THE Brexit vote was fuelled by imperial romanticism that promised voters that leaving the EU would reinvigorate Britain’s global prowess.

Politicians such as James Cleverly, the current Home Secretary, pledged that Brexit would bring about a fairer relationship between the UK and former colonies in Africa. Freed from the shackles of Brussels’s protectionism, Britain would be empowered to give generous free market access to African businesses.

A new, post-Brexit relationship between the UK and Africa would correct past injustices, according to Brexiteers, done to Commonwealth countries upon the UK’s accession to the European Common Market in 1973. And ironically given current government rhetoric on migration, Brexit, according to Nigel Farage, would deliver a “points-based” migration system which, he claimed, would benefit migrants from Africa, and India.

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The launch of a Global Britain project in the Brexit era has since been built upon similar ­rhetoric ­concerning the centrality of Africa to the UK’s ­international prestige. The Global Britain project is scaffolded upon a series of promises to African ­partners about “development” goals that the UK will ostensibly support. This includes not only the ­promise of win-win trade deals, but extends to ­pledges about aid-giving, provision of finance for private ­sector ­projects, ethical UK corporate ­investments, and ­security co-operation.

UK officials have justified this African partnership to British audiences in terms of a paternalistic desire to help “poorer peoples”. This echoes the rhetoric of Tony Blair and his remarks that Africa ­represented a “scar on the conscience of the world”. The Africa-UK relationship is also justified by ministers – such as former home secretary Suella Braverman – through language ­emphasising British security. By providing aid and security co-operation to states such as Nigeria and Somalia, the UK can minimise the threat posed by radical groups including Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. By providing aid to “sending countries” such as Ghana and “transit states” such as Libya, the UK can also minimise migration flows, which are framed as a risk to British border sovereignty.

The National: Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Rwanda's Minister of Infrastructure Ernest Nsabimana attend a ground-breaking ceremony to mark the beginning of construction for a new building project of 500 apartments in Kigali during her visit to Rwanda.Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Rwanda's Minister of Infrastructure Ernest Nsabimana

This rhetoric again echoes the language of New ­Labour. The Blair government in the aftermath of 9/11 and the launch of a Western war on terror warned of the dangers posed by “failed states” in the Global South. The anti-migrant sentiment that fuelled Brexit in 2016 can be traced back to the Blair government’s racialised language surrounding the supposed risks posed by formerly colonised peoples in Africa and the wider Global South to Britain’s national security.

Contrary to the “development” rhetoric at the heart of the Global Britain project, however, the ­British state consistently acts as a predator within the ­African continent. In terms of trade, the UK ­Government chose to replicate ­controversial EU deals with ­African countries – Economic ­Partnership Agreements (EPAs). These free trade deals ­compel ­African countries to do away with the majority of the tariffs that they impose upon goods ­entering their markets. If they refuse, they lose low ­tariff access to ­European consumers. Such deals ­deprive them of taxation revenues that are used to fund ­social ­services while exposing infant industries to the ­perils of cheap imports.

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The UK Government was urged by experts within the International Trade Committee’s ­inquiry into post-Brexit trade deals to live up to its “Global Britain” rhetoric and to offer fairer trade. Instead, the UK ­Government embarked upon bullying ­tactics to secure acquiescence to EPAs in countries such as Ghana. In that case, the UK downgraded Ghanaian exporters in January 2021, imposing higher tariffs on their products.

This tactic drastically hampered ­Ghana’s businesses in sectors such as tuna and Fairtrade bananas, whose ­companies faced up to £20,000 of ­extra weekly costs. This compelled the ­Ghanaian ­government to ­capitulate to British demands in March 2021 and to sign the EPA (renamed a Trade ­Partnership Agreement). This tactic was combined with threatening rhetoric from a succession of UK “development” ­ministers, including Priti Patel, about the tying of aid to Brexit deals. This implied aid reductions – or aid withdrawal – for non-cooperative African countries.

With regards to Global Britain’s ­promises regarding finance for private sector projects in Africa, meanwhile, the “development” rhetoric of UK ­politicians also sits uncomfortably with the ­reality of British interventions. The UK ­Government owns a development finance institution named British International Investment (BII).

This body was founded during the ­colonial period and has had a ­succession of names – the Colonial ­Development ­Corporation, and then the ­Commonwealth Development ­Corporation (CDC). In the ­post-referendum period, this UK ­taxpayer-financed organisation has made a ­number of highly questionable ­investments in African private sector ­projects, perhaps most notably in a ­company operating palm oil plantations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The National: Workers in a palm oil factoryWorkers in a palm oil factory

These Congolese palm oil plantations operate on land taken from local ­people during the Belgian colonial period and given to Lord Leverhulme in 1911. In 2019 under Theresa May, CDC (as it was then known) invested around £9 million into these operations, ­following on from an earlier investment of around £28m in 2013. This was justified in ­accordance with Global Britain’s “development” ­rhetoric – promising that livelihoods would be secured, creating social ­prosperity for local communities.

On the contrary, however, ­Human Rights Watch reported in 2020 that around 10,000 poorly paid workers ­regularly faced ­hazardous conditions while ­being ­unable to adequately feed their ­families. ­Untreated industrial waste from the plantations’ oil mills also ­allegedly ­contaminated local water supplies, ­leading to severe health challenges for ­local communities.

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In addition, the murder in 2019 of a community activist who had called for the return of the dispossessed land – ­allegedly by a security guard employed by the plantations – led to reputational damage for the CDC. This murder was followed in 2021 by the death of two local villagers who were also allegedly killed by security guards from the plantations. One was a 20-year-old man suspected of stealing plastic chairs from the ­company.

British investment ended in 2022 when BII divested without reportedly ­ensuring the wellbeing of the local community ­going forward – and without resolving the land dispute arising from the colonial-era transfer.

British corporations likewise have been regularly accused of predatory ­behaviour in Africa, especially within the energy sector. Glencore UK, for ­example, was recently found guilty of bribery amounting to around £23m following on from an investigation conducted by the Serious Fraud Office. A British judge found that Glencore UK had engaged in “highly corrosive” and “endemic” ­corruption to gain preferential access to oil in ­countries including Nigeria and Cameroon. As a result, Glencore UK was subject to a £280 million ­penalty – which, rather outrageously – is to be ­deposited not into the bank accounts of the ­African governments who lost ­legitimate oil ­revenues, but instead into the UK Government’s own Consolidated Fund (the UK Government’s general bank account).

This blatant injustice was ­unsuccessfully challenged in court by the Nigerian government which rightly argued that it was owed a proportion of the penalty.

If British companies engage in corruption, therefore, the UK benefits from taxation on ill-gained corporate profits. Alternatively, if the corporate behaviour is so egregious that the Serious Fraud Office is forced to investigate to protect the wider reputation of “Global Britain”, then the UK Government benefits in terms of a penalty paid into its own bank account. British involvement in Africa is indeed a “win-win” – for British corporations and for the UK Government, not for exploited African citizenries.

Meanwhile, Glencore UK also stands accused of an alleged wastewater spill and oil leak in 2018 relating to its oil operations in Chad. These incidents are reported to have caused serious health consequences for local communities including skin lesions and burns. After civil society complaints, the events are now being investigated by the UK National Contact Point for the OECD’s Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, which is run by the Department for Business and Trade.

Unfortunately, an independent global governance body, such as the International Criminal Court, is not yet empowered to investigate these alleged UK corporate malpractices and their apparently dreadful impact on Chad’s citizens.

Global Britain’s security co-­operation with African countries is equally ­problematic. In the post-referendum ­period, successive UK governments have ­prioritised co-operation in training and equipping security forces in countries ­including ­Nigeria and Kenya. This has been ­justified by UK officials on the basis of securing Britain against militant groups that might pose an international threat. Theresa May in 2018 signed a ­security partnership with Nigeria on these grounds, a move which was reaffirmed in 2022 under Boris Johnson.

Worryingly for human rights, ­however, the then UK minister for Africa admitted in 2020 that Britain had given training to the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) between 2016 and 2020 in Nigeria – a now disbanded unit accused of grave offences including torture. In Kenya, meanwhile, the UK has funded the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU), which has been accused of equally serious ­human rights violations including extrajudicial ­killings and disappearances. In 2022, the UK gave around £440,000 for the ­establishment of an ATPU headquarters in Mombasa. This has been followed by a UK-Kenya Strategic Partnership in 2023 which pledges £10m a year for counter-terrorism and other security initiatives.

Meanwhile, the British army – which has a permanent training facility in ­Kenya – stands accused of multiple rapes, as well as the murder of a 21-year-old ­hairdresser, Agnes Wanjiru. These heinous allegations are now being ­investigated by Kenya’s parliament.

It is abundantly clear that despite the rhetoric of a win-win UK-Africa partnership, there is ample reason to view Global Britain as a predatory actor. Across the domains of trade, aid, finance, corporate involvement and security co-operation, British interventions regularly appear to exacerbate poverty and exploitation, not ameliorate them.

The above discussion – without even addressing the odious Rwandan deportation scheme of Rishi Sunak – underscores that Global Britain is not an “old friend” of African countries (as May had claimed). The prospect of a New Labour government under Keir Starmer, ­meanwhile, does not bode well for any progressive change. Witness his ­dangerous rhetoric on migration, or his failure to condemn human rights abuses in Gaza – with worrying consequences for Britain’s respect for human rights elsewhere in the Global South.

African officials and campaigners ­emboldened by recent campaigns for reparations for colonial slavery – and by initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area – are well-positioned to contest the Global Britain project.

One forceful strategy for combating British neo-colonialism would be African officials’ support for the constitutional dismantling of the UK state. Voicing ­support for Scottish independence and Irish unity would be a bold approach for African campaigners who seek to blunt Global Britain’s influence in their ­continent.

Global Britain is a veritable threat to the lives and livelihoods of racialised groups in the Global South (note Gaza) and should be confronted.