Why James Cleverly wants a new relationship with Africa

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James Cleverly is Britain’s first half-African foreign minister

Picture the scene. I’m at the top of the Grand Staircase of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It is perhaps the most architecturally imposing part of the building, a riot of Victorian excess.

There are marble pillars, gilded panels and coffered ceilings. The walls are covered with poor quality murals that tell the story of imperial success.

The images of crude propaganda were designed to impress visiting potentates. And in the corner of one painting is an astonishing image – a small, naked black boy holding up a bowl of fruit for his supposed colonial superiors.

The boy is there to represent Africa or rather – in the words of the now long forgotten artist Sigismund Goetze – “our obligations and possibilities in the dark continent”.

Next to me is Secretary of State James Cleverly, who tells me how relaxed he is about the image, down the hall from his office.

Yes, that Mr. Cleverly, Britain’s first half-African Foreign Secretary, who a few hours earlier received the presidents of Sierra Leone, where his mother was from, and South Africa.

He told me that even one of his predecessors, Lord Curzon, found the painting “outdated and chauvinistic” when it was installed in 1921. of African or Indian descent.

“I walked by[the painting]three hours ago with a head of state of an African nation,” he said.

“Neither of us looked at it because we were too busy talking about the important things we need to talk about.

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“You can get clogged up by this stuff or acknowledge that it is what it is: this was a reflection of what happened in the past. But what I do is focus on the future.

“If anyone has a right to maybe feel offended or upset, I think it could be me, but I don’t worry about it because we have other fish to fry.”

And those fish mean Britain is working more closely with medium powers in Africa and elsewhere.

I have come to the Foreign Office to hear the germ of an idea that Mr Cleverly hopes will shape future British foreign policy.

The thinking is that Britain has spent too long focusing on nurturing its traditional allies and keeping its traditional competitors on guard, while at the same time neglecting many intermediate countries.

These are the African countries that may have failed to support the West’s defense of Ukraine in the face of crucial United Nations votes. Countries that believe that developed countries have not supported them enough in Covid and climate change. Nations that may look more to China and Russia for their investment and security.

“We should not only be concerned with the countries that are already very influential on the world stage, but we should also look at the partnerships of the future,” Mr Cleverly told me.

He added that the UK needed to think about the African countries whose populations, economies and global influence are all growing.

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Mr. Cleverly will not name these countries or even give a generic description. Officials talk privately about “middle ground countries” or “middle powers”, but accept that no expression is quite accurate.

The idea, however, is about finding a new form of diplomatic and economic engagement based on mutual benefit, even if the details – for now – have not been fully thought through.

He said: “What it means is that we have a certain amount of thoughtfulness and sophistication in our engagement, where we address issues of the future. Some of those are things that we’ve already talked about – climate change, energy transition, that kind of stuff.” things, but also things like health cooperation.

“One of the things we’re discussing with the delegation from South Africa, for example, is pandemic preparedness. And things like that are going to be increasingly important with countries in Africa.”

Mr Cleverly presents it not so crudely as an attempt to push back against Russia and China, both of which have significant presences in Africa, be it Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group or China’s massive investment in infrastructure. But the foreign minister acknowledges that there is an ideological battle going on.

“We now recognize that there is a global competition of ideas,” he said. “So we really need to be willing to sell our ideas and why the values ​​that underpin our democracy are also the values ​​of our partners.”

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Cleverly said the UK should not be a country that just wants to “harvest” ideas, talent and resources from African countries.

“We also need to be a valuable partner… that wants to invest in our partner countries. It needs to be a real partnership. I think this is an offer we can make that some other countries don’t.” forward.”

But, I ask, could some African countries question the trustworthiness of the UK and other Western liberal democracies? And won’t some say the UK hasn’t helped Africa much in terms of Covid or climate change, instead sending asylum seekers to Rwanda as it cuts off its foreign aid?

“We are still one of the largest aid donors in the world,” Cleverly said. “Money matters. We absolutely recognize that and we look forward to the point where the UK economy is back to where we go back to 0.7% of GNI (Gross National Income) in terms of our development aid spending in Abroad.

“But it’s about recognizing… that there are really important partners around the world who aren’t as prosperous, whose economies aren’t in the same place as ours. But nonetheless, they definitely have something to offer to both the UK as the world.

“And so we have to have humility. We have to recognize that the only way we’re going to be mutually successful is through a mutually beneficial partnership.”

It’s a pitch that Mr Cleverly hopes will shape the UK’s relations with Africa for decades to come.

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