Besides their privileged upbringing, right-wing politics, lascivious philandering and antique golden hair, newly minted UK Prime Minister and U.S President Donald Trump share one other characteristic afterall: their paternalistic, colonial, and dismissive views of Africa. Who’d’ve thunk it?!
Immediately after Johnson took the reins at 10 Downing Street on the 24th of July, Africa Twitter and Whatsapp groups began teeming with apparently ‘racist’ and ‘colonial’ words he has uttered in his long career in British politics. The most vicious ones came from an essay he wrote in 2002 when he was the editor of the British weekly magazine The Spectator. In the piece, titled ‘Africa Is a Mess but we can’t blame Colonialism,’ Mr. Johnson decried the sorry state the continent is in, and repeated many of the colonial tropes by western writers. Africa, he said, had become worse since the British left in the early 1960s.
Using Uganda which he had just visited as a case study of this dysfunction, the future Prime Minister was no holds barred:
“Everywhere the people glide by, rather slowly, on big black bicycles. They are all imported: even now, the Ugandans can’t make their own bikes. In 1956 Ghana had a bigger GDP than Malaysia, and Egypt and South Korea were economically on a par. Can you really blame colonialism for the subsequent divergence in performance? The Malaysians have air-conditioning and computers; 90 per cent of Ugandans live in Stone Age conditions — round mud huts with a fireplace dug in the floor and raffia mats for beds and a life-expectancy of 42. It is just not convincing, 40 years on, to blame Africa’s problems on the ‘lines on the map’, the arbitrary boundary-making of the men in sola topis.”
A few Months after his Spectator article, Mr Johnson, writing in his column in the Daily Telegraph on the Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to Africa and Asia , used several other pejorative phrases to describe Africans, including the term “piccaninnies,” which is a racist term used to describe black children.
I had seen these articles several times before. Yet for a moment, the realisation that these were the words of the now head of the British government, was a bit chilling, even for me.
The reaction from Africans particularly on social media was furious. ‘Colonialist buffoon’ some said. ‘Ignorant fool!’ cried others. In WhatsApp groups where I am a member I would say 95 percent of responses were of an angry nature. But there were a few dissenters:
“The tone maybe somewhat condescending but the man is right. Colonialism was not good in many ways but majority-if-not-all of our problems are self-inflicted” one said. Another added:
“…He might be an ass, but there is truth in what he says. We’ve had a moment to blame colonialists, but we’ve got more than enough chances to pull ourselves together, change, develop and grow that we’ve not used. Our leaders have selfishly kept the divide and conquer tactic which has contributed to the slow development. We’ve looked at each other as enemies instead of coming as one and taking advantage of the external world with the opportunities it presents to us. For the most part, we have kept ourselves like colonized persons, yet we were given chance to snap out of it and make a better way for us years back…”
Mr. Trump’s “shithole countries” had some African backers too, even when he followed them by slyly remarking that 40,000 Nigerians who had been given U.S visas “would never go back to their huts” after seeing the United States”
Deeds, not words, is what matters!
There is no doubt that some of things Trump and Johnson have said are remarkably stupid in their lack of nuance. But neither men owes us nuance. Africans should tell their own nuanced stories themselves. Mr Trump can’t probably even name 5 African Countries. Mr Johnson, because of his long career in British politics including as an MP and a Foreign Secretary, as well as his stints in numerous British newspapers, is more knowledgeable than Trump of the geopolitical complexities of Africa. His venomous tirades were even well written and thought out you have to admit. Unlike Trump, he is an international man who must hold these views to say them. Which is probably why gave a mea culpa for these comments when he was running for Mayor of London in 2015.
But I am more concerned in Mr. Johnson’s actual policy towards Africa than his stupid comments. The UK spends 0.7% of its GNI on Overseas Development Assistance, some £14 billion every year, most it coming into Africa. UK does bilateral trade with several countries. They are involved in the fight against terrorism. Is he going to significantly change these policies? How? That’s what I am more concerned with, not what he said about the type of bicycles we ride in Uganda. Once he delivers Brexit, there is even a chance that this might open doors for Africa’s businesses that were never going to open, removing obstacles that are there under the EU. That would be good for Africa. It’s unlikely that Johnson will upend the decades long close ties Britain has with Africa.
Trump’s walrus-moustached national security advisor John Bolton launched his Africa policy, codenamed ‘Prosper Africa’ in June. while still in its infancy, emphasing trade, rather than aid as a foreign policy strategy doesn’t sound that bad. For some strange reason U.S conservatives tend to have more consequential relationships with Africa. George W Bush’s PEPFAR to me remains by far the best U.S policy towards Africa in a generation. We had 8 years of a smooth-talking, ‘African’ American, ‘global citizen’ neoliberal president. Will anyone remind me what his ground-breaking impact was on Africa, besides destroying Libya and taking young Africans to U.S Universities to ‘learn how to be leaders’ where there end up just taking selfies at American landmarks?
I find it curious, that critics of Conservatives’ views on Africa, mostly western media and western educated Africans, tend to pretend as if neoliberal politicians have not said condescending words on Africa, and even followed those words with policies that cement them.
When the pretty boy of Western Neoliberalism Emmanuel Macron (after telling the BBC that he shared Africa’s outrage on Mr Trump’s shithole comments) put the foot in his mouth and said that African problems were ‘civilizational’ and that “When countries still have seven to eight children per woman, you can decide to spend billions of euros, but you will not stabilize anything”, his critics tried to contextualise his remarks, a favour they never afford conservative politicians. When Danish Minister for Development Cooperation Ulla Tørnæs Speaking at a family planning summit in London echoed the same sentiment and said that “To limit the migration pressure on Europe, a part of the solution is to reduce the very high population growth in many African countries.” And that curtailing African population growth important for Danish foreign and security policy, the coverage wasn’t as vicious.
So there are clearly double standards, because we know that silver-tongued liberals also say patronising things about Africa, only that they cloth them in useless internationalist platitudes and when they are at exclusive cocktail parties in Hollywood.
I don’t think Africans should lose sleep over the frank, if patronising commentary from the likes of Johnson and Trump. In the end it doesn’t really matter what words world leaders use to describe our plight. What matters is our own agency to address it.
But like Malcolm X said when asked who he preferred between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater in the 1964 U.S Presidential Election, I would rather deal with an ‘honestly growling wolf who lets me know where he stands, even when he is wrong, than foxy lullabies from the sly fox who will have me half-digested before I know what is happening to me.”
With the Boris and Donald, you have no illusions on what you are dealing with, and therefore you can be better prepared for them. But it is also a good thing to be reminded of how badly you are doing, something the ‘Africa Rising’ myth doesn’t do. Only then can you strive to better yourself. The vain glorious touting of Africa as a continent doing just fine as the BBC Africa Business Editor recently did, is in the end a self-defeating undertaking. Because we know we have problems. Lots of them. Elevating our modest gains as an example of a looming take-off into the first world is living in denial. Having the right balanced assessment is important.
Bernard Sabiti is a Kampala-based researcher and public policy analyst