On Monday, the UK government hosted one of the largest African trade and investment conferences it has ever been involved with.
Even so, in comparison to most African trade and investment conferences, it was relatively small — which is in keeping with Britain’s low starting point relative to our global competitors.
There is no greater example of this than the evidence given to the Foreign Affairs Committee last year. The former Africa minister indicated that, although the long-promised “Africa Strategy” had been formulated (and indeed launched by the now former Prime Minister Theresa May on her three-day visit to the continent), it hadn’t been written down in a manner that could be presented to the Committee for scrutiny.
As any citizen of an African nation who has tried to obtain a UK visa knows, if it isn’t written down, the British government won’t believe it or act upon it. And up until now, the UK has spectacularly failed to put its money where its mouth is.
Africa has learned to be wary of overtures from the UK. There is a new scramble for Africa underway, and since Britain didn’t cover herself in glory in the last one, our promises of a “partnership” with the continent are rightly viewed with scepticism. The UK runs a real risk of missing out on a world of potential.
Yet there is a glimmer of hope — that perhaps this Prime Minister is willing to go where so few have dared to tread, and to begin to treat Africans as equals within the UK’s visa system.
Two years ago, a woman called Linda Bonyo applied for a visa to come to the UK. She supplied all her relevant documents, which ludicrously included her property lease agreement and bank statements, to the UK’s High Commission in Nairobi.
Her visa was rejected on the grounds that the UK was “not satisfied” that she was “genuinely seeking entry permitted by the visitor routes” — nor, further, that she had “sufficient funds” in relation to her visit “without working or accessing public funds”. So far, so standard for a refusal to enter.
But Linda Bonyo is not just any woman. She was not applying to come to the UK as a tourist, or for an unspecified amount of time, or for an unspecified purpose.
She is a lawyer, and a leader in her field. She specialises in tech and immigration law. Her reputation is at the very forefront of the legal sector in Kenya, where she is the founder of Lawyers Hub Kenya and a curator of the Africa Law Tech conference.
And the cast-iron proof of the lack of “partnership” between the UK and Africa? She had been invited to be here, for a legal tech conference.
I wish I could say that this was the only example of our Kafka-esque visa system that I’ve seen, but it is not. Nor is it even the most egregious.
That dishonourable award is won by the farcical experience faced by three Ugandan technology entrepreneurs, who were denied a visa to attend a tech conference in the UK despite being backed by the International Trade Centre in Geneva, a joint UN-WTO agency.
There can be no “partnership” between our nation and Africa without reform of the visa system. Until Linda Bonyo is able to sit in the UK Africa Investment Summit as easily as her head of state is, we aren’t treating the continent as a partner — we’re patronising it as a supplicant.
The Prime Minister has been keen to portray himself as ambitious in his efforts to improve the UK’s trading relationship with the African continent. After years of stagnation and a lack of ambition in the UK government’s approach, this is to be welcomed.
But if he’s serious, the change not only in tone but in action needs to start now.