Britain’s pathetic response to the rise of a global power

Published in The Guardian (August 9th, 2013)

Despite their military name, it is hard to see how an eight-strong delegation from Nigeria’s branch of the Boys’ Brigade posed much of a threat to this country. They are, after all, members of a Christian youth group that is championed by our royal family and had been invited to a prestigious global event to recognise civic leadership. But the handpicked teenagers and their two dedicated leaders were barred from Britain.

The group was gutted. “We are not happy at all,” Arastus Mbamoh, national secretary of the Boys’ Brigade in Nigeria, told me. “It is very annoying and highly disappointing for everyone.” They were not alone –43 other delegates were barred from the international gathering this weekend at Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. With depressing inevitability all were from Africa; only eight applicants from the continent were allowed to join the festivities.

This is the flip side of our toxic immigration debate, with those vile ‘go home’ posters and racist talk of bongo bongo land. Each day, thousands of Africans are turned away from Britain, wrecking carefully laid plans to trade, visit relatives, attend conferences, see the sights or simply enjoy some shopping. They lose costly visa fees of up to £772 and go elsewhere; we lose goodwill alongside much-needed business in key sectors.

This official hostility makes a mockery of politicians who talk of competing in a global race as they corrode links to some of the world’s fastest developing nations. And nowhere sums up Britain’s anachronistic and contorted view of a rapidly changing world better than Nigeria, a country cobbled together by our Victorian ancestors a century ago that is emerging, for all its flaws and internal rifts, as Africa’s potential superpower.

On one hand our leaders, who love to cloak themselves in compassion as self-proclaimed saviours of the poor, throw huge clumps of taxpayers’ cash at this west African behemoth. As ministers pump taxpayers’ money into aid despite a startling history of failure, Nigeria is being handed the biggest increase of any major recipient nation over the course of the coalition. The annual bung is rising from £142m three years ago to £305m by the next election in 2015 – coincidentally the country’s target date to launch its first astronauts under an ambitious space programme.

It is daft to pour such sums into a place pockmarked with corruption and soaring inequality. Nigeria is one of the world’s fastest growing markets for private jets and champagne: a bottle of Cristal can cost £600 in a club while two thirds of people struggle to survive on less than half that sum a year. The core issues are ones of governance and social justice – yet we prop up a thieving political elite that has failed persistently to deliver public services to its people. This is a major oil producer that suffers crippling power shortages and accounts for one in three children out of school in Africa.

It is worth adding, of course, that it is pinstriped western pimps in finance, law and property who assist the flight of African capital – much of it stolen – into offshore accounts and tax havens. Little is done to tackle this. Now one of our leading banks is about to cut the life support that aids millions of families through the transfer of remittances.

Despite the kleptocracy and growing insurgency in the north, Nigeria is one of the continent’s most consistent economic performers, with annual growth rates of more than 5% over the past decade and about to become Africa’s biggest economy. This is not just down to oil – it has strong banking and technology sectors, while manufacturing, construction and leisure thrive. The question is whether its energy and entrepreneurialism can sustain a population expected to increase fivefold by the end of the century; if it does, it could challenge even China.

So what is our stance towards this nation that has strong historic ties to ours, speaks English and can be brought to near standstill by an Arsenal match on TV? A sharp rise in the proportion of rejected visa applications, according to most recent figures. And now the government, rattled by Ukip over immigration but impotent to stop those coming from Europe, plans to impose an absurd £3,000 bond on the six-month visas favoured by most of the 142,000 Nigerians who visited these shores last year. This discriminatory idea was, incidentally, first floated by Labour then initially announced by the Liberal Democrat leader.

Yet we will need Nigeria more than they need us in the emerging world order. Over the past decade trade between the two nations rose nearly fivefold, with the value of British exports there doubling. Meanwhile, a study last month found Nigerians to be the sixth-biggest spenders in our shops, which explains the Hausa signs in Debenhams, while they spend £300m annually at our schools and universities. But there is nothing to stop them educating their children in the US, trading with Turkey or holidaying in China.

The bond proposal created a deserved backlash in Nigeria, with fiery calls for retaliation. Newspaper headlines talk of two nations on a warpath – but which one will be the loser in the so-called global race? The African powerhouse growing at great speed – or its former colonial master, struggling to hold its head above water? Britain bleats about bogus development through aid, yet demonstrates hostility that reeks of hypocrisy and damages both our interests. We need to wake up before it is too late.

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