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Mark Langan

March 25th, 2024

Kwame Nkrumah, neo-colonialism, and the false promises of ‘Global Britain’ in Africa

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Mark Langan

March 25th, 2024

Kwame Nkrumah, neo-colonialism, and the false promises of ‘Global Britain’ in Africa

0 comments | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Despite promises of a new post-Brexit Global Britain, the UK has fallen into its old habits which draw uncomfortable parallels with Kwame Nkrumah’s work on neo-colonialism, writes Mark Langan

As the British General Election draws closer, the Conservative Party hopes to capitalise upon the ‘Global Britain’ success stories of the Brexit era. Kemi Badenoch, as UK trade minister, will point to multiple Brexit trade agreements, such as the UK-Nigeria economic partnership signed in February 2024. The opposition Labour Party, meanwhile, will focus on rebuilding Britain as ‘the gold standard in international development, as recently claimed by Labour Shadow Minister Lisa Nandy.

Since the Brexit referendum campaign, Conservative politicians, such as the now Home Secretary, James Cleverly, promised that the UK would use the powers of Brexit to offer fairer trade and aid provisions to African nations inside the Commonwealth ‘family’. Proponents of a ‘Hard Brexit’ such as May and Johnson effused about the potential of Global Britain to stimulate development in Africa. This was evident in May’s dancing tour of Africa in 2018, and the UK Africa Investment Summit in 2020.

By articulating pro-development narratives about the African continent, Conservative politicians have sought to justify Brexit as an outward, not insular, event. UK officials have presented the Global Britain project as one that offers a corrective to the protectionist instincts of the EU, through programmes such as the Common Agricultural Policy, which has historically discriminated against African countries.

Rhetoric versus reality

The Global Britain project has not, however, brought development dividends for Africa. On the contrary, the UK government and British corporations have intensified trade, aid, finance, and security links that actively undermine the health and well-being of African citizens.

Take trade policy, for example. Ghana was reluctant to sign a new Trade Partnership Agreement (TPA) with the UK because the deal merely replicated the controversial free trade agreement previously signed between Ghana and the European Union. The TPA insists upon Ghana’s rapid tariff dismantling as part of a free trade ethos, despite the negative implications of subsequent import flooding on its local farmers and infant industries. Breaking promises that the Brexit transition would pose no challenges for African exporters’ market access, the UK government chose to shift Ghana onto the less generous Generalised Scheme of Preferences during the negotiation period. As a result, Ghanaian exporters in sectors including tuna and bananas found that they experienced weekly excess costs of up to £20,000 due to the UK’s tariff hike. Soon after this decision, Ghana acquiesced to the TPA. This mirrored its earlier negotiations with the EU in which its government acquiesced when Brussels threatened to reduce budget support aid. The UK government was accused of bullying tactics, and of failing to compensate those exporters whose suffering necessitated the capitulation to the TPA.

These unequal power relations in UK-Africa ties are also evidenced in the domain of development finance. British International Investment (BII) – which was recently known as the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) – had dubious investments in plantation economies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. BII invested huge sums into palm oil production on land which local communities claim was stolen from them during the Belgian colonial period. A Congolese activist involved in protesting this land tenure situation was murdered by a security guard employed on the plantations during the period of BII involvement. Plantation workers, meanwhile, received pitiful wages, while a senior Congolese politician was seen to financially benefit from the rent and other fees associated with the palm oil operations. BII injected millions into this private sector initiative in the post-Brexit period, ostensibly to create jobs and stimulate prosperity. The realities, however, of dubious labour and human rights standards cast significant doubt on the development rationales of such investments.

On the security front, UK politicians such as May and Johnson promised enhanced post-Brexit security cooperation with countries such as Nigeria and Kenya to tackle domestic and regional instability. UK officials justified this in terms of dealing with radical Islamist groups such as Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, as well as in decreasing conflict-fuelled migration. However, the reality of UK interventions again brings into doubt the progressive image of ‘Global Britain’ in Africa. For example, UK funding to counter-terrorism police units has enabled and facilitated policing methods antithetical to human rights. The UK has provided funding to the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Nigeria despite ongoing allegations of rape and murder. Likewise in Kenya, the UK government provided funds to the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) – an ongoing financial relationship – despite credible civil society reports of that unit’s alleged human rights abuses against refugees and Kenya’s own citizens.

Kwame Nkrumah’s conceptualisation of neo-colonialism is as relevant for understanding Global Britain’s interventions in the African continent as it was when he wrote about it in the 1960s. As Nkrumah rightly predicted, the UK furthers its own economic interests through investments, by, for example, signing lopsided trade deals that benefit British commercial interests. UK officials use financial packages to sway African governments into acquiescing to migration deals, such as the Rwandan deportation plan, despite overwhelming sovereignty and human rights concerns. British corporations, as Nkrumah also correctly predicted, benefit from UK government subsidies – for instance via the UK Export Facility (UKEF) – to loot Africa’s resource wealth regardless of grave environmental and human rights repercussions in extractive industries such as oil and gas. Worryingly, one of the ‘successes’ emanating from the first UK Africa Investment Summit was the UK government announcement that Tullow Oil would continue its exploration of Kenya’s oil wealth However, local residents are now suing that company for alleged environmental damages in the country.

Kwame Nkrumah’s writings – and his political speeches – link nicely with contemporary ‘decolonial’ approaches to the study of intrusive donor interventions in Africa. The intellectual contributions of Ghana’s first President to the study of current-day UK-Africa relations should not be underestimated. His work on the concept of neo-colonialism for making sense of the ‘new scramble’ for the continent’s vast resource wealth remains as relevant as ever.

This blog is based on the book “Global Britain and Neo-colonialism in Africa: Brexit, ‘Development’ and Coloniality” written by the author and published by palgrave macmillan.


Photo credit: Number 10 used with permission CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

About the author

Mark Langan

Mark Langan

Dr Mark Langan is Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy at King's College London. He is the author of "Global Britain and Neo-colonialism in Africa: Brexit, 'Development' and Coloniality". He is also the author of the earlier book "Neo-colonialism and the Poverty of 'Development' in Africa", also with Palgrave Macmillan.

Posted In: Development | International Affairs | Politics

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