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Fearmongers in the frame

Patrick Smith
By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report.

Posted on Monday, 2 May 2016 15:54

Of the trio only Putin holds power today. But the other two are having an inordinate influence on politics in their own country and beyond. On the record, Trump, Le Pen and Putin hugely admire each other. Unsurprising. They read from the same script.

All three are strong on posturing and salesmanship; weak on policies and substance. But no problem, they fill the gaps with demagoguery laden with ethnic and religious slurs. Building walls, picking on minorities and advocating torture and state-sponsored killings.

Africa is not short of its own tub- thumping ethno- nationalist politicians capable of stirring crowds to violent action

Initially, liberals in the West treated the trio like drunks at a funeral: terribly embarrassing but eventually everyone goes home. Except they don’t. The populist trio and their followers plan to stick around. They thrive on being under-estimated: it plays to their sense of fighting an effete establishment and boosts their ratings.

All this poisons the political climate, but does it matter specifically for Africa? Firstly, there are the direct effects of the ultra-nationalism being peddled by the trio and their imitators in Europe. Far-right parties are ramping up sentiment against refugees and migrants of any description. Racial and religious attacks are rising.

As governments dodge their responsibilities for the conflicts in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, they are trying to appease the new populists with tough new immigration laws that flout international conventions. Given
the multi-cultural and pluralist nature of most Western societies, attempts by ultra-nationalists to shut down international educational and commercial links will fail, but they will make life tougher and duller in the process.

Just as important is the demonstration effect. As an agonised political scientist wrote in Foreign Policy at the beginning of the year, “Why does the West think it has the answers to others’ democratic shortcomings?” His conclusion that there is a race into the political sewers is hard to counter.

That could have a dangerous fallout in Africa, which is not short of its own tub-thumping ethno-nationalist politicians capable of stirring crowds to violent action. As the effects of the crash in commodity prices on state revenues and people’s livelihoods start to spread across Africa, the populist politicians – with a Trump-ism here and a Le Pen-ism there – will try to take advantage.

But the bulwark against these alarming trends has to be political and organisational. The rhetoric and the rants have to be countered on the streets, on the internet and in the parliaments. Perhaps the most promising signs are demographic and generational, in the West and in Africa.

Time and again, the toughest opponents of the populist-authoritarians are the youth. The current economic system is undermining their future, but they are not buying into the fearmongering and simplistic solutions proffered by thug politicians. ●

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