Native Intelligence | Having voted to leave the EU, Britain now seems bent on forging fresh relations with the Commonwealth, particularly Africa. The question is, do they want a fresh start, with the people in focus, or Empire 2.0 as some officials have dubbed it.
I am going to have to get a new cellphone. I have a worn-out Blackberry, overworked and battered in the way only a journalist’s phone can be. It spends so much time trying to re-boot from a crash, that I renamed it BlackoutBerry.
The reason I need a reliable phone is that I am expecting a call from the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May or failing that, her Minister for Foreign Affairs or Foreign Secretary if you prefer, Boris Johnson, at the very least.
If you recall, before the major tsunami of the Trump election in the US, there had been what now seems a mid-sized earthquake when
Britain decided, via an impossibly narrow referendum victory, to leave the safety, security and familiarity of the EU and strike out on its own.
The “remainers” as those who voted against Brexit were dubbed, called the decision a “no-brainer” and most of the world, except predictably Trump, agreed with them, especially as the Brexiteers appeared to have been taken by surprise by their victory and did not seem to have a plan what to do next, except leave.
Whatever the ramifications for the British, we were concerned how this major development would affect us in Africa. Would the slump in the value of the pound decimate our exports and raise inflation back home? What would happen to the terms of trade, foreign aid, debt servicing, our financial institutions linked to the city of London, etc etc.
The silver lining
Was there a silver lining? I looked into the crystal ball and predicted, in these pages: “Britain’s new task of shedding the alleged legislative and fiscal comforts of belonging to the EU requires, first and foremost, that other sources of revenue through trade be created, or where already in existence, massively expanded, to take up the slack. This is where the former territories of the last phase of the Empire, quietly bumping along in a collective known as the Commonwealth, will find themselves in the spotlight.”
I wrote that the logical strategic outcome of that momentous decision was going to be Britain trying to breathe new life into that voluntary global network of states known as the Commonwealth.
It now seems that my prediction is on course to becoming fulfilled. Which is why I am expecting a call from the powers that be in the UK.
Despite the standard, double-edged cynicism of some White-hall officials in Johnson’s ministry reportedly referring to this as “Empire 2.0”, the month of March saw the UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox convene a two-day “inaugural” Commonwealth Trade Ministers’ Meeting in London with representatives of 22 Commonwealth countries.
The reasons are clear. Firstly, like a sulking and vindictive spouse, the EU policy leaders are not taking kindly to this divorce. It would appear that they have left leeway for their technocrats to make the separation process as costly and as tedious as possible for the UK, and for any dealings thereafter to be equally unpleasant.
Secondly, like it or not, Britain’s imperial exertions of centuries past have left an enormous cultural imprint on planet Earth and its peoples. Her language alone also functions as an official tool of commerce, diplomacy, and finance. No self-respecting imperialist would be expected to simply ignore the practical advantages of this historical positioning.
Thirdly, the bulk of the world’s wealth, often in unprocessed form, is actually located in the territories formerly in the empire, which is why the empire came into existence in the first place.
Since joining the EU, Britain had always had the policy complication of also needing to tend to the vast overseas holdings in real estate, banking and high finance, industry, agri-business and attendant logistical infrastructure that had been built up over a period of centuries.
So, assuming that the mainly brown peoples of the Commonwealth are not also still offended by their earlier dumping, when Britain turned her diplomatic attention greatly to the EU from the later 1970s on, they and the white-settler states of Canada, New Zealand and Australia may be in need of polishing up their trade negotiation skills.
For her part, Britain will have to be properly advised on how to tread very carefully if she wishes this to develop into much more than just a “rebound” relationship. This is why I need a new phone.
Tread with care
When the phone call comes, my advice will be this: be mindful of whom you rebuild this relationship with. Will you intend to construct relationships with the governments in place, and those running them, or will you try to deal directly with the actual native owners in each of these spaces?
In the average former colony, particularly an African one, there is growing turmoil over the question of resource ownership and rights to access and develop it.
In general, the “developmental state” model has become the vision of choice among the incumbent rulers. Here, the emphasis is on rapid growth through aggressive trade, rapid infrastructure build-up and industrialisation. Collateral concerns, such as environmental protection, community and indigenous interests and human rights, are seen as near-impediments.
If Britain does choose to deal with the establishment governments as part of a decision to re-invest in the Commonwealth, we should not be surprised to see many a venal and dictatorial ruling clique positively welcome such partnerships as a way of further consolidating their grip on State House.
In Uganda, the Commonwealth has a record of legitimising dubious election results going as far back as 1980, through the diplomatic and sometimes military smoothing over of the resultant political fallout. Even if the experience of Empire may have been forgotten, these more recent ones have not quite faded as yet.
China, for example, continues to discover there are political, military and diplomatic consequences to global trade. Being a big player implies securing the global spaces in which the goods manufactured, mined and invested in are located, as well as the routes along which they are traded.
This may mean being seen in public holding hands with dictators.
This year has seen the idea of creating a British military presence to protect humanitarian aid routes, food stockpiles and the needy in South Sudan and in Somalia, at once being floated and denied by the British Overseas Development Minister, Priti Patel. With the “Empire 2.0” idea also on the table, how long could it be before these two initiatives become one?
I won’t publish my phone number here. I am sure UK foreign intelligence (run again, by Johnson’s ministry) still has enough friends and assets embedded in Uganda’s intelligence to procure it. Just ask for the journalist banned from broadcasting, whose line – among very many others – is routinely snooped upon.
The only real question is: will my BlackoutBerry have re-booted in time, assuming – in all likelihood – that I have not been able to afford a new one?