Speaking in Nigeria last week, the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Paul Thomas Arkwright, was very keen to remind us of what Britain had done – and continues to do – with Nigeria. As Britain begins to negotiate a messy exit from the European Union, what seemed in part as a sales pitch to the audience in Lokoja, was not short of both the carrot and the stick to motivate further ties between the two countries.
The UK's most senior diplomatic in Nigeria laid out the many valuable ways that Britain contributes to Nigeria, particularly in the oil industry. Bilateral trade between the two counties is worthy £3.8bn each year. British-Dutch firm Shell has billions of dollars invested in Nigeria, with sixty onshore or sallow water oilfields and seven hundred wells. It owns around a third of oil produce in Nigeria. The UK gave £74m to Nigeria in 2016 to help battle the humanitarian crisis in North-Eastern Nigeria, as well as food aid to a million Nigerians and medical assistance to 34,000 under-nourished children.
But, he said, Nigeria must go much further than it has done to fight corruption. It must create the right institutions to combat corruption, outliving the current President, rather than seeking to simply arrest and jail big names.
Britain is in a precarious position, though. Whilst it needs to hold Nigeria's feet to the fire on a number of issues, it also has reason to woo the largest economy in Africa. Leaving the EU, Britain is cutting itself off from its single biggest trading partner. And in two years' time when Britain has left the EU for good, the inevitable gap left in terms of export markets previously occupied by its European partners needs to be filled, looking first to the Commonwealth.
Any observer with a knowledge of history between the two nations will not have missed the irony: that despite the fact that Britain is look to be a partner and not a parent to Nigeria following Brexit, Nigeria must be the one to first prove itself worthy.
With time is ticking for the United Kingdom as it tries to line up other deal, this speech highlights the multiple tensions facing the UK at the moment. On the one hand, the paternalist nature of Western international development policy is one of trying to coax in reforms to combat corruption with assistance packages, rather than beat it out of states by imposing sanctions. Such reforms are in the oil industry's interest; no oil marketers past or present, foreign or domestic wants to bribe their way into contracts. Investment in an uncertain Nigerian climate could do without that particular cost of doing business. It is simply that corruption is immensely difficult to stamp out in a country whose institutions are riddled with graft, and its politicians' political will is tested by an immense array of other, more immediate challenges.
But there is a tension between encouraging change on this front, and also wanted to become equal partners in trade. This is also why His Excellency Mr Arkwright's speech – whilst faithful to his Government's policy, no doubt – was essentially contradictory. In finding new trade partners to replace the EU, the UK must sell itself; its goods and services; its manufacturing, technological and intellectual capital. It wishes to court the commonwealth and find new trade partnerships. But Britain needs to understand that it will not sell anything to Nigeria by standing up and reeling off a list of investment statistics and aid projects flowing from Britain to Nigeria, as if trade with Nigeria will come by being talked into a position of gratitude.
So, how should Britain woo Nigeria? In one sentence: Nigerians need an answer to the question ‘What's in it for us?'.
Talking up the U.K.'s existing relationship with Nigeria does not have to work against the Brits. But rather than using it as a yardstick of what Nigeria owes back to the U.K., it should be used to show how this relationship can make a practical difference to Nigerian businesses. Existing ties should be deepened and strengthened by incentivising existing company's operating in Nigeria to make strategic introductions between Nigerian and UK firms, particularly where there is a skills shortage in Nigeria.
One practical way could be through education. The British education system is one of the best in the world. With many Nigerians going to Britain for their education, why not formalise this further by incentivising exchange programmes between students and academics between our two countries. The Nigerian businesses could help foot this, as they will inevitably benefit.
So I have every bit of sympathy with British diplomats. Current economic ties – particular in oil and gas – need to remain something with the UK can leverage to encourage change and maintain influence in Nigeria. But at the same time, if the UK is looking to be a partner and not a parent to Nigeria, Nigerians need to be shown how they stand to benefit, not what they stand to lose.