The politics of Bongo Bongo Land

The seeming ignorance displayed by some European Parliament members tells us all we need to know about their character.

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European Parliament member Godfrey Bloom said that "a woman's place is cleaning behind the fridge" [AFP]

A few weeks ago Godfrey Bloom, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) representing the UK Independent Party (UKIP), made some quite bigoted and ignorant remarks – sorry but there’s no other way of describing what he said – that made headlines not only in the United Kingdom but around the world, and especially in Africa.

You see, Mr Bloom being an antediluvian beast is still coming up with the sort of remarks that would only sit well these days with the likes of Golden Dawn in Greece and the Ku Klux Klan in the US.

His observations about what he later admitted was mainly Africa, included a clear reference to the developmental aid offered by the UK to the countries of what he called “Bongo Bongo Land”. Mr Bloom’s simplistic “logic” goes like this: the money sent by the UK to these countries is likely to be spent in Ferraris, apartments in Paris, and Ray-Ban sunglasses, so, plausibly, we should spend that money elsewhere.

Mind you, Mr Bloom is hardly the first MEP to have got himself in hot water over remarks pertaining to Bongo Bongo. Only a few months before Mr Bloom unloaded his ignominious rant, Mario Borghezio, an Italian MEP, didn’t measure his words either when he accused Cecile Kyenge, the Congole-born Italian Integration Minister, of trying to establish a “government of Bongo Bongo” and to bring her “tribal traditions” to Italy.

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Of course, the likes of Bloom and Borghezio are not strange to these sorts of comments. Bloom’s sexist comments in the past have been particularly sickening. He has gone on record as saying that no sane businessman would hire a woman of child bearing age and that the right place for women is cleaning behind the fridge. As for Borghezio, he has cultivated a long list of racist misdemeanours that put even Mr Bloom in the shadows, from calling Serbian mass murderer Ratko Mladic “a patriot” to praising the ideas exposed by Norwegian killer Anders Behring Breivik in his infamous manifesto.

Back to Bongo Bongo

In Bloom’s opinion, which is shared by many from his own party and the Conservative party as well, there is a debate to be had in the UK and Europe about the current levels of spending in international aid.

As it happens, I couldn’t agree more with them. And, since we are discussing the most convenient ways of dealing with that mythical Bongo Bongo Land where people move around in Ferraris and stare at you through their Ray-Ban shades, we should try to find the best ways of stopping that aid, which often comes accompanied by neo-colonial demands and hidden ploys.

We could start, for example, by allowing African products free access to the European markets. The G8 has repeatedly committed to “make trade work for Africa“, and yet, only in a few exceptional cases can African products enter Europe tariff-free. Needless to say, a change in this state of play would immensely benefit African economies, and in the medium term could lead to a reduction of that international aid Mr Bloom and his pals dread so much.

Bloom, Borghezio and their MEP cronies could also back the recent attempts of the EU to clean up European finances, and particularly their involvement in murky deals with African governments. It is no secret that for decades now European banks have excelled at laundering money coming from African conflicts.

They could also put some pressure on Western companies – and maybe even on their Chinese and Middle Eastern counterparts – which continue to take advantage of relaxed legislations and deep-rooted corruption to grab themselves profitable deals involving African natural resources.

From the renewed attempts by Bill Gates, Bono and Monsanto to tie African farmers to the GM seeds of Monsanto in the same way they did to Indian, South American and US farmers before, to the scandal around the iron ore reserves under the Simandou Mountains in Guinea, greedy non-African entrepreneurs won’t stop at anything as long as they get their rewards from “investing” in Africa.

Obviously, Mr Bloom doesn’t know much about the place himself. If he knew, he would have been aware that beyond the issues exposed above, Africa has been traditionally dilapidated by a combination of Western, Middle Eastern and more recently Chinese interventions.

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From the times of the slave trade and the Conference of Berlin in 1885, which created the Africa we inherited, to the post-colonial period – when the continent served as a theatre for some of the bloodiest Cold War conflicts – Africa and its people have consistently been little less than collateral casualties in the contemporary world.

Every time Mr Bloom and his pals use their mobile phones, TV sets, iPads, and laptops in the safety of their British homes and offices, they should spare a minute to think about the indentured labour and the blood that was spilled by African men, women and children, so that the coltan, wolframite and cassiterite needed to make them could be extracted. Hell, even the diamonds used in the engagement rings some of them gave to their wives may have come from one of those pits where kids, even today, toil from sun up to sun down out of necessity, instead of going to school as all the children of UKIP members likely do.

Bongo Bongo on the move

Characterising Africa as this mythical Bongo Bongo, savage land, is yet again another cacophonic repetition of a long Eurocentric discourse applied for centuries to all foreign lands. By doing so, Borghezio and Bloom not only revealed their inner xenophobic selves, but also presented us with a token of their backwardness and mammoth ignorance.

Their lack of understanding of what is actually happening in Africa today is stupefying. Should they have bothered to do their jobs as MEPs they would know that Africa is currently on the rise. Some of its countries -Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Angola and Mozambique – are already known as the African Lion economies. Many African governments are perhaps for the first time seriously committed to exploiting their copper, oil, gold, uranium, and other natural resources in a way that will allow for a more equal distribution of their GDP.

Although corruption and other social ailments are still present, there has been a significant democratic shift in most of these countries. Fair, peaceful elections are now a norm in most of them, and even a quintessentially failed state as Somalia is starting to show signs of recovery.

The one word that can define Africa today is growth. Hardly the same can be said about Mr Bloom’s land.

More importantly, although natural resources constitute the bulk of their revenues, other products are starting to have a serious impact on the national economies. Anyone who visits Ethiopia today, for example, will immediately realise that livestock and crops have replaced the stereotypical images of a starving country that expand as far as the eye can see.

Even though the distribution of wealth is only starting to filter down, there are strong signs that not only the wealthy will rip off the benefits of this economic boom. Last year when I visited Luanda, cranes dominated the city’s landscape and the seaside front avenue – known as the Marginal – was receiving a massive makeover that has now been finished.

The one word that can define Africa today is growth. Hardly the same can be said about Mr Bloom’s land, where the ongoing economic crisis has failed to show clear signs of slowing down anytime soon. Maybe Bloom, Borghezio and their buddies could learn a thing or two about this place they depreciatively call Bongo Bongo.

As it is, the only clear message they are passing along, is that retrograde middle-aged white males with a total and utter unawareness of what’s going on beyond Europe’s borders can have a career in politics.

Fortunately, however, whatever prejudiced views they might have about Africa and its people, the reality is that with every blunder they reveal more and more who they really are. Africa is on the move, no matter what people like Bloom and Borghezio think or say.

Dr Manuel Barcia is Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.

Follow him on Twitter: @mbarcia24