Brexit through African eyes

PUBLISHED: 16:00 06 February 2018

Ugandan Asians arrive at Stansted Airport in September 1972 on the first of several specially chartered flights to Britain shortly after Ugandan military dicatator Idi Amin implements a new regime expelling all Asians from Uganda

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Ugandans are incredulous that sophisticated Great Britain is in such a state of disarray and disunity, says YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN

Just got back from Uganda, where I was making a Radio 4 documentary on what has been happening in the country since 1972, when we Asians, who had been there for generations, were ignominiously thrown out by the brutal dictator Idi Amin, a very good friend of the British government.

It was an emotional and disorientating visit. Going back to old homelands always is. Some things are dramatically different, much remains the same. I knew we would talk much about that past and Ugandan politics and the unending tragedy of ethnic enmities. What I didn’t expect was so much live interest in Brexit.

Even at the airport when I was waiting for my luggage, a Ugandan forensic scientist started talking to me. I recorded some of our conversation: “What is happening? Europeans always complained we Africans were too tribal to progress. There was truth in that. And the rulers used it to divide us more.

“Now the UK is so many warring tribes – Scottish people, Welsh people, north, south – British people are not one any more. They are like us. My wife was English. She now wants her own English parliament and voted to leave Europe. Please explain to me, why do they hate Europe? Their cousins with whom they share so much?”

Tribal. Yes, that’s what we have become. White British tribes mistrust each other, also hate and blame ‘outsiders’, try to protect their own, demand tall, hard borders, reach out for fake ‘authenticities’ and shrink from diversities.

Over the week, almost all young Ugandans I met were incredulous too that sophisticated Great Britain was in such a state of disarray and disunity. That we had rejected what they so craved – an ever-closer political, economic, social and cultural alliance between neighbouring countries and strong, overarching institutions.

An article in the publication AfricaRenewal reported that plans are well under way to introduce a pan-African passport: “The continent move up a notch towards the free cross-border movement of goods and people in direct opposition to Brexit, the decision by voters to exit the EU... So far Seychelles is the only country in Africa that has abolished visa requirements for all African countries, with Ghana, Mauritius and Rwanda having made great strides. Namibia and Zimbabwe have also made notable progress.”

This report came just days before Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari called for an African single market, while outlining his government’s position paper on the creation of a continental free trade area to the African Union.

For ardent integrationists, restrictions on movement across borders go against the continent’s goal of becoming ‘One Africa’. They believe that visa-free regimes promote trade and investment, facilitate business and create employment opportunities. AU (African Union) travel documents may well be rolled out to the general public by the end of 2018.

The World Bank is also funding a Great Lakes Trade Facilitation project which encourages ‘regional approaches’ and arrangements, to benefit small traders and growers to maximise profits and expand markets. It all makes such good sense. Security and stability improve, minds and cultures expand.

Interestingly, British colonial rulers – always looking to increase productivity and revenues – set up a three-state union of East Africa. When I was growing up, there were no restrictions on Ugandans, Kenyans and Tanzanians moving across the vast territory. Borders were lightly guarded and we thought of ourselves as East Africans.

Universities in the three states offered different subjects which made organisational sense and gave students the opportunities to live away from home and learn to live and mix with young people from different areas and experiences. My best friend at uni was a Tanzanian, some roommates were Kenyan and we danced through the night to Congolese music. Maybe that is why I find it so hard to be a small, tight nationalist.

On this visit I interviewed academics and entrepreneurs who had dual citizenship. They told us hard borders were now thought to be backward in a vibrant new Africa with a burgeoning young population. Unlike the more conservative older generations, these millennials are dreamers, natural-born cosmopolitans, ambitious and infinitely curious.

John B, our driver, was a part-time businessman who had been to China and most African countries. He came from an area up north with soft boundaries between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He speaks several local languages and feels at home in all those countries.

He wondered if the Brexit vote was “organised by Russians who do not like the EU. This is so crazy. We Africans are tired of wars and quarrels. We admired your country and Germany and France and all those who came close together. I do not understand why this is happening”.

Nor can I dear John, I replied, feeling even more desolate than I have been.

Maybe we should send the smooth-talking merchants of Brexit – the MEP Daniel Hannan or irrepressible Nigel Farage – to explain to these idealists why cooperation and unity are really bad for democrats and nation states and how they too could become noisy, flag-waving jingoists.

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