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Nigeria, with half-a-billion people by mid-century, offers a post-Brexit boom for British investment and trade. But UK traditional Anglophone markets in Nigeria and Ghana are next door to the Francophone Sahel, with insurgency growing from Mauritania to Mali, via Burkina Faso to Niger, North East Nigeria and Cameroon.

The prospects for traditional UK West African markets, trade and investment now depend increasingly on the prosperity and stability of the Sahel, with political violence in Burkina Faso now worse than in Mali, and insecurity creeping into Northern Togo, ever closer to the borders of Ghana.

Yet the Francophone countries have high growth rates, with investment opportunities in agri-business, and networks of Small Holder Farmers larger and better organised than in the Anglophone countries.

Ten years ago the main reason for food insecurity in West Africa was drought and climate change. Now there are ten million West Africans affected by food insecurity every year and the main cause is insurgency and political violence, with large numbers of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees.

This shift reflects successes as well as challenges.  Rapid urbanisation, a growing middle class, increased economic growth and accelerated development confirm UK trade and investment opportunities across the Sahel, as well as in coastal Francophone West African states including Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin. But this progress means many people in towns and rural provinces are left out of prosperity in the cities.

Rural-based rebellion in the Sahel is led by jihadists, dissidents and organized crime. Al Qaeda groups have come together. ISIS-linked groups are building broader political coalitions.  The Sahel has minerals, uranium and large oil and gas reserves, plus the benefits of new economic growth. There is a lot to play for.

The opportunity to be seized, by the UK, along with France, Germany, the EU, the USA and China is that soft power, investment and trade offers better prospects in the Sahel and West Africa than militarization. Ten million more prosperous farmers in the next three years offers more traction than 50,000 foreign troops later. But how to facilitate enough security to do this, plus the political will and finance to make it happen ?

So the Francophone countries in West Africa look now to Great Britain, free to make a fresh start. Will the British bulldog bouncing with Brexit bravado land a firm footprint in the Francophone Sahel, or will it be a toothless bulldog, barking but without the bite to get its teeth into these Francophone markets ?

France, led by President Macron, is shouldering the military responsibilities to help hold back the insurgency, and dropping the old West African CFA Franc to bring in the Eco as a new regional currency, hopefully in step with the plans of the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) to evolve a common currency.

The French seem ready to welcome more support for the Sahel and are sympathetic to diversification of trade and investment links in the smaller Sahelian economies whilst eyeing the bigger Anglophone markets like Nigeria and Ghana. Could the Brexit British reciprocate and put more effort into the Sahel ? An entente cordiale borne of Brexit bilateralism, by two neighbours both committed to prosperity and stability in Africa.

If the UK wants long term benefits from increased trade and investment in Nigeria and Ghana then better to adopt a wider regional perspective rather than hoping that a vertical silo approach would be enough to safeguard UK interests in these traditional markets.  The Sahel needs roads, infrastructure, renewable energy, irrigation and agricultural equipment as well as investment and financial and banking services. There is plenty of scope for investment, trade, regional partnerships and joint ventures. If Great Britain and France can cooperate to make the Airbus fly, then why not to ensure that the Sahel and West Africa will not fall?

However, the UK bureaucracy was not geared in the past to an integrated approach pulling together development finance, investment and trade. Practical horizontal integration between UK departments, ministries and agencies has not yet really hit the ground. The new Sahel Department jointly run by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID) can help do this.

Development agencies have a track record in social projects and in fighting against poverty but less experience of market-driven private sector development. Broader and more balanced economic development and growth needs backing from fiscal policies, Central Banks, Commercial Banks and Development Finance Institutions, with scope for social and financial innovations appropriate to the Sahel, including Islamic banking. 

Development stakeholders worry that new emphasis on finance will undermine social priorities. This does not have to be so. Old-fashioned well-intentioned development projects cannot scale up agriculture and economic growth without the private sector and banks. But international banks have been risk-averse on SME lending for agriculture and Africa.  West African banks and development agents are learning de-risking of agri-lending to SMEs and farmers. We need a lot more of this, with positive social and economic impacts.

If a bright bold post-Brexit British strategy to support development, growth, prosperity and stability in the Sahel and West Africa is to succeed then it will have to embrace a modern, holistic and integrated regional approach. To develop new financial and networking capacities and help put the local private sector in the driving seat, alongside a strengthened economic civic culture. Development stakeholders cannot do this without government support for the business enabling environment. Previously poor governance helped lead to insecurity. This has to change.

The message for post-Brexit British decision-makers and taxpayers is clear. Better to address these issues now, and support the Sahel and West African economic growth, prosperity and stability, especially via agri-business and support for Small Holder Farmers. Use the Brexit bounce to bat the ball into the Sahel. Help tackle the problems and challenges in the Sahel and West Africa today, with benefits from new trade and investment, or look out for the consequences of not doing so to bounce back to us at home tomorrow.

Let’s not wait for French and British Coastguards to have to stop more boatloads of illegal migrants between Calais and Dover. Instead work together to help make sure the people of the Sahel and West Africa will have a future.

Terry Lacey 31.01.2020

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