The Long Road from Valleta: Why British-Africans voted to Leave the EU

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. I do wish I had said more when there was still time, but no one expects the unexpected. Ultimately, 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.

Immigration

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 outside the EU. 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 not forget the ‘migrant crisis.’ (I believe that language on this matter has been used to dehumanise people who are fleeing horrific situations.) In a different blog I lament the EU’s reaction to the 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. Somalia’s Prime Minister Omar Abdirashidali Sharmatke told the BBC: “What Africa needs today is not charity, but investment.”

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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 at 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.

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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:

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 Africa or anyone. 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 – iyan ogun odun a ma gbona janjan (a grudge is always as cutting as the day it began to be held).

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.

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3 thoughts on “The Long Road from Valleta: Why British-Africans voted to Leave the EU

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  1. Nice and very thoughtful article…. I am not British and I am not living in the UK, however I think both whites and the Africans failed to give a considerable amount of thought before voting leave. I think by your analysis you gave the Africans too much credit in terms of the intellectual reasoning as the few that I have spoken to personally agreed they voted out of selfish consideration i.e. they believe that the new entrants to the EU particularly the east Europeans are flooding the UK to take their job….

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    1. You are right, that was the problem with the whole vote and campaign. People voted out of selfish consideration, because the campaigns were badly run. The point I was trying to make was that the campaign should have engaged with people’s selfish consideration and either proved or disproved them. But when winning is the only thing that matters…. Glad you enjoyed reading.

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