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UK votes: Why pan-Africanism and Brexit are blood relatives

Wednesday December 11 2019

Brexit elections

Brexit Party supporters gather with banners against Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn near a venue where the Labour leader is due to attend a campaign event for the general election in Swansea, south Wales on December 7, 2019. PHOTO | DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS | AFP 

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The United Kingdom holds a general election that will decide the vexed issue of its long-drawn out exit from the European Union (Brexit).

The opinion polls have had pro-Brexit Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in the lead, with varying margins over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.


But with the gap closing and in times when electorates in places where the vote is free have confounded pollsters, Johnson could be left crying in his beer mug tomorrow morning.

Whatever the outcome, Brexit has been rich in offering us insights into the world today and particularly fruitful in what it tells us about Mother Africa and the continuing impact of colonialism.

Words like “populism,” “nationalism” and “parochial” have been thrown around to describe inward-looking leaders like US President Donald Trump and Brexit-supporting ones like Johnson.


There are signs, though, that folks are finally beginning to take chill pills and be more thoughtful not just dismissing these nationalist forces we are seeing all over the world as reactionary.

Equally, the idea that these inward-looking movements reveal the “crisis or failure of globalisation” is quite limited.

The issue with globalisation is not that it has failed. It is that it succeeded too much for its own good.


Among other things, it turned virtually the whole world into a market for tech, finance and related companies who make fortunes beyond what humanity thought was possible.

But without a commensurate global political structure serving, like States do, to redistribute some of the fortunes more fairly to the rest of the society, an inequality that many consider too immoral, emerged.

Meanwhile, many countries in the west also feel the challenge of demographic shifts, with people of colour set to overwhelm them in number in a generation and what they see as the menacing rise of China, the first non-white global superpower since the Ottoman Empire.

The State has, therefore, emerged as the most attractive alternative for many to deal with these threats. Populist or not, things like Brexit are actually quite a good advertisement for the State as a source of solutions. Unlike what Friedrich Engels hypothesised; that the State would wither away and society would govern itself without it and its coercive enforcement of the law.


In fact, when one looks at the radical near-socialist election manifesto that the generally anti-Brexit Labour Party has unveiled — just like all other supposedly “globally minded” parties — all their answers to the dark side of globalisation; renationalising virtually everything, and taxing the rich out of existence, can only be secured within a nation-state, not global, context!

In that way, Brexit and its opponents are both a triumph of the State, something that should have died by now.

Then things get complicated when you come to Africa. We have both pro-nation state and equally active supranational forces. In the last 28 years, we have seen the emergence of both Eritrea and South Sudan as new States. In Cameroon, the anglophone region has been fighting for independence and might yet get it, depending on how the frail dictator Paul Biya, who’s been in power for nearly 40 years, departs the stage.


In Senegal, Casamance continues its independence agitation. Namibia continues to contend with breakaway demands from the Caprivi. In Somalia, Puntland and Somaliland continue to seek ever greater autonomy.

At the same time, regional blocs, even when they are starved of funds to run and are rocked by feuds between member presidents, have largely held and are expanding. The Democratic Republic of Congo wish to join the East African Community.

In The Gambia, the sexual predator and thieving strongman Yahya Jammeh, in 2017 tried to steal an election long after he had lost it. He was bundled out of power at gunpoint by the West African regional bloc Economic Community of West African States. The very ambitious African Common Free Trade Africa (AfCFTA), which once looked like a pipe dream, has come into force after being ratified by a sufficient number of States.


Why are Afro-globalisation forces on the march while they are in retreat in the west? Ironically, it is partly because of western colonialism. The western colonialists carved out countries arbitrarily, separating similar peoples, clans, and even families.

By making small things that could have been larger and making big those that should have been small, they partly laid the seed for Afro-globalisation (aka pan-Africanism).

Brexit and pan-Africanism, really, are relatives.

The author is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site [email protected]