Stop the mockery, end the pity and start to engage

Published by The i paper (20th January, 2020)

Boris Johnson has displayed repulsive views on Africa. He has been racist, with a column referring to ‘tribal warriors’ breaking out in ‘watermelon smiles’ to see ‘the big white chief’ Tony Blair. He has been crass, writing about ‘little Aids-ridden choristers’ singing a welcome. He has been ignorant, brushing aside a continent of 54 nations as ‘that country’ in a speech. He has been dismissive, saying ‘the continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot on our conscience’. And he has been arrogant about our destructive colonial legacy, claiming ‘the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more’.

But that was the past. Now he is prime minister, not an attention-seeking columnist. So he says those silly articles were ‘wholly satirical’. Suddenly he needs Africa to validate his blurred vision of Brexit, with hazy talk of ‘global Britain’ and a brighter future unshackled from our main trading partner. On 20 Janury he will host African politicians and business leaders at an investment summit  in London to showcase his brave new world, while ministers have started spewing out statistics to show off their newly discovered knowledge of ‘that country’ like excitable gap-year students.

It is all rather pitiful. There is, of course, desperate need for this country to engage properly with the many and diverse African nations – although ironically this move comes just as the continent signs up to its own free-trade zone.

The statistics of change on the continent are extraordinary, as seen by any regular visitor. Life expectancy surging, literacy spreading, infant mortality plummeting, diseases defeated. Ethiopia, still associated with famine in many minds due to the corrosive Live Aid legacy, was the world’s fastest-growing economy over the past decade.  The continent’s average growth this century has been 4.6 per cent. The continent is rich in minerals, rapidly urbanising, and exporting culture and home to half the world’s land with cultivation potential.

Then there is population growth, both a boon and a curse for countries grappling with development. It is predicted that Africa’s population of 1.2 billion will double by midst of this century, making it bigger than China and India combined and home to one in four consumers. The United Nations thinks it could swell to four billion by end of this century, which would mean one-third of humans on our planet living in the lands stretching from South Africa to Morocco.

Clearly it is in British interests to build strong relationships with these countries. But Johnson, sadly, has typified the patronising view held by too many others – that Africa is a basket case, filled with lesser people and better off when much of the map was covered with our flag. This myopic stance has led to blinkered policies on immigration that sanctions drowning of African migrants, funds their detention by Libyan militia, and erects ever-higher hurdles to ensure that even a short visit to Britain for work or tourism becomes a complicated, costly visa nightmare.

It leads also to foolish aid policies fuelled by a self-glorifying saviour mentality, which feed corruption, foster dictatorship and cripple democracy. Alok Sharma, the latest minister for international development, talks of using aid to boost business, yet these programmes are often among the most nebulous of schemes that only help the fattest cats in this bloated industry. ‘’We don’t know how to do it,’ confessed his predecessor Rory Stewart. ‘We can’t, I’m afraid, create jobs for those people.’

Last month Johnson called Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to beg the brutal Egyptian strongman to join his summit, ignoring how this former spy chief has crushed dissent, jailed dissidents and eradicated free expression. Earlier this month Andrew Stephenson, minister for Africa, flew to Uganda to pay homage to Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the nation with an iron fist and sticky fingers since 1986. Days earlier there had been the latest arrest of his brave rival, the pop star turned politician Bobi Wine, after police broke up a rally with tear gas and detained journalists.

Trade trumps morality as Britain backs the Big Men, despite the demographics and desperation for change from young people. Yet all that £3bn of aid being sprayed annually around the continent, all that pandering to grubby despots, has not stopped our share of Africa’s imports from slumping sharply over recent decades. It is foolish to blame poor performance on European Union membership when France, Germany and Italy now export more than double the value of our goods there, although the City’s strength ensures a strong investment presence.

For all the hype and pageantry surrounding this summit, Britain has seemed disengaged during the latest scramble for Africa as it squandered links of history, language and, more recently, of football. Countries such as Turkey and India feverishly expanded diplomatic footprints, Russia has flexed its military muscle. The French President Emmanuel Macron has visited 13 times since his election in 2017, admitting colonialism was ‘a grave mistake’ on his last trip, while Theresa May went once in three years as prime minister. Little wonder 51 African leaders went to China’s last trade shindig, 50 to an American event and 43 accepted Vladimir Putin’s invitation – but only 15 leaders were confirmed for London at last count.

It is good to see Westminster waking up over Africa. But if post-Brexit Britain wants to help the continent it should stop pandering to dictators and pouring aid into their pockets. It must show more humanity with migration policies and less hostility to artists, entrepreneurs, tourists and traders visiting our shores. It needs to tackle the obscenity of our tax havens and stop pin-striped pimps – the greedy bankers, lawyers and estate agents – stashing loot stolen from public resources. Above all, it must finally accept Africans as equals – not people to be mocked, pitied or saved.

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