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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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It’s not the Maybolt’s dance moves that are the true horror of her African trip

Published by The Mail on Sunday (2nd September, 2018)

Theresa May’s robotic dancing made some people laugh. But the Maybot was not the biggest joke about the Prime Minister’s visit to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya last week. That would be her reaffirmation of Britain’s bizarre commitment to handing billions of pounds to despicable despots and dodgy schemes as part of this country’s absurd foreign aid policy.

May said she was ‘immensely proud’ to be giving away a fixed slab of national income  – regardless of need, rising demands at home and the reality of global poverty falling with stunning speed due to capitalism, consumerism and scientific advances.

So never mind the sex scandals exposing gross abuse of power, the blood-stained dictators stuffing bank accounts with our funds, the fat cat consultants and charity chiefs fleecing taxpayers – and of course, all those insanely wasteful projects this newspaper has exposed around the world.

Take Nigeria and Kenya, two recipients of Britain’s big aid payouts, both controlled by painfully corrupt elites. Although riddled with grinding poverty, these two nations have some of the highest-paid MPs in the world compared to their citizens. Yet one Nigerian senator revealed earlier this year they also get £324,000 a year in ‘expenses’ with minimal checks.

Britain is spending £235m directly in Nigeria this year. Yet much of the nation’s vast oil wealth has been looted and last year the acting president admitted half his government’s food aid for people fleeing an Islamist insurgency in the north had disappeared.

The elderly president, incidentally, was receiving medical treatment in London at time of that revelation – proving how little faith he has in his own public services. 

Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kenyan leader who admonished May for a lack of British Prime Ministerial visits, is the son of the nation’s first post-colonial president and his family is among the wealthiest in the country.

Along with his rich deputy he escaped charges at the international criminal court over links to horrific political violence after witnesses were allegedly bribed or intimidated, with others dying.

No wonder younger generations are so hungry for change across Africa. Yet often they are bullied, beaten and intimidated by those we endorse with our billions when they attempt free expression or push for democracy.

Just look at neighbouring Uganda, where a festering regime ridiculously hailed for its democracy by the department for international development has been torturing a brave pop star called Bobi Wine who became a rallying point for opponents.

Or Rwanda, sponsor of Arsenal football team and a place where desperation to find an aid success story persuaded charities and politicians to overlook the crushing and killing of opponents, along with obvious manipulation of development statistics.

May’s quickstep around Africa was designed to drive home the message that post-Brexit Britain can be an influential global player by deepening links and investment in a fast-growing continent being wooed by other global powers.

There are many good reasons to step up engagement in Africa given its rising wealth, education and population. And it is sensible to solidify trade ties – even if a boost in business with Botswana and Lesotho will not solve post-Brexit problems.

Yet while falsely claiming a ‘fundamental shift’ in aid spending, the Prime Minister simply trotted out the same old cliches and claptrap based on that weird desire of Westminster to fritter away taxpayers’ cash to hit a discredited aid target. 

Theresa May, like her three predecessors, spouts vacuously about ‘global Britain’ while blowing huge sums of taxpayers’ cash while appearing to be a heroic saviour of the poor and needy.

She tried to freshen up the haggard aid argument, of course. Yet she repeated one of David Cameron’s daftest claims: that it is in our national interest to spray billions around the planet at a time when public services struggle at home.

What a shame she did not visit Ghana, a country that cherishes democracy. Its business-minded president Nana Akufo-Addo, who took power last year, argues that foreign aid fails to achieve growth and creates a dependency culture.

He is right: aid corrodes democracy since it negates the need for leaders to serve their own people, as pointed out by a Nobel-winning British economist. But naive Westminster politicians, egged on by self-serving charity cheerleaders, ignore more informed and independent voices as they fritter away almost £14bn a year.

May said last week extra aid will go to counter migration. Yet studies show that as prosperity rises, more people move around since they have higher means and aspirations. Stability is key – yet our cash fuels conflict, corruption and despotism.

There are ways Britain can help: crack down on our own firms and tax havens washing stolen funds. Stand up for human rights and real democrats, not despots and dictators. Soften the hostile environment visa process that has made it so tough for African tourists and traders to visit Britain.

Instead May is trapped in the old groove on Africa and dancing to the wrong tunes.

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