Boris as foreign secretary: the good news for Africa is maybe it doesn’t matter

Boris Johnson outside Whitehall in London. Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, former mayor of London and a member of parliament, has just been appointed the foreign secretary in the new government of British Prime Minister Theresa May. Usually such an appointment would be unremarkable. Boris Johnson is a seasoned politician and has significant governing experience from his time as London’s mayor. He is a person, on paper, who is ripe for such a post.

But what makes this appointment so remarkable is that this is the person who spearheaded the successful campaign for the UK to leave the EU, or Brexit – a campaign that was largely based on fear, xenophobia and misinformation.

It is a campaign that has caused significant damage to the British economy as well as other states, including countries in Africa. For example, 20% of South Africa’s trade exports destined for the EU go through the UK. The decision to leave the EU will have significant financial implications for South Africa and will require a real shift away from a traditional partner.

It is also surprising that the UK’s chief diplomatic post be given to a person who has spent a large portion of his career insulting foreign dignitaries and extolling the virtues of the UK’s colonial past. When talking about a trip he had undertaken to Uganda as part of an official UK delegation in 2002, Johnson noted

“[t]he problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.

But it does not stop there. Johnson has also passed derisive comments about foreign dignitaries like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and US President Barack Obama. He suggested Edogan had had sex with goats. And he referred to Obama’s Kenyan heritage as reason for him to dislike Great Britain.

Such comments stands him in stark contrast to previous British foreign secretaries who appeared far more thoughtful and careful on matters of foreign policy. This includes people like fellow conservatives Sir Geoffrey Howe, who played an important role in bringing then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev closer together during difficult days of the Cold War, and his more recent contemporary, William Hague, who at least was able to articulate the relationship between human rights and foreign policy.

Instead, the UK now has a foreign secretary who is more prone to ad hominem attacks than finding space for common interests.

What does all this mean for the UK’s relationship with the African continent? It is likely to be minimal in terms of substance. But damaging in perception and tone.

Not-so-great Britain

Sadly, it now means that the UK’s foreign policy direction and representation are led by a man who seemingly does not maintain a filter for appropriate comments. It has a man in charge who fundamentally believes that the "Great” in Great Britain stems from its imperial past – a past that has created a huge number of structural challenges and negative effects on African development.

Such an appointment clearly signals a step backward for the UK’s diplomacy on the continent, at least when it comes to the grand questions of international cooperation. It is easy to foresee challenges for the UK in bringing African states along with its position in United Nations decision-making if Johnson is leading efforts.

But his appointment and the potential implications for African states should not be overstated. While he has been given a high profile and important portfolio, a number of the key files that used to give the Foreign and Commonwealth Office much influence and power have been taken away.

For example, both international trade and EU relations were previously under that office. Now they are their own departments with their own ministers reporting to cabinet. Liam Fox has been made the minister of international trade and David Davis has been made the minister responsible for negotiating the UK out of the EU.

Even big international issues that are typically the domain of foreign secretaries, like climate change, have been moved to fall under the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. International aid continues to be its own department with its own minister at cabinet.

Boris’s job spec

So all of this invites the question – what will Johnson have to do given that a number of important files are no longer in his office?

Well, he will play an important role in setting the tone for how the UK is perceived and engages with partners on the international stage. In this sense, all the signs read that he will be an ardent advocate for “Britishness” and try to restore a sense of British nationalism into foreign policy through focusing on the UK’s past rather than where it needs to go.

Sadly, Johnson’s appointment, I fear, represents a turn to the exact thing that the liberal international order and institutions like the EU were set up to avoid – unabashed and unreflective nationalism. He will likely try to reinvigorate traditional institutions for doing this like the Commonwealth of Nations, which has largely been relegated to obscurity in recent years.

Once an important international institution, the Commonwealth could be an important vessel for promoting cooperation between the UK and African states, but it remains under-funded and under-prioritised by many of its members. But his impact on actual and important policy files – particularly those of relevance to African states will likely be limited.

Assuming that we can all move beyond “the grand old days where the sun never set on the British empire” type of rhetoric of yore, the implications for African states of “The Boris” is likely to be minimal in substance. In perception and tone – that is another question.

Let’s just hope that Prime Minister May has the sense to deploy her less offensive and more competent ministers on matters of import to African states.

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