From the beginning of the referendum campaign, it has been my contention that the campaign failed to address the concerns of citizens of the Commonwealth and those of African descent living in the UK. The BBC estimates that there were approximately 1 million Commonwealth citizens eligible to vote in referendum. This number does not include people with Commonwealth or African heritage who hold British citizenship. This was quite a considerable section of the electorate whose concerns were ignored or presumed. In fact some members of the Leave campaign petitioned to have this section removed from eligibility to vote, presuming that they would vote to Remain in the EU. For a Commonwealth African living in the UK, this was gaping hole in the campaign. I had an interesting time trying to counter presumptions made by various African friends about why they wanted the UK to leave the EU. Ultimately, I believe Africans voting to leave the EU was the result of badly run campaign, an enormous amount of misinformation and a glaring disregard of the history of Africa-Europe relations. The two primary issues that should have been addressed with regard to British-Africans were immigration and financial concerns.
The free movement of people is a plus and a minus when campaigning to stay or leave the EU. However, Africans mostly regard themselves as unfairly treated in this equation. Any tightening of UK borders has always had a greater impact on people from outside the EU, but very much so on people with African heritage. Prior to the Leave vote, EU immigration was untouchable. Every African I spoke to who voted to Leave, expected and still expects that exiting the EU would improve immigration policies for Africans. This was not addressed in the referendum campaign. There is absolutely no evidence to show that this belief is rightly held. It should be noted however, that the free movement of people from Europe into the UK occurred alongside increased restrictions on people from outside Europe. Until the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, all Commonwealth citizens could enter and stay in the UK without any restriction. Later the British Nationality Act of 1981 removed the automatic right of citizenship to all those born on British soil. In April 2006 the UK government introduced the points-based immigration system to replace a number of visa schemes. Since May 2010 immigration under the Tier visa points based system has become more and more difficult. These are points of concern for many Africans or people with African heritage with family in Africa.
We must also not forget the ‘migrant crisis.’ Language on this matter has been used to dehumanise people who are fleeing horrific situations. In a different blog post, I lament the EU’s reaction to the so-called migrant crisis, especially in relation to African migrants. At Valletta, Malta, between the 11th and the 12th of November 2015, European and African Heads of State and Government held a summit on migration in an effort to strengthen cooperation and address the current challenges. I suggested at the time that the EU ‘presumed that the promise of money would be sufficient to spur African states into action on Europe’s behalf.‘ There seemed to be within the political declaration from the summit, a presumption of what Africa wants/needs. This presumption was settled without dialogue with Africans or their leaders. As Somalia’s Prime Minister Omar Abdirashidali Sharmatke told the BBC: “What Africa needs today is not charity, but investment.”
The Financial Dimension
Another sore point for Africans are the illiberal trade practices the EU and Europe has with African countries. At the EU/African summit in Valletta on migration Senegal’s President Macky Sall, accused multinational firms of tax avoidance and conniving in corrupt transfers of Africa’s resources costing countries many times what they receive in aid. This is coupled with the remittance [money sent ‘home’] to Africa from the diaspora [legal and irregular]. Remittances are notoriously nigh impossible to track. Africans tend to send money to Africa via unconventional means, sometimes due to the high charges imposed on African remittances by Europe’s finance houses. However, it is believed that the remittances from the diaspora to Africa could amount to nearly €150 billion per year. As African leaders pointed out in their speeches and comments to the press at the Valletta summit, the contradiction between aid to Africa and the exploitation of Africa’s resources needs resolution. Definite figures [nearly €30bn] are put on aid ‘given’ to Africa by the West. No definite numbers are put on what leaves Africa to the West, there is a possibility that it is in excess of €180 billion. These points were not addressed by the referendum campaign. They definitely weighed heavily on the minds of those who have to save a large part of their UK salaries to send home.
The Results and the Aftermath
As a result of the foregoing, I suspect there were a sufficient number of Africans who voted to Leave who could have swung the vote to Remain. Some voted out of hope, some, spite. After the results there have been an alarming rise in racist events reported. Many Africans do not seem very bothered about this. Akwugo Emejulu, a professor at the University of Edinburgh (who has also written an excellent blog post about Brexit called ‘On the Hideous Whiteness Of Brexit‘) illustrates why in the following tweets:
I can assure you that this is just regular old racism that folks now seem to care about because it fits a media and political narrative.
— Akwugo Emejulu (@AkwugoEmejulu) June 26, 2016
It's no accident that we're seeing performative hand-wringing about xenophobia as privileged white migrant groups get drawn into the fray.
— Akwugo Emejulu (@AkwugoEmejulu) June 26, 2016
What Comes Next?
With the freefall of the pound and instability in the global marketplace, I cannot bring myself to believe that Leave was the best result for African in the UK, African descended people in the UK… or even anyone all. According to Alex De Waal, Brexit is a terrible result for Africa because it will result in security and financial worries.
However, there are a considerable amount of people who think the result will have a good or insignificant effect on Africa. Grieve Chelwa believes that recession in the UK will have little impact on Africa, as he humorously states ‘If the UK sneezes Africa will … well Africa will say “bless you” and move on.’ Richard Dowden believes that Brexit is a political suicide that will have a limited effect on Africa. Levi Kabwato links Brexit to coloniality – it is an undeniable fact that Europe has always had a toxic relationship with Africa. Africans voted to leave the same Europe that traded Africa’s children for cheap cotton, the same Europe that carved up Africa’s land and created countries that split kingdoms and made families of warring factions, the same Europe that imposes stringent trade restrictions on Africa and then watches blithely as Africans drown in the sea fleeing from the result of all the foregoing. Revenge is a very poor reason for a vote, but the following Yoruba proverb has been proven by Brexit – iyán ogún ọdún a máa gbóná fẹlifẹli, literally – a dish of pounded yam will still be hot 20 years after it was made.
It is essential that future campaigns should be informed by ALL relevant interests. Also moving forward, it is imperative that this toxic relation is mended. Europe should relate with Africa as an equal continent. There is no alternative.
- Berlin in the title refers the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, where Europe and the US met to decide among themselves who gets to own which part of Africa. This culminated in the General Act of the Berlin Conference on West Africa, 26 February 1885