Tag Archives: Boris Johnson

Boris as PM: it’s no laughing matter

© 2019 – 2019 Zapiro (All Rights Reserved). Originally published in the Daily Maverick in 2019. Used with permission. More Zapiro cartoons at http://www.zapiro.com.

African leaders from across the continent have dutifully congratulated Boris Johnson on becoming the new British PM. This thanks to the votes of an ageing, white, male Conservative party membership of only 92,000 people. With an extreme right-wing cabinet, and the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, the UK is poised for a dangerous new era. As a Washington Post comment piece argues, it really is no laughing matter.

What is Africa making of it all? One of the most fulsome messages of congratulation came from President Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe, combined with a fawning piece in the state-run Herald newspaper. Desperate to normalise relations and seek investment, the Zimbabwean government has struck on a journalistic piece by Johnson penned in 2015, which blamed Tony Blair for the mess Zimbabwe was in, the propping up of Mugabe and the failure to pay compensation to white farmers.

As ever with Johnson’s writing – and much of his political conduct to date – journalistic flourish comes before facts. As anyone reading this blog will know, the history of UK-Zimbabwe relations, especially over land, is much more complex. It may be however that, with the UK concerned about post Brexit trade (despite the bluster, very few deals have been signed) and Zimbabwe keen to be re-admitted to the Commonwealth and become accepted again by the international community, common cause will be found.

To the relief of many, Johnson did not abolish the Department for International Development, nor reinstate the disgraced Priti Patel as minister – although shockingly she got the much bigger Home Secretary post. That said, the department’s mandate will no doubt continue to shift towards promoting the fanciful idea of ‘Global Britain’, focused on promoting UK trade and investment through ‘aid’.

Maybe this will deliver the bilateral partnerships (and cash) that Mnangagwa so desires. But the Zimbabwean government should be wary. What will the terms be? Just as with dealings with the much more powerful (and rich) Chinese, negotiating aid relationships with strings attached is fraught with dangers. With the prospect of a Johnson premiership some years ago on this blog, I argued that we should all be ‘scared, very scared’. Well now it has come to pass, and scary times are upon us.

The ever-astute South African cartoonist Zapiro captured it well in the image above. Trump and Johnson seem to come from the same stock. George Monbiot calls them and their ilk, the ‘killer clowns’. Dangerous, below a thin veneer, and backed by oligarchs interested in making money out of the chaos created by the ruthless destruction of the administrative state. Buffoonery, overt racism, and an overwhelming sense of privilege (of different sorts), combine with a lack of attention to detail, and a proclivity to make up facts to suit the argument. But both are smart, wily and surrounded by clever, dangerous people – from Bannon to Cummings –  with radical political agendas to pursue.

The link to a wider form of authoritarian populism is clear in their respective political projects. Along with close links to oligarchic capital and big business, they see their political base rooted in disenchantment with metropolitan, ‘elite’ politics, which has emerged as a consequence of a politics of austerity and the failure of ‘progressive neoliberalism’. Unlike the traditional Left, right-wing populist politicians across the world – from Bolsanaro to Modi, Orban, Salvini, Duterte and Erdogan – have been able to mobilise this discontent effectively – despite its obvious contradictions. We can expect a UK election soon with a similar regressive, populist rhetoric.

This inward-looking nationalism has consequences for how international relations are viewed. Johnson, like Trump, has a dismissive, colonial, often racist, approach to Africa. His litany of comments is well known. He has argued that Africa (which he described as ‘that country’) would be better off if still colonised, arguing that “the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more” and ‘‘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”. Meanwhile, he claimed that the Commonwealth is supported by the Queen “because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies”. There is a long catalogue that could have come from the mouth of a Victorian imperialist.

Some will dismiss such comments as flourish and frippery. I believe this is mistaken. These are not jokes; they are deeply offensive comments from someone who is the British PM. They reveal much about the current state of the Tory party and British politics. Zimbabwe – and Africa more broadly – should be worried. It certainly is no laughing matter.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

 

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UK supports Zimbabwe’s return to the Commonwealth

The UK will support Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth, it has been reported. The invitation will almost certainly be accepted, as President Mnangagwa has been on a global charm offensive, bedecked with his trademark scarf no matter what the weather.

Zimbabwe is desperate for international acceptance after being cast out in the Mugabe era. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002, following the land invasions, although Mugabe withdrew in 2003 before formal expulsion, with some Commonwealth leaders torn in their solidarities. Being invited to Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London last week as an observer was a strong signal of reengagement.

So will rejoining make any difference? The answer is probably not much, but symbolism is all in international relations. Any moves are unlikely to happen until after the elections, but the meeting between UK Foreign Secretary and Foreign minister Subisiso Moyo, on the sidelines of last week’s meeting was all smiles.

Imperial anachronism or powerful trading network?

The contemporary relevance of the Commonwealth is much debated. Some regard it as an anachronistic hang-over from Empire, with all the subservient trappings of allegiance to a foreign, once-ruling colonial monarch. The excellent Afua Hirsch argues that attempts at revival are simply imperial dreams dressed up as Empire 2.0, pushing neoliberal policies on the poor, developing world.

Somewhat fancifully, others see the Commonwealth as the basis for a new post-Brexit global trading network, with the UK at its centre, and Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and selected others connected in a powerful grouping to take on the world. This is of course rather absurd, but there will be moves in this direction as Theresa May’s government attempts to make the best out of the inevitably disastrous Brexit deal, with their silly slogan ‘Global Britain’.

While of course the Commonwealth of Nations is a relic of empire (its earlier incarnations were of course the British Commonwealth and the Imperial conferences), the idea that Britain could have any imperial ambitions today is of course only in the fevered imaginations of the likes of Boris Johnson. Today’s imperial powers are firmly elsewhere. The Queen likes to talk of the Commonwealth as a ‘family’; also rather ridiculous, until you remember dysfunctional families, familial power relations and imposing matriarchy.

So beyond the PR value, does Zimbabwe rejoining make any sense? Is this a sop to imperial power, which the liberation war fought? Will Zimbabwe benefit preferentially from new trade deals? Will it make any difference at all?

Zimbabwe’s role?

Following Zimbabwe’s Independence, Commonwealth connections were important. Yes, trade, but also diplomacy, including around the then seemingly intractable ending of apartheid in South Africa. With many Commonwealth countries being front-line states, they were at the forefront of the struggle. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings were important affairs. Remember the CHOGM in 1991 in Zimbabwe? It was a big deal, with a landmark declaration proclaimed. It is rare such an array of dignitaries end up in Harare.

Just maybe such unlikely connections, and the fanfare that goes with it all – can help today. With the polarisation of global power – a regressive US and an all-powerful China – the concerns of many parts of the world don’t get a look in. But in the Commonwealth, with a different constellation of the not powerful and once powerful, other agendas can be raised.

The more radical proposal to reinvent the Commonwealth group for the modern era through appointing a non-white small island state leader is off the cards for now, as Prince Charles has been accepted as the Queen’s successor. But maybe in time a reconfiguration away from the old colonial power can occur.

Vital global debates

The London CHOGM has generated some important debates on global issues. The terrible treatment of the disenfranchised so-called Windrush generation – the children of those who came by sea from the Caribbean as British citizens to help re-build the UK economy after the Second World War – has put in the spotlight the positive benefits of global migration. The madness and inhumanity of restrictive UK immigration policy has been put to the fore, prompting apologies from the PM and Home Secretary.

After the vicious, regressive Brexit debate, this is a breath of fresh air. Perhaps this will be extended to others. What about the many Zimbabweans in the UK who struggle with the immigration service, but offer important work, including – as memorably put by Jo McGregor – ‘joining the BBC’ (the British Bottom Cleaners) in social services?

The London meeting has also raised the important issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Although not Zimbabwe of course, many Commonwealth countries have long coastlines or are islands (yes I know, easier to invade and colonise), and so suffer disproportionately. Whatever you think of now UK Environment minister Michael Gove, he’s certainly good at seizing the moment politically. A marginal debate at one of the branches of the UN is now projected into the limelight with dozens of prime ministers and presidents offering support. It may be that billions of cotton buds and plastic stirrers are literally a drop in the ocean, and a UK ban will have little effect, but again the symbolism and politics count.

New solidarities for a polarised world

So, while accepting that the ideas of a new global trade pact are fanciful and that of course the Commonwealth has a dodgy imperial past, Zimbabwe re-joining could have some benefits. Together with other small countries that never get a look in at the UN or other global bodies, collectively they can raise important questions of global consequence (think climate change and small island states), and generate solidarities that are otherwise not possible in our polarised world.

As an operation with a very small budget but a big international presence, if imaginative and progressive, the Commonwealth can take some important initiatives, and Zimbabwe should be there to start and steer them.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Picture credit: Meeting between Boris Johnson and Subisiso Moyo, London, from UK FCO Flickr.

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What will Brexit mean for Africa?

June 23rd saw the UK vote for Brexit. A populist rebellion was provoked by an internal dispute in the Tory party, and chaos has been unleashed. We don’t know the full consequences yet, but it’s not going to be good.

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Commentaries before the vote speculated on implications. First there’s trade. The UK is an important trading partner with Africa, and deals with the EU govern much of this. Only this month an EU Economic Partnership Agreement was agreed with the Southern African Development Community, allowing free trade access to Europe for some countries. Now all these arrangements have to be renegotiated bilaterally through the World Trade Organisation, and its 161 members. It will be a slow and costly readjustment, creating much uncertainty. Baffled by this madness, Chinese official commentary put in nicely: Britons were “showing a losing mindset” and becoming “citizens of a nation that prefers to shut itself from the outside world”.

Then there is aid. The UK has been a substantial contributor to the EU aid programme, providing 2 billion euros, including 14.8% of the European Development Fund. While I would be the first to admit that not all of this was effective or efficient, it does allow a broader mandate than the increasingly narrow focus of the UK aid spend. And the UK influence on the portfolio has always been important.

But perhaps more important than the flows of cash is the influence of the UK on European development debates. Whether the UK government or NGOs, think tanks or research institutes, adding to the discussion about, for example, the impact of EU domestic farm subsidies on African agriculture, or providing input into the framing of development efforts, has been really important. This has been particularly so since the establishment of the UK Department of International Development in 1997 and the G8 Gleneagles agreement in 2005, and a commitment – amazingly across governments of different political hues – to a progressive aid agenda, particularly in Africa. This role in European positioning globally will be much missed.

The Brexit campaigners argued for ‘taking back control’ of aid and trade. But in a globalised world, this small island mentality is absurd. Britain thankfully no longer rules the waves, nor has vast swathes of the globe as colonies under its control. But sometimes the rhetoric suggests we do – or should do. This is of course naïve and arrogant, and betrays an extraordinary lack of understanding of contemporary global political economy.

The UK’s diplomatic ‘soft power’ has been often exercised most successfully through the EU, as part of a joint commitment to change – whether around issues of conflict, migration or development. This allowed a common voice, and a more measured position. This was certainly the case in Zimbabwe. With, until recently, serial failures of UK diplomacy, the EU has provided a useful bridge and a more effective approach to engagement, through a succession of EU ambassadors to the country, who did not carry the colonial baggage of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This will be sorely missed, and not only in Zimbabwe.

The UK voters who pushed for Brexit were worried about jobs, livelihoods and immigration. Those who will lead the country as result do not have these concerns at the centre of their agenda. They have a vision of free trade and further economic liberalisation: exactly the processes that will undermine yet further the poor and marginalised who voted to leave. This is the tragic contradiction of the ‘democratic’ result, and will lead to more strife into the future.

A cross-party and sustained commitment to internationalism, social democratic freedoms, human rights and inclusive global development, as enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals, may not survive this sea-change in political fortunes in the UK. The racist slogans and posters and the narrow nationalism that dominated the campaign reveal an uglier side to British (perhaps English) politics; most shockingly shown in the political murder of MP Jo Cox – a passionate campaigner for more progressive views on social justice and development.

Who takes over in the UK following the resignation of the PM, David Cameron, really matters. Not just in the UK, but in Africa too. At the last election in 2015, I argued on this blog that we should “be scared, very scared” about the prospect of a shift at the top of the Tory party. Now this is certain, everyone should be very worried indeed. We don’t yet even know the candidates, but the political opportunist Boris Johnson is at the head of the race.

Johnson’s attitudes to Africa can only be described as backward and colonial. His slur on Barack Obama revealed much. His tales of his holiday in Tanzania frame Africa as a last wilderness, threatened by growing African populations, and could have come from a colonial explorer from the nineteenth century. His rants on Zimbabwe betray a shallow understanding of history and politics, and as one commentator described it, an “obnoxious and overbearing British imperialist mentality”. His close links with a certain section of the UK political elite (many in the House of Lords), who have consistently prevented a sensible debate on Britain’s relationship with Zimbabwe, show his political prejudices. It is not good news.

With the pound collapsing, remittances to Zimbabwe will be more expensive for the diaspora, and the prospects of investment will decline. The chaos in the global markets provoked by this crazy populism will take time to stabilise, and will affect the poorest more than the rich. And the nasty side of British politics, rejecting a progressive internationalism, will undermine the UK’s standing in the world. We all will be poorer because of Brexit, including in Africa.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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The UK election, Africa and Zimbabwe

On Thursday it’s the UK election. The most open for ages, and no-one knows who will come out on top – and more importantly what configuration any post-election coalition will look like. As a small set of islands and a dwindling economic and political power, elections in the UK should not really matter for the rest of the world. But bizarrely they do; and perhaps especially this one. The tectonic shifts occurring in British politics may have long-run consequences. Depending on the outcome and the political battles that follow, the UK could either split up – with the Scottish Nationalists demanding an early re-run of the referendum – or leave the European Union – with the Tory right and UKIP urging an exit. Any of these scenarios will mean major changes in how Britain (or perhaps a new union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland) interacts with the world.

How then are the various parties addressing ‘international issues’, and African and development issues in particular? On African Arguments, Magnus Taylor and Hetty Bailey have offered a very useful summary of the different manifesto pledges. With the inevitable exception of UKIP, all the parties have committed to maintaining the 0.7 per cent of GDP commitment to international development. The Greens even urge that it be increased to 1 per cent. In the age of austerity this cross-party consensus to ring-fence aid money seems extraordinary. It is however a fragile consensus, continuously attacked by the right-wing press and others. Any post-election wrangling, particularly if UKIP are involved in some type of deal in alliance with the right-wing of the Tory party, will challenge it. But for the time being the view, forged by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown before 2010, that the UK should commit to an internationalist agenda, involving humanitarian and development aid is, amazingly, sticking.

However, as the African Arguments piece shows, the way ‘international development’ is framed in the manifestos is – with some exceptions – very different to the hey-day of the late 1990s, when the Department for International Development was formed. Today, because of the political threat, aid is very much constructed as expenditure in Britain’s often quite short term interests. Aid is for building platforms for British business abroad (a return to a ‘mercantilist power’ – and of course competing with China who has no qualms about link aid and commerce); for quelling conflict and reducing immigration to Europe (and with the horrific scenes of boats arriving to Lampedusa, this is high on the news agenda); and for preventing Islamic extremism that may have an impact at home. Humanitarianism has not gone though, and the massive public response to the Nepal earthquake has demonstrated again, that small-island selfishness is not universal. However, the aid for trade agenda in particular has become very prominent under the current government, and DFID’s work is often indistinguishable from the export promotion wings of the Foreign Office and BIS, the Department for Business, Industry and Skills. The focus on ‘fragile states’ means the Ministry of Defence is also heavily embroiled in the ‘development’ agenda too. It remains to be seen if DFID survives this election along with its budget. Certainly in the last decade DFID has become a shadow of its former self, and very much lost its way (see this brilliant blog by my colleague, Robert Chambers on the extreme pathologies hampering DFID’s work).

What does this all mean for Africa – and Zimbabwe in particular? Zimbabwe retains a peculiar fascination in British politics. There is an All-Party Group on Zimbabwe for example that provides an essentially anti-ZANU-PF/anti-Mugabe lobby group within parliament, with regular meetings, reports and parliamentary questions. It has been chaired for by the Labour MP for Vauxhall, Kate Hoey. Her website documents her ‘undercover’ visits to Zimbabwe in the 2000s and support for human rights and the opposition MDC. Her other passion for country sports and fox hunting probably makes for common ground with other members of the committee, who include a number of Tory Lords and establishment figures. The group reflects the very British complexion of political links with Zimbabwe. It includes Labour party human rights campaigners – with their backgrounds often in the struggle against apartheid (most notably Peter Hain, but also Baroness Kinnock – a leading member of the group, and someone who regularly asks questions on Zimbabwe in parliament), the Tory grandees with post-colonial connections to ‘kith and kin’ in Zimbabwe, and those more squarely interested in trade and business in southern Africa. This unlikely coalition have been brought together in the past 15 years with their support for the opposition in Zimbabwe and their detestation of President Mugabe. Lobbied by former white farmer activists from Zimbabwe, business associations, and diaspora networks, mostly notably the die-hards of the Zimbabwe Vigil, the Foreign Office and DFID are under continuous pressure on Zimbabwe. And too often, as I have found on too many occasions, subject to extreme forms of misinformation and bias.

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Nothing perhaps illustrates this better than the most bizarre of outbursts from the Mayor of London, prospective MP, and potential future Conservative Party leader, Boris Johnson. On the occasion of President Mugabe’s birthday bash in February, Johnson used a column in the Tory flagship, the Daily Telegraph, to let rip. Too often dismissed as a posh buffoon, Johnson is a smart and dangerous political operator. And if Cameron and co stumble on Thursday, he could find himself in the top position in the Conservative Party, maybe in time even Prime Minister. So read his diatribe in this light – and be scared, very scared. While pitched as a pre-election jibe at Tony Blair (blaming Blair for appeasing Mugabe), it demonstrated in full flow the narrow-minded, colonial, almost racist, attitude of too many (highly intelligent – and Boris is no fool) commentators on Zimbabwe. As noted by Wilbert Mukori in his column the Telegraph piece was full of an “obnoxious and overbearing British imperialist mentality” that simply acted to boost Mugabe’s position. Of course the ZANU-PF spin-master, Jonathan Moyo lapped it up, and the clumsy intervention was used (as ever) rather effectively as a propaganda weapon in ZANU-PF’s on-going tussle with the British establishment.

British politicians repeatedly fail to understand Africa, and perhaps especially Zimbabwe. From Clare Short’s disastrous letter on the land issue to this most recent outburst from Boris, the lack of appreciation of history, the gross insensitivity to global relations, and the absence of reflexivity of position and power, is flabbergasting. The 2013 elections in Zimbabwe were badly called by British diplomats, characterised by Richard Dowden as “the biggest defeat for the United Kingdom’s policy in Africa in 60 years”. I have no idea who advises the UK Foreign Office or DFID at the highest levels on Zimbabwe (it’s not me – they’ve never asked!), but the lack of understanding is frequently quite shocking. It comes from their own isolation (they don’t get out enough), the extraordinarily poor reporting of Zimbabwe in the British media, and the briefings influenced by the London and parliamentary lobby groups of course. And their hands are tied by the strictures imposed by the UK and the European Union following 2000 – the ‘sanctions’ and ‘restrictive measures’ that have caused so much confusion and damage.

With a European lead, the UK is beginning – sensibly, but all too slowly – to re-engage with Zimbabwe ‘on an incremental basis’. The overall UK aid budget has remained high but it has to be allocated very selectively – with new resettlement areas and support to post-land reform still out of bounds. This means that aid efforts get distorted, and the conversations that are needed to allow a greater ‘normalisation’ do not happen. And so with this misunderstandings and misperceptions continue. Applying diplomatic pressure and focusing aid is of course perfectly appropriate, and I subscribe to nearly all the broad objectives of the UK aid programme, as outlined on the website. But much of this gradual, painfully slow, movement in the right direction may be undermined by the outcomes (immediate, and longer-term) of this election. What if the UK leaves Europe? This will leave UK diplomacy very exposed in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere. What if, in time, Scotland leaves the UK? Will there be a radical, progressive Scottish aid programme in Zimbabwe, alongside DFID’s? Maybe. And what if the likes of Boris Johnson, with a bunch of UKIP allies, take over? Heaven help us. Despite Britain’s dwindling power and economic influence, elections in the former colonial power do still, strangely, matter, so look out for the news on May 8, and the days and weeks that follow.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland

 

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