by an uneasy history of colonization and multi-layered and competing alliances during the anti-apartheid struggle. The current relationship is predominantly based on commercial interests and is broadly positive. However, different approaches to the crisis in Zimbabwe, historical apartheid era grievances, and visa requirements for South Africans to the UK continue to be sticking points. The handling of communications around the decision to stop direct development aid to South Africa in 2013 strained the relationship. South Africa remains a strategic partner both globally and on the continent. It is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security council (2019–20) and has previously pushed ambitions for an expanded security council. South Africa is the current chair of the African Union (2020), where it is advocating for peace on the continent and championing the African Continental Free Trade Area. The current priority for the UK–South Africa relationship is to increase trade and investment.

Re-committing to hosting regular South Africa–UK Bilateral Forums with ministerial participation would be an important step in reinvigorating the political and economic relationship between the two countries. The South Africa–UK Bilateral Forum, established in 1997, remains exceptional for the UK. The regularity of these initially annual forums has dropped, and the last Bilateral Forum was in October 2015. Domestic political factors in both countries have repeatedly delayed plans for the next forum, although South Africa’s Bilateral Forums with other countries have continued. A ministerial-level forum would be an important demonstration of commitment to the relationship. The past three UK delegations have been led by the serving UK secretary of state.

There have been several recent UK high-level visits to South Africa. Similarly, President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the UK to attend Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2018, and the Financial Times Africa Summit in 2019, although domestic political issues prevented him from attending the 2020 UK Africa Investment Summit.  A state visit from President Ramaphosa to the UK would significantly strengthen the relationship.

The achievement of a post-Brexit economic partnership agreement with South Africa and its neighbours (SACU+M) is significant, and South Africa’s commitment to work with the UK should not go under recognized. South Africa has been more assertive than other African countries in its trading and investment relationships, prioritizing domestic policy flexibility on local ownership requirements and affirmative action criteria. Anti-western rhetoric and protectionism can be useful domestic political tools in South Africa. So, the smooth establishment of the post Brexit economic partnership agreement with the UK is a significant signal from South Africa of the importance of the commercial relationship. 

The UK should adopt a more coordinated and coherent strategy on trade promotion to turn rhetoric into results. UK–South Africa trade increased from around £5 billion to around £9 billion in 1999–2009, but subsequently plateaued and failed to hit a mutually agreed target to double trade volumes in 2009–15. Despite a decade of economic underperformance, South Africa’s trade growth with the rest of the world has remained robust, and the UK’s position as a trade partner is slipping. However, South Africa is a top five Commonwealth trade partner for the UK and there is scope for growth. Ministers from both countries have expressed interest in UK Export Finance and the South Africa Export Credit Insurance Corporation working together to promote credit facilitation and, ultimately, trade.

There is a need to clearly communicate how the UK’s foreign direct investment and expansive commercial presence generates value for South Africa through job creation, expanding economic opportunities, and contribution to economic transformation. The UK is the largest foreign investor in South Africa, predominantly in financial services. Over one-fifth of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange main board is joint listed with the London Stock Exchange. The South African government has noted that 70 per cent of new investment into the country comes from existing investors and so there are high expectations on UK firms as part of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s drive to attract $100 billion investment over five years. Key sectors for investment are green energy and sectors supporting diversification, such as semi-skilled manufacturing.

It is estimated that there are 600 UK companies in South Africa, and the same number of South African companies in the UK. A South Africa–UK Business Partnership was launched in 2013, and there are reciprocal chambers of commerce in each country, with the respective high commissioners as their patrons. The UK also has a dedicated prime ministerial trade envoy for South Africa – currently Andrew Selous MP.  Brand South Africa have an active presence in the UK. Some individual South African provinces also have highly effective investment promotion agencies, though there is a need to ensure regional balance in the UK’s engagement. Cases of UK companies’ complicity in facilitating corruption has highlight the importance of firms demonstrating their broad stakeholder societal engagement, appropriate due diligence, and adherence to international standards when operating in South Africa.

Successful youth engagement strategies can be leveraged to discuss broader issues such as climate change. Climate change is a complex political issue in South Africa. Prolonged droughts have caused water shortages in major cities, such as Cape Town, and impacted agriculture and mining. However, the country gets around 90 per cent of its energy from coal and the reform of the energy sector is highly politicized due to job creation in mining, as well as ongoing debates on the role of the state in the sector. The UK should work in partnership with the South African government on their development and implementation of a framework on climate change, which prioritizes engaging young people.

The Newton Fund for scientific research and the Chevening scholarship scheme have been central to the UK’s relationship with South Africa over the past decade, and there are several academic and research partnerships. This can be expanded to engage with other existing bursary schemes, as well as to develop wider and deeper patronships beyond top universities and in other tiers of education.

Citizens from neighbouring Botswana and Namibia have visa-free access to the UK. The UK has been working with South Africa to improve security around passport issuance and should review its visitor visa policy for South Africa, and other countries in the region.



Dame Rosalind Marsden

There has been a marked and welcome change in UK policy since Omar al Bashir’s overthrow in April 2019, when HMG came out strongly in support of the pro-democracy Forces for Freedom and Change and pressed for the rapid formation of a civilian-led transitional government. The UK now has an opportunity to reassert its influence in Sudan, capitalizing on its historical links, by further intensifying its diplomatic engagement in support of peace and democratic transition, supporting the new government’s reform agenda and providing much-needed economic and technical assistance.

Because of its size (the third-largest country in Africa) and strategic geopolitical position, the stakes in Sudan are high. With its vibrant civil society, educated elite, active political parties and the new social forces (youth and women) who drove the pro-democracy protest movement, Sudan has a unique opportunity to become a model of democratic transition for the wider region. If this opening is wasted, the country could be plunged into further chaos or revert to military rule.

After 30 years of repressive rule and mismanagement under Bashir, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and his cabinet of technocrats face huge challenges, including stabilizing and restructuring the economy, tackling corruption, ending Sudan’s internal wars, reforming the security sector and the civil service, dismantling the ‘deep state’ controlled by the old regime, delivering justice, holding a national constitutional conference and organizing elections after the end of the transitional period in three years’ time. The government’s top priorities are to address the economic crisis and to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement with the armed movements that will address the root causes of Sudan’s long-running internal conflicts. The government of South Sudan is currently hosting a Sudan peace process in Juba, with logistical and technical support from the UN.   

The UK is well placed to build a strong partnership with Sudan’s transitional government. Sudan’s new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who took office in September 2019, is an experienced economist who worked for the UN and the African Development Bank and was educated at the University of Manchester. There is a sizeable Sudanese diaspora in the UK, including many professionals who were driven out of the country when the National Islamic Front came to power in 1989 and thousands of Sudanese doctors working in the NHS. Both Sudanese and British-Sudanese attach a lot of importance to their historical ties with the UK. They have been puzzled and disappointed that Sudan appeared to have become a low priority for HMG in recent years and would like to see the UK playing a more proactive role. 

The UK has a great opportunity to capitalize on its historical relationship with Sudan by working with leaders who are driving progress and by strengthening people-to-people links. It is in the UK’s longer-term interests to invest in supporting civil society, women and youth, inclusive and sustainable development and respect for human rights and the rule of law. This will also help to create a level playing field for British companies. HMG is already providing support in strategic communications to help the government explain its policies more effectively to the people. Other important areas where the UK could provide support include:









About the Authors:

Dr Alex Vines OBE – Managing Director, Ethics, Risk & Resilience; Director, Africa Programme

Bob Dewar CMG – Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

Ben Shepherd – Consulting Fellow, Africa Programme

Ahmed Soliman – Research Fellow, Africa Programme

Elizabeth Donnelly – Deputy Director and Research Fellow, Africa Programme

Paul Melly – Consulting Fellow, Africa Programme

Christopher Vandome – Research Fellow, Africa Programme

Dame Rosalind Marsden – Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

Yusuf Hassan – Parliamentary and Media Outreach Assistant, Africa Programme


Further details about the Africa Programme can be found at the Chatham House website


[1] The Gates Foundation estimates that by 2050 more than 40 per cent of the world’s extreme poor will live in Nigeria and the DRC. The proportion of Ethiopians living in poverty declined from 44 per cent in 2000 to 23 per cent in 2018. Ethiopia has been one of the top recipients of UK bilateral ODA for over a decade, receiving over £300 million annually since 2013. DFID Nigeria’s planned budget for 2018/19 was £235 million, and the UK has grown from opening a DFID programme in the DRC in 2003 to becoming the second largest bilateral donor to the country. 

[2] The Sahel crisis has implications for the security of Europe and for the coastal West African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, where the UK has major interests.

[3] South Africa is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security council (2019–20) and the current chair of the African Union (2020). UK–South Africa Trade increased from around £5 billion to around £9 billion from 1999 to 2009, but subsequently plateaued.

[4] Nigeria faces multiple security challenges with implications for the Sahel and Central Africa. Likewise, the Sahel crisis could in turn worsen conflict dynamics in Nigeria as well as in West Africa and Europe. Renewed crisis in the DRC would risk once again drawing in its neighbours including Angola and Uganda.

[5] For instance, HMG established a joint UK office in Eastern DRC and appointed a Great Lakes special envoy to co-ordinate top-level policy.

[6] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2019), World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights, Report, New York,

[7] Hoornweg, D. and Pope, K. (2014), Socioeconomic Pathways and Regional Distribution of the World’s 101 Largest Cities, Global Cities Institute, Working Paper no. 4, .

[8] DFID (n.d.), ‘DFID DRC’,

[9] UNDP (2019), ‘Human Development Reports’,

[10] World Bank (2019), ‘Ease of Doing Business rankings’,

[11] UNHCR (n.d.) ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo’,

[12] Congo Research Group (2015), ‘Mapping of Armed Groups in Eastern Congo’,

[13] Sandler Clarke, J. (2016), ‘Where does the $8bn UN peacekeeping budget go?’ Guardian, 6 April 2016,

[14] Médecins Sans Frontières (2020), ‘DRC Ebola outbreaks: Crisis update – 13 January 2020’, Reliefweb,

[15] DFID (2018), ‘DFID Ethiopia profile’,

[16] The US provides satellite and drone surveillance support and aerial refuelling to French warplanes. The UK and several other European countries provide helicopters for Barkhane and MINUSMA.