Boris Johnson’s rise to power in Britain poses a major challenge for the African continent. Johnson has always seen the continent through a neo-colonial lens, romanticizing Britain’s colonial era as having been good for Africa and its colonial occupiers.
“The best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers or their citizens scrambled once again in her direction, on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty,” Johnson was quoted as saying. Johnson has literally dismissed the negative legacy of Britain’s colonial past to the point of calling Africa a blot. “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore,” he said.
Johnson has never been guarded with his words, and he certainly never thought he would make it to Prime Minister oneday. He used to say that he had more chance of being reincarnated as an olive than he did of becoming Prime Minister. Now that he has ascended to the role, he will drive foreign policy in a new virulent brand of neo-nationalism.
Possibly the most infamous and disrespectful quote towards Africans was during Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to Africa in 2002, when Johnson described locals as “flag waving piccaninnies with watermelon smiles.”
This is very reminiscent of US President Donald Trump perception of Africa, neither of which bodes well for the development of relations with either the US or Britain on an equal footing based on mutual respect.
These attitudes will mostly affect Africa when it comes to aid and trade. Just as Trump is determined to make aid dependent on how loyal and useful countries are to the US, Johnson takes a similar approach. He has said that future aid should do more to serve Britain’s political and commercial interests. Earlier this year he called for an end to an independent department on international development. Aid will therefore become an extension of Britain’s narrow foreign policy agenda, rather than for the benefit of the people it is supposed to empower.
As for trade, Africa will certainly suffer if there is a no-deal Brexit. The possibility of no-deal is looking increasingly likely given that Johnson has imposed a stringent deadline to leave the EU by October 31st. Brussels says he can’t renegotiate Brexit despite the fact Johnson insists he can get a better deal for Britain. But given that the British parliament has gone into recess, the prospects of securing a deal by the end of October seems unrealistic.
In the eventuality that there is a no-deal Brexit, Britain’s trade regime will revert to WTO rules and the Most Favored Nation principle whereby the same tariff rate will be extended to all countries. Unless a roll-over agreement is in place, South Africa will lose its preferential market access. Currently 99% of South African goods enter Britain duty free. Such an outcome will hit South Africa hard as Britain is the second biggest export destination for our products in Europe, coming after Germany.
Britain has failed to capitalize on Africa as an opportunity. France, Germany and Italy all export more than double the value of goods to Africa than Britain does. Even Spain with an economy half the size that of Britain, exports more to Africa than Britain does.
On environmental issues and climate change, Johnson has proven his disinterest when he was Foreign Secretary, having marginalised environmental issues. This will also have negative repercussions for Africa, which is suffering the consequences of global warming, as seen in the massive destruction caused by recent cyclones in Southern Africa.
As Foreign Secretary, Johnson shrank the number of diplomats engaged in climate change negotiations by two thirds, with the cuts occuring just as countries were coming together to negotiate the Paris Agreement. The irony of Johnson’s position is that this week temperatures in Britain were forecast to be the hottest recorded in the country’s history.
While relations between Africa and Britain under a Johson administration may prove fractious, it is likely that the greatest loser will be Britain itself. Confronting 27 states in the EU will likely make Britain weaker, and it may even spell the end of Britain as we know it if Scotland (which wants to stay in the EU) stages another referendum on independence from Britain. Britain’s growing international isolation and simultaneous greater reliance on the US, is not a recipe for making the country great again. The British economy is already in decline, and further isolating itself is not the answer to the challenges of globalisation.
But the British public have gotten what they voted for. Now it is for civil society to raise their voices and highlight the critical importance of tackling climate change, strengthening relations with the African continent, and defending multilateralism.
Shannon Ebrahim is the foreign editor for the Independent Media Group.