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Britain and Africa


‘When Suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.’

Chinua Achebe

Welcome to the AssessRep, written this week from Iraq where the recorded development of civilisation can be traced back several thousand years. Looking at matters on the scale of millennia, our current concerns seem small. As noted in this week’s SundayFragO, there is a fallacy of thought that leads us to weigh the present with disproportionate gravity. Though we often find politicians talking about our uniquely troubled times, in fact our times might be relatively untroubled. Compare 2019 CE to 19 CE – England and Wales were twenty years away from Roman conquest. Consider 1019 CE – much of modern England had recently been conquered by the Danish prince Cnut, Scotland had taken a very violent sort of independence vote, and within fifty years the Normans would arrive to quite literally shoot the presiding king in the face.

Now, let us bring this all back around to our troubled times. British forces have returned to the continent of Africa. Africa now hosts a greater number of deployed British troops than any other region worldwide outside of the UK. Each mission has its own purpose: quelling insecurity, providing humanitarian assistance, countering the illegal wildlife trade. Most of it directly or indirectly links into multilateral activity by the African Union, the UN and EU. Geographically, a patchwork of operations seems to be stitched  along the border between Islam in the north and other religions including Christianity to the south – though local security issues are not necessarily defined by this division. Overlaid onto this simple layer are further tapestries of ethnicity, tribe, political allegiance, colonial history, and resource exploitation.

Taking our ‘next fifty years’ timescale from above, we can begin to see a unifying purpose. Between 2015 and 2050 the population of Africa is projected to rise by 1.3 billion – accounting for more more than 50% of the predicted 2.4 billion population growth on the planet. Nigeria will become the world’s third most populous country. At the same time climate change, whether you believe in it or not, is projected to impact significantly in the Sahel and Western Africa. Water shortages, food scarcity, spreading disease – three risk factors that threaten to push fragile populations over the edge. In this context our work in Africa is critical on a global scale.

As ever, we return from the global strategic to the individual. What does this mean for British service personnel? For the Royal Navy, humanitarian work such as Operation Weald is likely to expand in response to increased pressure on migration routes. Such work will become increasingly controversial as competing emotional narratives play out in British politics: helping migrants versus limiting migration. On land, it means working with local troops in the context of a colonial legacy and history that we will have to relearn – often in partnership with proactive European countries who may have their own legacies, like France. It also means working within multilateral constructs such as the UN and African Union where the greatest troop contributors, (Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Rwanda for the UN), are not our familiar partners from Iraq or Afghanistan and play by different rules. As individuals British personnel can do it. They will find that counter-insurgency experience prepares them well for modern multi-domain humanitarian and peace-keeping work.

As with all projections, there is scope for adaptation. The earlier the intervention, the greater the potential effect on future outcomes. Africa was the crucible of our development as a species. A sequence of migration movements from Africa, in response to changing conditions, pulsed like a slow heartbeat throughout our common history. Now, returning to King Cnut in 1019 – one of the earliest victims of fake news. Demonstrating to his obsequious courtiers that he could not hold back the sea, he was instead remembered as vainly trying to do just that. He, of course, could not. Our work in Africa is vital, and the complexities of doing it well becomes deeply serious if we allow ourselves to step back and recognise the scale of the challenge. There may after all be troubled times ahead.

The AssessRep team would love to hear your views. So join the conversation. Every email will be read and answered by the AssessRep editor. So, our question for you: what role can British defence take in Africa – how can we make a meaningful difference? Let us know: assessrep@wavellroom.com.

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