Just one day before U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron returned to his country to address the heated controversy over the News Corporation phone-hacking scandal, he was in Nigeria delivering a speech on the future of the African continent.
“Tell me this,” he said to the crowd at Pan African University Business School in Lagos. “Which continent has six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world? Asia? No, it’s Africa.”
“Which country is predicted by some to have the highest average GDP growth in the world over the next 40 years? You might think Brazil, Russia, India or China. No. Think Africa. Think Nigeria.”
Cameron praised Nigeria’s rising economy – the country’s GDP has been growing at a rate of more than 5 percent a year, even in the wake of global economic crisis – and set forth an argument for forging a stronger, trade-based economic relationship between the U.K. and Africa. His speech focused on three primary topics: improving the way British aid was managed in Africa, encouraging free trade and private enterprise, and promoting democracy throughout the continent.
“Right now, Britain is in danger of missing out on one of the greatest economic opportunities on the planet,” Cameron said. “And we cannot let that happen.”
One key point in the prime minister’s speech arose when he argued that Africa would benefit more from trade with European nations than countries like China. China is currently one of Africa’s foremost foreign investors, pumping billions of dollars into private ventures and infrastructure projects and exerting increasing economic influence throughout the region.
“Countries like China and Russia point to a different route to prosperity, where free and open markets are combined with closed political systems,” Cameron said. “I believe the model of authoritarian capitalism we are seeing will fall short in the long term. When people get economically richer they make legitimate demands for political freedoms to match their economic freedoms. This model is unable to respond. Neither can it offer the confidence and stability needed for investment.”
This pragmatic argument provided a relatively subtle way of addressing an issue of escalating tension in Africa and the international community – China’s growing economic relationship with several countries throughout the continent. Western nations have been wary of the economic competition arising from China’s heavy investments in African industries, and international NGOs and UN officials have expressed concern over China’s willingness to do business with African leaders with poor human rights records. In June, Chinese president Hu Jintao arranged an official visit from Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who received two arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in Darfur.
China’s heavy investments and presence in the region have also sparked tension within African communities themselves. Last year, Al Jazeera aired “The Colony,” a documentary focusing on tension and violence over the influx of Chinese immigrants in Senegal, and fears of neocolonialism taking hold in the region.
“Although the Chinese businesses have brought some benefits to the local low-income consumers, their overall presence is viewed with suspicion and hostility by many Senegalese,” Huffman wrote at Al Jazeera.
But if Cameron has his way, the U.K. will be able to curb some of China’s influence in the region while benefiting from Africa’s expanding markets. In the age of austerity and with the eurozone in peril, it is clear that Africa presents a crucial opportunity for the U.K. to remain relevant in the global economy.