Africa: a stage for political poseurs

This summer's crusade is driven more by a crisis in Britain than 'over there'.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Why Africa, why now? How has the continent suddenly come to dominate the political agenda in Britain, so that a boring old G8 summit inspires a concert, Live 8, that has somehow become the news story of the summer?

Of course Africa is still blighted by serious problems of poverty and conflict, malaria and AIDS, and remains the most oppressed continent on the planet. Yet there is no headline-grabbing crisis in Africa today, on the scale of the Ethiopian famine that gave rise to Live Aid in the 1980s. So what has prompted the sudden outpouring of interest in African affairs?

It seems that the crisis that has brought all of this about is not in Africa, but in Britain. There is a crisis of authority afflicting the political class, and a crisis of common values in our society. There is a poverty of leadership at every level, and a dearth of any sense of purpose that is bigger then oneself. Against this background in British public life, Africa has become an all-purpose stage on which everybody from a pop star to a politician can try to show off their moral worth and sincerity. Everybody is keen to emphasise that the primary purpose of this summer’s events is to raise, not cash, but ‘awareness’ – in particular, a self-awareness that we are on the side of the angels in Africa.

The impetus behind this comes from the top downwards. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have not been pressed into action on Africa by Bob Geldof or anybody else. The New Labour leaders have made a priority of grandstanding on African issues for years. In Blair’s famous speech to the 2001 Labour Party conference, reported in one paper under the banner headline ‘I can heal the world’ and seen by many as a highpoint of his career, he declared that: ‘The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world. But if the world as a community focused on it, we could heal it.’

When Brown visited Africa in January of this year, he said that Britain should no longer apologise for the Empire, and that its missionaries had come to Africa out of a sense of duty – the clear implication being that our Presbyterian Chancellor was on a similarly moral mission. Brown has also made great play of pressing US President George W Bush to sign up for all of his plans for Africa – a hopeless task, yet one that does no harm to Brown’s image over here.

No doubt the pop stars and other celebrities involved in Live 8 and the Long Walk to Justice campaign see themselves as radical troublemakers, holding the politicians’ feet to the flames. Yet in a sense they are more like unwitting stooges of the political class, helping to give the politicians more credibility in getting their message across. That is why government ministers and politicians of all parties have been falling over themselves to express support for Live 8. It is why chancellor Brown, not a man one would ever associate with street activism, has called on people to support the mass demonstration in Edinburgh planned to coincide with July’s G8 summit of world leaders in Scotland. It is worth recalling that the Commission for Africa, which issued a highly critical report on the international community’s attitude to Africa and is now commonly referred to as ‘Bob Geldof’s Commission’, was actually set up by Blair to perform that role.

In a recent interview with the London Evening Standard, Bono of U2 – the rock crusader-in-chief – observed that political leaders are not really interested in Africa because ‘to build a hospital in your own constituency brings many more votes than to build a hospital in some far-off land’. Showing all the traditional political acumen of a pop star, he got the dynamic almost completely the wrong way around. It is because they cannot win political authority bogged down in domestic issues such as the health service that politicians are now so keen on international gestures. It is far easier to look bold and brave and good on a faraway stage – and much easier to pull off that act in relation to Africa than, say, Iraq.

Campaigning over Africa and supporting something such as Live 8 offers our isolated, unpopular leaders a rare opportunity to connect with popular goodwill. Take a discredited figure such as Jose Manuel Barroso, the leader of the European Commission. He is beset on all sides by the crisis of the Euro-bureaucracy brought to a head by the ‘No’ votes in the French and Dutch referendums. What could have done more to boost his crumbling credibility this week than a visit from Bono, with the two appearing together before the Brussels media to share their concern over Africa?

Even when criticising Geldof’s call for a million-strong march on Edinburgh, the Tories’ shadow Scottish secretary could not miss the opportunity to pose as a woman-of-the-people, declaring that ‘we all adore Sir Bob Geldof and applaud his good intentions and all he has done for Africa and the publicity he has brought to a cause we all believe in…’. If she is supposed to one of his critics in the political class, imagine what Sir Bob’s fan club leaders sound like.

But the current campaign around Africa does deserve to be criticised – not because of the celebrities fronting it, but because of the politics behind it. The whole idea is that Africa must be ‘saved’ from without. Bono’s interview with the Standard was even headlined ‘Why Africa needs U2’. The rocker modestly explained that ‘I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all…. They haven’t asked me to represent them. It’s cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do and in God’s order of things they’re most important’.

This attitude is typical of many of today’s protest movements, where any worthwhile cause is seen as one you campaign for ‘on behalf of’ other people, rather than in pursuit of your own interests. Any eco-activist or anti-globalisation campaigner can strike a moralistic stance by claiming that they speak for the world’s poor, or Africa’s AIDS victims, or ‘the unborn’ who will inherit the planet. This patronising pose allows them to assume a moral authority far beyond their own means. What the voiceless millions themselves think about it is rarely considered.

Thus, when Geldof used the launch of the Commission on Africa report to tell Uganda’s President Museveni that ‘Your time is up, go away’ it was widely reported as Sir Bob speaking up for the people of Uganda. Less widely reported was what happened the next day, when hundreds of those people demonstrated through the streets of Kampala and outside the British High Commission in protest at this interference in Ugandan affairs, waving banners proclaiming ‘Geldof, sober up and shut up’ and ‘No to drug addicts and rock homos’.

The notion that it is up to British statesmen such as Blair and Brown, or Irish millionaires like Geldof and Bono, to ride to Africa’s rescue is every bit as paternalistic as the old imperial attitudes, a sort of anti-racist equivalent of the White Man’s Burden. It serves to create a sense of moral purpose over here more than to address the real problems over there. That is what it means when everybody from Bono to a Conservative MP talks about Live 8 and the Make Poverty History campaign as a ‘defining moment for our generation’, a chance to use Africa as a step up to the moral high ground.

Some might suggest that this should not matter, if the campaign does some good in Africa. But as Brendan O’Neill and Daniel Ben-Ami examine elsewhere on spiked, the Make Poverty History campaign with its politics of ‘sustainable development’ and low expectations offers no solution to Africa’s problems (see Should we make ‘Make Poverty History’ history? and Poor ambitions for the world). Worse, these interventions can only undermine the ability of Africa’s peoples to solve problems for themselves, by making them more dependent on the good will and aid of foreign states and NGOs with their own agendas for Africa.

What does this crusade say about Africa and its people? That they are the helpless children of the world, in need of parental support and guidance from us. And that, like children, they need to be shown the correct and civilised way to behave. There has been a lot of discussion about the barriers to effective aid posed by Africa’s poor governance and corruption, and the need to use a system of punishment and rewards to show Africans the error of their ways. This ambivalence, which sees Africa as both a hapless child to be saved and a dangerous ‘dark continent’ to be tamed, has been a feature of Western attitudes since the days of Kipling and Conrad. Of course, today’s political and pop crusaders are not colonial racists. But they seem to be pursuing an updated version of ‘our’ self-righteous mission to save Africa from itself.

There is no simplistic, finger-clicking solution to the problems facing Africans today. But it is certain that Africa will not be equal to the rest of the world until it has the independence and autonomy to decide its own destiny, free from the outside interference that has cursed the continent for centuries. Now we are being asked to celebrate the fact that Africa has once again been turned into a stage where every Blair, Brown or Bono can try to win some ethical kudos at a click of their fingers. We all deserve better than that.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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