It’s almost 60 years since Ghana became independent from Britain. The world celebrated as the sun began to set on the age of European imperialism. ‘African Nationalism’, in the form of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, entered the stage and all cheered the breaking of a golden dawn as the colonial shackles were broken and ‘liberation’ belatedly arrived.
Since then, some 200 coups or attempted coups have taken place, 25 heads of state have been assassinated and roughly 50 wars have been fought in Africa. Despite multiple interventions, Africa remains the most crooked continent with illicit transfers out far exceeding the total value of all foreign aid to the continent (currently estimated at over $50bn a year). The majority of the population is the poorest it has ever been, despite over a trillion dollars being pumped into the most resource-rich continent on the planet. Surely there is no precedent in history for so much being spent and so little to show for it? The situation was well summed up by Liberia’s President Johnson-Sirleaf, who said 'Africa is not poor, it is poorly managed'.
At this juncture, the West, including the UK, seem to have run out of answers and there is inertia as politicians appear to be simply wishing the problem away. Unfortunately, it’s not happening. And destitute Africans are flooding Europe and Britain, making some sort of solution an urgent requirement.
This is the rather miserable scenario that confronts Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office. Daunting indeed, however out of adversity sometimes springs hope. What is needed is balls and brains and Boris appears to have both. The tragedy of Africa is that so many good people, possessed of talent and energy combined with a deep desire to work, lead wasted lives because of atrocious governance. But Boris and Britain can lift these people.
The first and possibly highest hurdle for him is an intangible and intellectual one. For decades, effective African policy has been crippled by a long lingering sense of guilt tied to an imperial history widely perceived as having been characterised by injustice and exploitation. This narrative has been very effectively drummed into the British psyche by the master propagandists at the BBC who have painted a false and damning picture of what has happened and is happening in Africa.
Boris knows the truth and he needs to tell it loud and clear. British people and institutions provided the platforms for some of the greatest polities in history. When the world was ‘painted pink’, millions of people were better governed than they are now. The most recent ‘colonial’ example of that being Hong Kong, where a tiny city-state became a global economic power on the back of British personnel, systems, institutions and rules. In Africa, the Queen is adored and her Realm revered. British people are known as kind and capable. The Union Jack is seen by the vast majority of Africans as a flag of hope which is why every African dreams of migrating to England. The new ‘Colonists’, the Chinese are widely loathed, and no Africans are drowning trying to get to Beijing.
Armed with this truth, Boris needs to bust the old mould, hold the Union flag high and tell the autocrats presently despoiling the continent that the days of unconditional largesse fuelled by misplaced shame are over. The fact is they, the leaders of Africa, have made a monumental mess of governing the place and the only way to ring real change is to put capable people in place in both the public and private sectors. The short answer to the next despot who arrives in London looking for some cash to pay his bloated civil-service is to tell them the gravy-train has hit a brick wall and from now on they can have ‘Brits’ but no more ‘Bucks’.
They won’t like this at all. Africa’s leaders have become very used to large dollops of ‘aid’ which is then siphoned off to pay the army, the police and a huge and invariably dysfunctional civil-service, enabling them to retain power. The mandarins of the ‘aid business’ will be similarly displeased because they have created big, sinecure-ridden, bureaucracies that provide a pleasing lifestyle for a legion of ‘do-gooders’ generally unaccountable to anyone of any consequence.
Once the political compass has been reset, a policy sea change is needed. Future assistance should be all about people and skills and not money. Initially, this should take the form of infusing teams of skilled British officials into organs of state with specific mandates and tasks aimed at reforming and improving the civil administration. These people must be assertive and have the requisite authority to break bad habits if order is to return to corrupt and chaotic ministries.
The second and equally important point of focus is bolstering the private sector. In Africa it is often only the mammoth multinationals that can afford to buy the political patronage required to cut through the rigorous red-tape and graft that buries most businesses. But in return for this, much of the revenue is externalised, bringing marginal benefit to the continent. The ‘little guy’, the small-time entrepreneur who wants to start a business in Africa, usually finds himself in the suffocating clutches of dishonest bureaucrats who present a regulatory minefield that sucks the zeal out of the endeavour. The potential investor loses, the country loses and so do the people who may have gained employment.
Britain is awash with such skilled people who could contribute and prosper in Africa given the chance and they hold a key to economic growth. Boris has to break this invisible barrier and find a formula to make access easier for these people, give them the protection they need to have a decent chance of success and security regarding the rewards of their labours. Small business opportunities abound, all is needed is the people to drive them.
Fortunately, Boris has additional and unique leverage through the protocols of the Commonwealth which still binds the former colonies to the ‘motherland’. Moribund at present, these historic ties provide exciting opportunities for new initiatives particularly in the light of ‘Brexit’ which finds Britain in a period of reflection looking for new commercial opportunities. Africa is pregnant with promise and untapped richness and maybe a new economic order within the nations of the Commonwealth provides an avenue to new opportunities.
Basically, Boris needs to be blunt and explain to Africans that the UK is full. They can’t all come to Britain, but he will arrange to bring some of Britain to them. I promise you they will be thrilled and a real golden dawn will break.