Boris Johnson, who called Africans ‘piccaninnies’, is favourite to lead Britain
Britain has ambitious aims to increase trade with Africa after Brexit. But free trade and Little Englandism remain poor bedfellows.
The repeal of the British Corn Laws by Robert Peel in 1846 ended the protection of British agricultural interests against cheap foreign grain imports. The free trade that resulted contributed to Britain’s economic strength in the second half of the nineteenth century, as it expanded its empire into Africa.
By the time the first free-trade agreement between Britain and France was signed in 1860, the Conservative Party, derided by the liberal economist John Stuart Mill as the “stupid party”, was still divided by the trauma of the Corn Law repeal and unable to govern alone.
Today, Boris Johnson is the bookmaker’s hot favourite to succeed Theresa May as British Prime Minister. Let us assume that Johnson becomes prime minister, holds the Conservative Party together, and finds the path to delivering Brexit that eluded his predecessor. How will trade with “that country” as Johnson, then foreign secretary, called Africa in 2016, be affected?
The UK’s trade commissioner for Africa, Emma Wade-Smith, this month told The Africa Report that Brexit is an opportunity not a threat, with Britain poised to improve on existing EU trade agreements and invest “billions” in African growth. The UK, she said, aims to be the largest G7 investor in Africa by 2022. Having a British prime minister who criticised Barack Obama for having an “ancestral dislike of the British empire” because he was “part-Kenyan” is more likely to be a hindrance than a help.
Johnson referred to the former autocratic leader of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, as a “Jammeh dodger,” a kind of British biscuit. He also wrote that Ugandans would have contented themselves with the “instant gratification of the plaintain” in the absence of British colonialism. “This is still a country where too many people squat on their haunches, slowly waving their hands to move the flies from their faces”, he wrote about Uganda in 2002.
Perhaps African leaders with their “watermelon smiles” will accept Johnson’s subsequent apologies and view his comments as no more than playing to the domestic gallery – though Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2018 referred to Johnson as “the bicycle guy”.
The lack of consistency with which the British government has developed top-level contacts in Africa will be harder to overlook.
- Africa, Johnson has written, would benefit from a new colonial scramble – on the understanding that the colonial powers won’t be asked to feel guilty this time.
- But Johnson and Britain, distracted by Brexit, haven’t been putting in the hard yards.
- Theresa May’s visit to Africa in 2018 was the first by a British prime minister since 2013.
- Her predecessor David Cameron planned to make only his second visit to Africa as prime minister in 2016 but cancelled it due to the Brexit referendum.
Robert Peel’s free-trade reforms contributed to the economic strength of the British empire in the nineteenth century. This time, however, China has got there first. According to Development Reimagined, between 2007 and 2017 top Chinese leaders made 79 visits to 43 African countries.
Bottom line: Johnson will have a lot of apologies to make and a lot of miles to cover as prime minister if he wants to become a credible promoter of African trade.