Old capital in a new world: London – Africa

London Essays – Issue 1: Soft Power

Old capital in a new world: London – Africa

By Richard Dowden and Dele Meiji Fatunla

London has never played a greater role in Africa than it does today. Indeed, half a century on from decolonisation London is arguably the most important African city outside Africa – perhaps the most important African city in the world.

The relationship between Africa and London stretches back centuries, beginning with the presence of legionnaires of African origin in Roman Britain. In Elizabethan times there were so many Africans in London that Queen Elizabeth twice ordered their expulsion – apparently unsuccessfully.

Always a centre of trade and capital, from the 16th century London drew people from all parts of north and west Africa and later from the whole continent. Moroccan leather was always appreciated in Europe, and the Guinea, a gold coin which originated in Africa, was British currency for hundreds of years. The slave trade made London one of the richest cities in the world but it is also where the movement to abolish the trade began – finally succeeded in 1806. During the conquest of Africa at the end of the 19th century much of the pillage of the continent was brought to London. The famous Benin Bronzes are in the British Museum. At the height of Britain’s imperial power, this city ruled one-third of the African continent but it was also the place where freedom was negotiated with the independence leaders, many of whom were educated in London and campaigned for self-rule and independence here.

Inevitably many Africans have formed strong ties with the city. From the 1960s onwards, London became an international hub of the anti-apartheid movement, focused on The Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden. It also provided a refuge for resisters and opposition figures when self-rule turned sour and governments became repressive. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, The Africa Centre was also frequently one of the only places to experience African music, food, and culture at a time when immigrants often received a frosty reception, notwithstanding their links to the Commonwealth and Britain’s imperial history.

From the 1960s onwards, London became an international hub of the anti-apartheid movement, focused on The Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden.

Nowadays, London is a much warmer and more open place for Africans. At one time Africans in London were either rich businessmen and politicians or poor students but they were always considered visitors. Now they are African Londoners. In the 1990s poorer but ambitious Africans – especially Nigerians – sought the opportunity London offered and were prepared to take low paid jobs such as traffic wardens and hospital porters, even though many were professionally qualified. Many richer Africans have bought homes here.

South-East London, especially Peckham, has long attracted a large Nigerian community. In the 2011 Census 11.3% of residents there were of Nigerian origin. In Barking and Dagenham the Sub-Saharan African population almost doubled from 4.4% in 2001 to 7.6% in 2011. That census also showed that 12% of the population of Newham is of African origin. West London witnessed the growth of large Ethiopian and Eritrean communities from the 1990s while Ugandans have colonised Forest Gate. All these communities have established churches and associations as well as markets, shops, bars, and restaurants offering produce from back home: pepper soup from Nigeria, Matoke bananas from Uganda, yams from Ghana and posho – maize porridge – from southern Africa.

London is also increasingly the global showcase for African art and music, film, fashion and literature. The Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, chose to launch her novel Half of a Yellow Sun at the Royal African Society which also recently hosted the launch of Nigerian former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s autobiography, My Watch. When Touria El-Glaoui, a London-based businesswoman with a passion for African art, started 1:54, an immensely successful fair for Contemporary African Art, she chose London’s Somerset House as its home. Africa Fashion Week, now held at Olympia, is in its fifth year and attracts thousands of visitors, as do our two annual festivals of African film and literature, Film Africa and Africa Writes. Ozwald Boateng has opened a shop in Savile Row and is now one of the UK’s leading fashion designers. Afrobeat artists such as Fuse ODG operate in the music scene. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba, from Forest Gate and Hackney respectively, have become global film stars.

There are probably more meetings and discussions in London about Africa, its successes and challenges, than there are in the rest of the world combined.

There are probably more meetings and discussions in London about Africa, its successes and challenges, than there are in the rest of the world combined. This may be why, just like artists and businessmen, Africa’s politicians see the city as an important African city. London exercises pervasive soft power through its universities and art institutions and as a centre of well-informed journalism on Africa. SOAS is a world standard repository of learning and research on African matters. The British Museum’s Sainsbury Gallery is one of the finest collections of African art anywhere. And the BBC World Service still provides the most extensive reporting on Africa in Hausa, Somali and French, as well as English. London is also a global centre for non-governmental organisations working in the continent.

Most global businesses based in London will have several African employees. Mega-companies such as Unilever and Anglo-American, operating in Africa for decades, have African staff in London while African companies such as Old Mutual and SAB Miller run their global operations from here. Many London-based private equity firms invest heavily in Africa because London is the city where African deals are made. Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, is poised to list his company on the London Stock Exchange. Increasingly, wealthy Africans consider it de rigueur to have one foot outside the continent and London is always first base for Anglophones and increasingly for French and Portuguese-speaking Africans. A network of organisations, including our own, are educating UK businesses on the opportunities available to them on the continent. London as the UK’s economic powerhouse, should lead the way in nurturing that opportunity into a successful and vibrant relationship.

Yet this special relationship seems sometimes to be taken for granted by the UK and London’s leadership. African immigrants come to the capital because of economic opportunity but they also contribute to London’s ability to remain a centre of international trade and global influence. Many migrants to the UK will continue to be poor Africans but they are ambitious and many of them will grow into future leaders.

Capturing their interest, and providing opportunities for them in London will be key to maintaining the city’s pre-eminent status with a continent that is on the rise. Managing the reaction to immigration will be key to this. If Africans perceive the UK and London as becoming anti-immigrant and racist, the relationship will suffer. Support for both cultural and business institutions that profile and raise awareness of Africa’s diversity and opportunity should be part of any London government’s agenda.

Just as important should be the development of links between institutions in the UK, and on the African continent in the areas of education, urban planning, and health. Paradoxically London shares many of the same challenges as growing megacities in Africa like Lagos, Cairo and Johannesburg; they can learn from each other.

A vibrant African population contributes enormously to the overall attractiveness of London as a global city. But its profile could be higher and celebrated better. Last year the mayor organised an Africa Day in Trafalgar Square. It was a great a start but Africa’s relationship with London needs to be celebrated and maintained 365 days a year.