By Afua Hirsch
Boris Johnson, our foreign secretary, is in Africa. On Wednesday he landed in Somalia to unveril a much-needed aid package. Yesterday he was in Uganda, in the state house, underlining Britain’s controversial support for President Yoweri Museveni, and in turn inviting him to a UK summit on Somalia in May. Next stop: Kenya.
This is much of what we expect from a foreign secretary. The government has repeatedly declared that a post-Brexit Britain will intensify links with the Commonwealth, and it’s no surprise our premier diplomat is paying attention to the issues and mutual opportunities in Africa. Taking the government’s rhetoric at face value, this is an important job. But is Johnson the right person to do it?
My personal take on the answer to that question began in 2008. I first met him on the day Barack Obama made history by being elected America’s first black president. He asked me what I was. Being younger, and more innocent, I replied that I was a journalist. “No, but what are you?” he asked a second time, gesturing towards me in a way that indicated “what’s your heritage?”. So I explained my European and African roots. I could not have anticipated the response. “Bloody hell,” he replied. “I wish I was black.” He then went on to tell me that he had Turkish and various other ancestors, but nothing as great as mine. “Bloody wonderful,” he said.
It was an exchange that rendered me speechless, which is no mean feat. Since Johnson was by then already known for his indiscretions, it seemed like no more than a characteristically provocative, inappropriate but ultimately harmless remark. Until, that is, I read what he had written about Africa, the source of my “bloody wonderful” black heritage.
Last October he dismissively described the continent as “that country”. That was crass. But in fact it was almost an anodyne choice of words from a man who has previously written more colourfully of “little Aids-ridden choristers”, “disgusting” fruits and “tribal conflicts”.
When Tony Blair visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002, Johnson wrote that “the AK-47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird”.
It’s the kind of colonial-era prejudice that is impossible to imagine any other serious statesman invoking in public, although many of us have witnessed such sentiments in private. And in the context of recent events, it has new prescience. During the Brexit campaign, people of all ethnic backgrounds united behind the absurd idea that leaving the EU would somehow reignite Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth. Some black and Asian people erroneously thought Brexit would mean their relatives would enjoy immigration advantages over, in their view, less deserving eastern Europeans.
It’s a view the government has encouraged, and at face value it may sound sensible. But the relationship between the government and the Commonwealth has never been a relationship between equals.
A truer picture of how the British establishment views its former empire was also revealed by Johnson himself, declaring that the Queen loved the Commonwealth because “it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies”. Johnson was forced to apologise for that remark, but this loose language was just the tip of the iceberg. He has said of colonialism: “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”
It would be unfair to isolate Africa as the only continent towards which Johnson has demonstrated contempt. His ability to lose friends has been documented throughout his travels in Turkey, Israel and the US. His remarks before the EU referendum, claiming Obama’s Kenyan heritage made him anti-British, achieved the impressive task of alienating Africans, the African diaspora, British officials and a large number of Americans in one fell swoop.
But his treatment of Africa suggests a consistent ideology. He sees the British, in his own words, as fat, white, men (speak for yourself Boris) embarrassed by a lower species – smiling, dancing zombies. He repeatedly demands recognition of the advantages of colonialism, but rejects any responsibility for the legacy that it created.
Coffee and cocoa plantations are not, in this worldview, monocultures that destroyed the economic growth of post-independent African nations, but a blessed relief from the unimaginative ideas the natives would have come up with. The murder and torture of African people – take the Mau Mau in Kenya – doesn’t figure, except as an explanation for the unreasonable failure of Obama to express loyalty to Winston Churchill.
Others have long since apologised for being so patronising. The Economist softened its approach having once mislabelled Africa “the hopeless continent”; Blair was never allowed to forget reducing Africa to “a stain on the conscience of humanity”. But Johnson, with characteristic knack, managed to make such slurs seem compassionate. “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience,” he declared.
Johnson is not alone in viewing the African continent through a racist, paternalistic and neoimperialist gaze. But he is alone in being our foreign secretary. His views alienate millions of Britons of African heritage, and encourage ignorance among everyone else. At a time when it’s finally beginning to dawn on the world that Britain’s identity struggles have real, geopolitical consequences, it’s hard to believe anyone would genuinely welcome a foreign secretary with such revisionist view of history it would make Cecil Rhodes blush. Am I exaggerating? Ask Johnson. “Are we guilty of slavery?” he once wrote. “Pshaw.”