Boris Johnson enters Downing Street with baggage – particularly when it comes to Africa. The new British prime minister has described our children as “picaninnies” and mocked our “watermelon smiles.” At the same time, he proudly led a multicultural city like London as Mayor, and at one stage even discussed an amnesty for illegal immigrants – a policy rarely mentioned in Britain, even by the Left.
So, which Boris will be entering Number 10: the racist or the cosmopolitan? For the sake of Britain, I hope it is the latter. The UK cannot afford to reject the trade opportunities with Africa abroad and the social benefits of community cohesion with African Brits at home. I arrived in the UK as a refugee at 16, and became an ambassador. Underestimating, or even mocking, Africans is simply not an option for any British leader. This will be even truer post-Brexit.
Like many of his fellow Brexiteers, Johnson is relying on new trade relationships beyond Europe to prove to Remainers that Britain can prosper without the EU. Part of this will mean developing new cultural and trade ties with the Anglosphere; not only in Washington DC but also in Ottawa, Canberra and Wellington.
But it will also mean leveraging the Commonwealth and Britain’s historic links with Africa. The current climate of populism creates the impression that Britain in particular (and Europe more generally) has always viewed Africa as a source of strife, aid requirements and unwanted immigration. In short, it is seen as a problem. But much of our recent history, and Commonwealth nations’ yearning for increased trade and market access, shows that Africa is an opportunity.
It is an opportunity that Britain has been missing out on for too long. France, Germany and Italy export more than double the value of goods to Africa than the UK. Even Spain, which has an economy half the size of the UK’s, exports more than Britain.
Theresa May tried to change the situation on her three-day tour of Africa last year, although the results are yet to be seen. Many of the Tory old guard are seen as peeking at the world through colonial-tinted spectacles, unaware of how much things have changed. This is a misconception Johnson will also need to address.
If the British government has been missing out on Africa, private UK investors have beenmore savvy, with nearly £50 billion invested in the continent. This could be much higher, especially considering that some of the fastest growing economies in the world are African.
But the trade opportunities abroad pale in comparison to the benefits at home. African migrants such as myself have played a huge role in shaping – and enriching – modern Britain. As a former mayor of a city with 350,000 inhabitants of African heritage, Boris Johnson knows this. While based in the Ugandan High Commission in London, I met him at multicultural events and was also involved in his high profile visit to Uganda while he was Foreign Minister in 2017.
This isn’t just political for me – it is personal. The child of Ugandans of Asian descent, I arrived in the UK stateless at the age of 16. Then as now, not everyone in Britain saw immigration – and asylum in particular – as something positive. Idi Amin’s expulsion of thousands of his own citizens based on their skin colour (giving them only 90 days to leave) was ultimately his loss and Britain’s gain. Many of those he expelled have risen to the top of British politics, industry and the media.
And some have, like me, kept their connections with their home countries and have become links between Britain and Africa. After President Museveni took power, I have seen the relative return of the rule of law and the visionary step of the return of assets to those expropriated, encouraging even more of my compatriots to maintain those links. I myself returned to Uganda after training as a lawyer in the UK, and was inducted into the diplomatic service in 2001.
Much of Africa, however, remains a work in progress, a situation not helped by the unpredictability surrounding Brexit. Even in the continent’s largest country, Nigeria, the government is facing increasing calls for reform in the face of a spike in terrorist activity and issues surrounding human rights.
Issues like this mean that Africa will remain known as a source of (often irregular) immigration in Britain. But is this an entirely bad thing? As birth rates continue to drop and Brits have fewer babies (and those they do have, they give birth to later in life), an aging population needs young, motivated workers to generate tax receipts. The success of the NHS in providing universal health care creates the challenge of caring for an increasingly older population.
There is no better place to find those future young, working taxpayers than in Africa, where education levels are often high for the middle class, there is little or no language barrier, and we benefit from decades of cultural understanding.
It’s this cultural understanding that I, an African ambassador of Indian heritage working in Europe, am obliged to develop. But to succeed, I will need the help of heads of government like Boris Johnson.
Ambassador Dr Mumtaz Kassam is Deputy Head of Mission at the Ugandan Embassy in Rome. She previously held the same role at the Ugandan High Commission in London.