What Brexit means for Africa

The politically prudish will tell you that the British left Africa in the late fifties and the sixties, beginning with the grant of independence to Ghana on 6thMarch 1957, when they rolled up their flags, packed up their belongings and boarded what was then the British Overseas Airways Corporation airplanes. Rabid anti-imperialists will say they never left and in one sense, at least, the latter group are right because one thing the British left behind in Africa is the English language. 

This item of left luggage, combined with the penetrating influence of modern social media, has produced a situation in which, across the length and breadth of Africa, people are following the Brexit crisis in Britain as if it was their own country’s independence in issue. This is not as misconceived as it might at first appear because, though few may have appreciated it, the fundamental issues underlying the principle, and process, of the British exit from the European Union are directly relevant to the future of all African countries, and not just the Anglophone ones.

That underlying principle is the desirability and practicalities of political union between ethnic groups who have historically coexisted within a geographical area and run their own affairs separately from one another. Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Italy  have always been “Europeans” in the sense of peoples living in the land area known as Europe,  in the same way as the 371 ethnic groups who have historically coexisted in the geographical space in the surrounds of the River Niger who are now popularly known as “Nigerians”.  The game changer in Europe was the Treaty of Rome which was signed by France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, on 25thMarch 1957, just weeks after Ghana left the British Empire. That treaty created the European Economic Community (EEC). It was stressed to the people of Europe that this was an economic union only to secure economies of scale of a more populous market and not political union which offers no economies from upscaling. 

There are important lessons in this detail for Africa when it is remembered that it was these same European countries that sat around the table in 1884 at the Berlin Conference and imposed political union on disparate ethnic groups across Africa who had previously coexisted as neighbours: Thus was fashioned the 54 countries that make up the member states of what was the Organisation for African Unity, now renamed the African Union in imitation of the European Union. The internal political crises created by these European-imposed political unions amongst the thousand-plus ethnic groups of Africa, thus compressed into 54 European-designed States, has historically been put down to what was said to be a singularly African predisposition to tribalism and an inability to put differences aside and unite. It is clear now from the European experience that the sauce of political union that had been served to the geese was viewed as potentially poisonous for the ganders. 

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The other important difference between the European and the African experience of political union is that accession to the European one was voluntary. This comes across clearly from the history of Britain’s dalliance with the project. At first they elected to stay out of the union by not signing the Treaty of Rome. Then, in 1963, the Harold Macmillan Conservative Government decided to apply for membership, only for the application to be vetoed by President Charles de Gaulle of France. Undeterred, the British renewed their application for membership in 1967, under the Labour administration of Harold Wilson, only for de Gaulle to strike the application down again. It was at the third time of applying under the Conservative Government of Edward Heath (and with de Gaulle now safely out of the way from the French political stage), that the British were finally granted their wish in January 1972, and were admitted to membership with effect from 1 January 1973. 

However, no sooner had they been admitted than the campaign to leave began in earnest on a claim that the Heath government had deceived the people into voting for membership believing that it was only economic union that had been committed to. When the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 removed the word ‘economic’ from the title of the Treaty of Rome so that what had been the ‘European Economic Community’ became just the ‘European Community’. With this, the objective of political union became an open agenda in Europe and an open sore within the British Conservative party.

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After the Conservative Party had endured decades of internal strife over the issue, in 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his party wanted to allow the British people to have their say on the matter. The referendum called for 23rdJune 2016 was the party’s manoeuvre to export the issue so as to ensure that the Labour Party would carry its own share of the poisoned chalice. 

The question that was put to the people was“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union”. This seemingly simple question produced the current political chaos, which Prime Minister Theresa May is trying desperately to manage, where, following a marginal victory for the Leave camp, the country is divided from top to bottom and the Leavers themselves are divided on the terms of exit even as the exit date of 30 March 2019 looms near.

The current crisis over the goal of political union in Europe which is tearing the peoples of Europe, and most especially the people of Britain, apart is a great irony for the peoples of Africa on whom the Europeans imposed political union more than 100 years ago. The British do at least have the consolation that their union was not imposed on them by outsiders and that they have the opportunity to negotiate their way out of the union they voluntarily signed up to. In contrast, ethnic groups in African States who have wanted to leave their imposed-unions have found that the gates have been firmly locked behind them: The only way out for those who, like the Leavers in Britain, have desired to be free to run their own affairs, as in the case of the Igbo people and their struggle for the independent state of Biafra, has been to attempt to fight their way out resulting in vicious and bloody conflicts.

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The British decision to stand back from the European Union project at its onset in 1957 was influenced greatly by its then relationship with Africa. They believed, as they stood (alone amongst the nations of Europe) victorious at the end of the Second World War with their special relationship with America and their colonies intact, membership of a European union offered them nothing. Their decision now to leave the European Union is predicated on the continuance of the special relationship with America and with their former colonies in Africa now called the ‘Commonwealth’.  This is a momentous decision not just for the people of Britain and Europe but also for the peoples of Africa. For one thing Africans now understand that the desire of peoples to “take back control” of their affairs, pejoratively called “tribalism”, is not at all a uniquely African condition. Further, as a consequence of the English language that was left behind, a new generation of Africans are watching closely the solutions that the British and the Europeans are prescribing for themselves as they tackle the problems of political union which States in Africa have been left by the European architects to deal with. From hereon in, a different sauce for the geese and the ganders is unlikely to be acceptable.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own views and do not necessarily reflect News Central’s editorial stance.


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