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The UK foreign secretary has said Britain must step up its engagement with African nations on “genuinely sustainable security measures”, conceding that some countries have turned to the Wagner paramilitary group to meet an “unfulfilled need”.

In an interview with the Financial Times, James Cleverly said he would “look with seriousness” at new opportunities and any requests from African leaders “to work on capacity building and training with the British armed forces”.

He said the UK military’s professionalism and respect for international law was a “good thing” that British forces could “export” to the continent.

Outside the UK, the largest number of British military deployments are in Africa, where forces are undertaking training and operations, including in Ghana and Kenya.

On the eve of a four-day trip during which he will visit Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia, Cleverly acknowledged “superficially attractive offers” had been made to some African states by Russia and China, but believed the tide was turning.

The sharp drop in the number of African leaders who attended the latest Russia-Africa summit in the wake of the Ukraine war, falling to 17 this week from 43 at the first gathering in 2019, showed African leaders were “pragmatic” and “voting with their feet”.

Cleverly said: “Regarding China, I talk to African leaders who are uncomfortable with their level of indebtedness, and are uncomfortable with China not engaging in the Paris Club [of mainly western creditor countries], for example, when it comes to how you deal with national indebtedness.”

His intervention comes after the UK government was lambasted for having “underplayed and underestimated” the Wagner group for 10 years in a damning report by MPs last week.

Cleverly insisted he did not “fully agree with that characterisation” and highlighted the sanctions levied by Britain on Wagner and its officials, including founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.

He also said nations involved with Wagner have become “increasingly uncomfortable” with the group’s influence, but added: “We need to be honest with ourselves that Wagner group would not be active in Africa if there wasn’t an unfulfilled need.” 

He added: “If countries are worried about their internal security, if they are worried about being able to defend themselves, then we should recognise that, and we should look to speak with them about what are genuinely sustainable security measures.”

Over the weekend the head of Niger’s presidential guard declared himself head of the west African country after instigating a coup that deposed its pro-western leader. Prigozhin welcomed the coup and offered its new leaders the services of his mercenaries.

Cleverly’s emphasis on providing UK security assistance to Africa is likely to raise eyebrows among non-governmental organisations following Britain’s cut to its international aid budget.

Africa remains the largest recipient of the UK Foreign Office’s region-specific bilateral aid spending, but the amount fell almost 19 per cent year on year to £1.1bn in 2022, according to official statistics.

Cleverly’s tour of three African nations this week is designed to step up efforts to build “mutually beneficial, commercial relationships” with the continent’s countries as its economic and political influence grows, he said.

He warned African countries are too often viewed in Britain as beset by conflict, famine and “difficulty”, a picture at odds with growing prosperity in parts of the continent.

Cleverly accepted Britain will have to “compete” for economic opportunities in Africa but added the UK was a “reliable” partner. Next April Britain is hosting a UK-Africa investment summit.

The interview took place ahead of Labour raising questions over whether Cleverly breached rules for ministers and MPs by failing to declare meeting the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador at a shooting weekend hosted by Tory donor Lord Michael Hintze.

The event in November 2021, when Cleverly was Middle East minister, was first reported by The Sunday Times. Hintze, who has given more than £4.5mn to the Conservative party and some of its main figures, donated £50,000 to the Tories eight days before the event.

Labour said the government “has serious questions to answer about why this hospitality was not declared and whether or not the ministerial code was broken”.

The ministerial code of conduct states that departments “will publish, quarterly, details of hospitality received by ministers in a ministerial capacity”.

The MPs’ code of conduct states “purely personal” hospitality from “partners or family members” need not be declared, but any benefit that “might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions” should be registered. Any in doubt should be declared, it adds.

An ally of Cleverly’s said the foreign secretary did not declare the event because he attended in a private capacity, having been friends with Hintze for years, and no government business was discussed during the weekend.

Lawyers for Hintze, a hedge fund manager, told The Sunday Times the shooting weekend had been purely social and not business-related. A spokesperson for CQS, Hintze’s hedge fund, declined to comment.

Additional reporting by Stephen Morris

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