‘In the past months the people of Uganda have been following with sorrow the alarming economic crisis befalling on Britain,’ Uganda’s President Idi Amin telegrammed the Queen in 1973. ‘The sad fact is that it is the ordinary British citizen who is suffering the most… I’m sending a cargo ship full of bananas.’ Back then Fleet Street hooted with laughter at this African buffoon trying to patronise the United Kingdom and its leaders.
Yet I wonder what Idi Amin would be able to say about Britain and its leaders today. When I first started out as an FT stringer in Dar es Salaam in the 1980s, we all knew that independence from foreign rule was the most cherished goal for every African, even if, in the short term, people had to suffer for their freedom. We also seemed to agree that most of the UK’s former colonies had gained independence with decent democratic systems in place, based on the Westminster parliamentary model. The wigs, the Speaker, the mace and green benches — we had these all across Africa. There was a lovely sense of Commonwealth continuity.
When things swiftly went wrong, pundits like me generally described this in terms of the breakdown of the Westminster model. Speakers threw their wigs away and ceased to be impartial, party members crossed the floor without seeking re-election, and indeed the majority of MPs refused to face voters in the polls, remaining in the House only to cling on to power, serving not the people, but their own selfish interests. In time these travesties of democracy collapsed into dictatorships, tin-pot regimes, banana republics and finally, failed states.
From where I stand, after a lifetime on the Africa beat, I see that many of the political outrages I covered on this continent in our sad past are becoming the daily norm in British politics today. I have been in several African states that refused to respect the majority of voters’ wishes. In all of them, Western nations, together with the Bretton Woods institutions, began steps towards imposing sanctions. If leaders describe voters as idiots who do not know what they are voting for, you might think you are in a past tyranny in Sudan, Nigeria or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. If you promise to cancel a national vote altogether, as the Lib Dems have, that puts you in the league of Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
Can you imagine the reaction of international donors if the President of Malawi stood up at his ruling party’s conference and promised — as Labour’s John McDonnell recently did — to ‘reduce average full-time working hours to 32 a week — with no loss of pay…’ Even Britain’s leftist aid wing DfID would find it hard to justify dishing out cash to a regime like that. What would people say if Tanzania’s President John Magufuli decided to seize the assets of 2,500 schools, ‘redistribute’ the cash to his cronies and sling 615,000 kids on to the streets? And finally — in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn gets to hang out with the IRA and call terrorist groups his ‘friends’. Had he done that in contemporary Somalia, US Africa Command forces would probably have taken him out with an MQ-9 Reaper firing hellfire missiles. ‘No civilians were injured or killed,’ the press release would say.
It may come as a surprise, but many African political systems today would never tolerate the sorts of things that are currently going on in the United Kingdom. They know they should respect a majority vote and implement the electorate’s decisions without prevarication. They behave in a manner that is often much more grown-up than the way we have seen Westminster conduct itself in recent years. For sure we have our upsets and our dictators — and our madmen Rory Stewart equivalents in shiny-bottomed suits hoping to set up splinter movements headed by themselves. There will certainly be a few coups and revolutions in our future. But what is generally accepted across Africa is Francis Fukuyama’s point that the ultimate goal of mankind’s ideological evolution is ‘Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’.
The people I talk to in East Africa seem completely bemused by the way British politics is unfolding. I feel that it’s just a matter of time before somebody offers to send Her Majesty another shipload of bananas. And this time the palace might need to take the offer more seriously.