When exploring the development of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy within Africa, it is important to examine the depth of the UK’s commitment to the promotion of democracy within the continent. Through the assessment of initiatives, challenges, and opportunities, this piece examines the significance of democratic governance across three key areas: i) stability; ii) development; and iii) human rights. Understanding these areas within the context of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy can shed light on UK-African relations in shaping and delivering a sustainable future.


The UK’s foreign policy towards Africa has witnessed a period of transformation in recent years, notably since the country’s withdrawal from the European Union. The UK’s foreign objectives and interests include the safeguarding of UK national security and working to reduce conflict, building UK prosperity by promoting sustainable growth, and supporting British nationals abroad through consular services. The promotion of democracy clearly remains a cornerstone of UK foreign policy in Africa. 

Since the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, successive UK governments have sought to design a post-Brexit foreign policy which is outward looking, collaborative, and influential. The UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy in Africa is characterised by a multifaceted approach centred around trade, investment, and partnership development. Since many previous agreements between the UK and Africa, such as the European Union Economic Partnership Agreement, were settled and negotiated through the EU, the UK arguably now has bigger leeway. 

Since 2016, the UK has attempted to redraft its international identity to “Global Britain”, with a focus on strengthening long-standing roles and fostering new alliances on the world stage. This diplomatic approach is evident within the country’s partnership with China. Where the UK is conscious it cannot compete with such a super economy, it is willing to enter partnerships to contribute where and what it can.

Central to the UK's foreign policy agenda is the promotion of democracy as a fundamental value. Democracy serves as the cornerstone for stability, development, and human rights, reflecting the UK's vision for a more inclusive and just world.

The focus of the promotion of democracy within the UK’s foreign policy stems from several key objectives. Democratic governance enhances socio-economic development by ensuring transparency, accountability, and inclusive decision-making. Additionally, it safeguards fundamental human rights, empowering citizens to participate in shaping their societies. A series of coups in recent years, namely in states such as Burkina Faso and Mali, has prompted a renewed dialogue on democracy in Africa. However, by increased support to democratic governance in West Africa, the UK’s foreign policy in Africa may send a wave of democratisation across the continent which empower citizens, foster accountability, and build resilient institutions.

The UK has implemented various initiatives and strategies to advance democracy in Africa. In November 2023, the British High Commission Pretoria invited organisations to support their Supporting Democracy, Inclusion and Peace in South Africa Programme – a project that seeks to support Civil Society in their role in inclusive and peaceful elections in South Africa. The development of such partnerships has become an increasingly important approach in the UK’s effort to promote democracy in Africa. China is similarly scaling its development initiatives in Africa. Although British and Chinese objectives differ, they have entered a partnership on a mining investment programme where the UK provides support by giving input on democratic values in the social responsibility sector.

Projects in West Africa, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal demonstrate an increased footprint in francophone countries. The then UK Minister for Development and Africa, Andrew Mitchell, in September 2023 announced new UK projects to fight climate change in Africa. These new projects will build resilience to floods through strengthening early warning systems. Other projects to be delivered by the UK include infrastructure projects, to help build major roads and bridges as well as providing medical and IT equipment, design services, and environmental and social work. The implementation of Brexit resulted in uncertainties for the UK internationally, affecting aspects on the global stage, such as diplomatic alliances, as well as trade and economic relations. Despite this, the UK has reaffirmed its commitment to strengthen ties with African nations, recognising the continent’s growing economic and geopolitical importance. 

Furthermore, the UK collaborates with regional organisations like the African Union (AU) to strengthen electoral processes, promote civic participation, and combat corruption. The growing foothold of AU in Africa, arising from its prominence in promoting African peace and security interests, provides the continent greater representation in international fora. The AU becoming an increasingly important organisation in Africa has contributed to the UK’s increased resource allocation, particularly focusing on peacekeeping, towards the AU. Therefore, African states should expect stronger pressure from the UK on human rights and civic freedoms, as part of the UK’s attempts to counter authoritarian regimes and attitudes in line with its foreign policy objectives.

The UK has expanded its presence across the African continent, as it has sought to develop and strengthen ties with the states outside of the Commonwealth, and former colonies. The significant increase in diplomatic presence in West Africa and the Sahel has included the opening of five new embassies. This underscores the prioritisation of democratic promotion within the UK foreign policy in Africa.

Despite this evident progress, promoting democracy in Africa presents its share of challenges. Political instability and weak institutions pose significant hurdles to democratic consolidation. Political instability could lead to lack of trust and legitimacy, as well as a fragmented political landscape vulnerable to authoritarianism, as weak institutions impair the rule of law. Cases of this can be found in Nigeria, which suffers from a weakened rule of law as a result of corruption, and in Zimbabwe, whose political landscape is characterised by fraudulent elections.

The UK’s recognition of multilateral institutions may pose problems for its foreign policy implementation in the context of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. The AU is in danger of mirroring its predecessor the Organisation for African Unity (OAU). The AU’s weaknesses are evident in its failure to deal with recent crises, and ongoing instability and underdevelopment on the continent, raising questions as to its relevance

The UK Government continues to support the International Criminal Court (ICC) for example, whilst states such as the Central African Republic and Sudan have previously had fraught relationships with the Court. The ICC-African relationship has called into question the ICC’s legitimacy in neutral and unbiased legal procedures, especially after 2021, in which all 30 of that year’s official cases heard in the ICC were against African nationals. Nonetheless, the UK Government believes the ICC plays a significant role in promoting sustainable forms of governance, demonstrated by then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s statement in 2018. 

The UK’s previous generous foreign aid budget has been subject to steep cuts – witnessing a 66% decrease in 2021 alone, – which may result in decreasing development engagement, challenging UK’s democracy promotion in Africa. This impact is amplified by the fact that Africa previously received the largest portion of the UK’s foreign aid budget – nearly 50% of the total budget – resulting in profound implications.

The UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy in Africa may also be challenged by an uncertain time in the continent with regards to the protection and promotion of democracy, with nearly a third of African countries facing elections in 2024. While states across Africa struggle to consolidate democracy, we may identify emerging trends and challenges of electoral democracy in Africa.

After most elections in the 2010s, new types of non-democratic government has come fore: competitive authoritarian regimes – in which autocrats submit to meaningful multiparty elections but engage in serious democratic abuse. On the other hand, the continent is getting better at elections and needs to remain hopeful as greater pressure is applied to ensure that there are sustainable electoral outcomes.  

Nonetheless, the challenges of promoting democracy in Africa also present opportunities for innovative solutions, cross-border cooperation, and inclusive dialogue to address underlying issues and foster democratic resilience. The UK has the chance to actively engage with African nations, foster partnerships, and aid where needed. Therefore, the UK could play a pivotal role in ensuring that democratic principles are upheld and respected during these critical times of electoral transition in Africa.

The UK's post-Brexit foreign policy in Africa underscores its commitment to promoting democracy and positive change. By leveraging its resources, expertise, and partnerships, the UK can play a pivotal role in advancing democratic governance across the continent going forwards. As Africa continues its progress, the UK remains an ally in supporting democratic aspirations and building a more sustainable future for all.

Aster Habtemaryam Degefu is a MSc candidate in Politics of Africa, at SOAS, University of London.