One random evening in November 2008, I was on my way to get my dinner when a lady who was distributing flyers accosted me. The flyers in question were apparently protesting a planned appearance by a far-right politician called Nick Griffin in Hull. His party the British National Party (BNP) had promised among other things to effectively render many UK immigrants stateless through a “send ’em home” policy.
To many, he was just another tired iteration of the quintessential pug-faced white separatist British political grifter, but his party was polling significant numbers so it needed pushback.
She handed me a second flyer decrying another planned appearance by a politician called Nigel Garage of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Unlike Griffin, this fellow and his party were more conventional politicians who would not say the quiet part aloud, but there was little doubt as to the anti-foreigner and anti-immigration interests that both parties shared. I had kind of heard about Griffin and Farage, but I did not take either of them seriously at all, so I accepted the flyer absent mindedly and promptly forgot it at the lunch table.
Neither of these men would ever be a factor in mainstream UK politics, much less in my life after all, so it wasn’t any of my business. Then one day in 2010, I woke up and found out that the world had changed overnight.
The “Hostile Environment” is More Than a British Slogan
When David Cameron replaced Gordon Brown as UK prime minister in 2010, one of his key appointments was Theresa May as Home Secretary. Her tenure at the helm of the Home Office became infamous for the deployment of the so-called “hostile environment” policy. The idea was to make the UK so difficult and inhospitable to illegal immigrants that they would either go home or be fished out easily.
More importantly, as we all witnessed the UK’s rightward slide, the rest of the world outside Africa apparently decided to make similar moves in tandem
Except that it, of course, did not stop at only immigrants of the “illegal” variety. Soon, pensioners who had lived all their lives in the UK from birth, or who came in as children of the so-called Windrush Generation and knew no other country found themselves on deportation flights to Jamaica, Trinidad and the Bahamas. Legal migrants or even people who just looked like they might be migrants started reporting increased police scrutiny and harassment from strangers.
Cameron then held a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU in 2016, and the country voted to leave. A succession of events that would have seemed totally impossible to 18-year-old me back in 2008 happened in front of the world. Overnight Nigel Farage became a bonafide frontline politician, less than a decade after being little more than the mocked and derided head of a swivel-eyed, Dad’s Army-style political formation.
More importantly, as we all witnessed the UK’s rightward slide, the rest of the world outside Africa apparently decided to make similar moves in tandem. In the U.S., candidate Trump who was notorious for spreading conspiracy theories about Barack Obama being a Kenyan-born Muslim became President Trump. In Greece, the Golden Dawn party became the fastest-growing political formation. Hungary elected Viktor Orbán, an open xenophobe.
In Germany, the far-right AfD party started winning seats in parliament – something that was unthinkable just 15 years ago. India elected Narendra Modi, a devout Hindu nationalist who belongs to the RSS – a hard-line formation that believes that India is an exclusively Hindu country. China resumed its age-old persecution of its Uighur Muslim minority under Xi Jumping. France may very well have a “President Marine Le Pen” soon. Spain, Italy and Israel also experienced significant growth of rightwing populists.
What most of these formations have in common is a vicious dislike of foreigners and immigrants – particular those of a different ethnicity or religious persuasion – and a firm belief that globalisation has unfairly taken from the natives of these lands and given to immigrants and foreigners. In effect, the idea is that by literally closing their borders to the movement of people and goods that is inherent with globalisation, they will regain the allegedly lost wealth, status and sovereignty.
Almost a century ago, this scenario happened, with everyone shutting their borders on everyone else and nations being defined only in terms of oneself against the enemy. President Trump’s promise to bring offshored manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. is the canary in the mine. The vast majority of such jobs cannot be brought back, so his insistence on doing something fundamentally unwise or impossible is not about improving the American economy – it is about fighting outsiders and showing them who is boss.
The last time around, Africa was little more than a colonial outpost with no voice or position of its own. This time around, where is Africa in all of this?
Globalisation’s Crumbs are Running Out – Time to Bake Our Own Bread
A dirty secret among Africa’s upwardly mobile is that the ability to relocate to the western world, or to work remotely from here and earn a western income is a large part of the 21st century “African Dream.” While our grandparents had little option but to accept whatever subpar cards life dealt them, we have the option to emigrate or to otherwise engage the globalized economy in a more satisfactory way.
The rightwing populists of the developed world want this to stop. From their point of view, there is no reason why Africans or others should leave their countries and become competition for the natives of the West. Data showing that immigrants always add more to an economy than they take out is constantly ignored because it does not fit the narrative. The narrative is that foreigners have “invaded” and “taken over,” while the allegedly treacherous pro-globalisation neoliberal governments sat and watched or even aided them.
After years of driving home this narrative with thousands of grassroots propaganda campaigns, the populists are seeing the political fruit blossom, as an entire generation of young people now believes that the Nigerian doctor and the Pakistani fruit seller have “taken their jobs.” To remedy this, the populists make no secret of their desire to link citizenship to ethnicity – even if that means revoking that already given to first and second-generation immigrants.
The case of British-born and raised teenager Shemima Begum who was stripped of her citizenship and prevented from returning home after joining ISIS provides an important precedent. Loth as we are to admit it, a time is coming for us when the permanence of the European, British, Australian, Canadian or American citizenships we strive to obtain will be up for debate. U.S. president Donald Trump has already spent much of his first term gutting all legal basis for the birthright citizenship his own father benefitted from.
The message sent is clear – a very large and growing number of western voters do not want those they consider to be foreigners in their countries or participating in their economies, because they see them as unwelcome competition. As a result, the rightwing populists are winning in the developed world, and we are in an increasingly precarious situation as a result.
On this continent, we famously trade with Europe and the U.S. exponentially more than we trade with each other. Once they lock us out of their economic systems, as some of them are currently trying to do, we will have the nightmare of trying to fix a whole continent’s worth of trade barriers and supply chain issues overnight while a billion people starve.
Nigeria is already witnessing the impact of reduced American oil purchase as only Indian and Chinese oil demand currently keeps the government budget afloat. If the two turn their backs on us and we have no alternative buyers or replacement exports, the result would be catastrophic.
To avoid the immeasurable human suffering this would cause, Africa (or at least the parts of it that are led by the faintly competent) must immediately work toward significant internal economic integration. The AfCFTA ratification should be brought forward and the treaty implemented as quickly as possible.
For emphasis I must reiterate: We have to plug our economies into each other now and start building our own robust trade networks before the western world shuts its trade window on us. The last time the world floundered toward us through ill-advised nationalism and isolationism, Africa was an underpopulated non-factor.
Today with over a billion lives at stake, we need to find a new survival strategy to suit our fragmenting world – and fast.