There were sniggers in Africa about last week’s elections in Britain. In some places, election officials were overwhelmed by long queues and some voters ended up not casting their ballots.
However, on Tuesday evening, we were treated to a dramatic example of how ruthlessly efficient an old democracy can be. In less than three hours, Prime Minister Gordon Brown held a press conference to announce he was resigning as Labour Party leader, and to say he expected that Conservative Partly leader David Cameron would be invited by the Queen to be the next prime minister.
He then went to Buckingham Palace to hand in his resignation, left without police outriders clearing traffic for his motorcade since he was now an ordinary citizen, and indeed, got caught in a traffic jam. In the meantime, his personal possessions were being moved out of No. 10 Downing Street.
As he spoke at the Labour Party headquarters to bid the staff farewell, Cameron made his way to Buckingham Palace to see the queen. The pictures of the queen receiving him were available to the world. Another 15 minutes later, he was out and in 10 Downing Street — which probably still had the whiff of Mrs Brown’s perfume in the air — as new prime minister. Say what you will, that was impressive stuff.
The discussion on BBC’s Focus Africa on Wednesday morning was about what a Cameron leadership meant for Africa. There was a strong view that because he is, compared to Brown, a hardliner on immigration, fewer Africans might get political asylum, and probably quite a number already there illegally could be deported.
It is embarrassing to hear Africans worrying about their inability to get asylum and emigrate to the West. Nevertheless, because of the reality of the large African Diaspora and the fact that their remittances are the largest source of foreign exchange for some countries (like Eritrea), it is a big issue.
For this reason, my sense is that elections in the West today mean more for Africans — especially the millions who depend on remittances from relatives — than our own national elections. Our elections will not change lives for many, but if 10,000 Kenyans or Ugandans were expelled from the UK, the consequences back home would be devastating.
In the long term, though, it is not the politics of the West that will most affect Africa. It is the non-political things like sports. The dozens of African players like Chelsea’s Didier Drogba have turned European leagues into a near-cult cross-border phenomenon in Africa. Daily, the media have stories about the goals African footballers scored in the English Premier League, for example.
Every week, we are treated to Ethiopians and Kenyans winning marathon after marathon in European and American races. This sporting success has created the one class of wealthy Africans whom, you can confidently say, has grown rich without being corrupt.
The global success and stardom of these African sporting figures is possibly the single largest force influencing what poor and working class children on the continent want to be. From Maputo to Algiers, dozens of boys have taken to football, often playing with crudely made balls, in the hope they will become the next Samuel Eto’o.
Across countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, thousands of young boys and girls daily take to the hills at dawn to run, hoping that one day they will find the fame and fortune of Sammy Korir or Haile Gebrselassie. There are no things that Africans experience collectively like the ups and downs of their sportsmen and women in Europe.
They are having a homogenisation effect whose consequences could be very visible in another five to 10 years. But if the homogenisation of Africa were happening only from these Diaspora and sporting sources, they would not be far-reaching. However there is another force that is “flattening” Africa together dramatically — Nigerian films (Nollywood).
Other than the pride in Nelson Mandela, the books of Chinua Achebe, and the music of Hugh Masekela, I cannot imagine an African product that has been as pervasive as Nollywood. In turn, Nollywood has helped touch off a new infatuation with things African. In countries like Sierra Leone, there are now FM stations that play only African music.
Many African TV stations, like Kenya’s Citizen, now have an all-African programmes schedule, a large chunk of them locally produced. If you went into hibernation in 1990 and woke up today, it is in the field of sports stars and cultural consumption of Africa today that would most strike you as being very different. Its politics, well, is little changed.