The new African leaders and their unlikely British pasts

Recent elections in Tunisia, Zambia and Liberia have thrown up unconventional politicians.

All truly competitive elections ought to produce a few surprise results, and Tunisia's first democratic elections after ousting long-standing dictator Zine Al-Abedine Ben Ali was no exception. The surprise came in the form of London-based businessman Hashmi Hamdi, whose previously obscure Popular Petition Party initially won 19 seats (some were later revoked amid allegations that the party had broken electoral rules.)

Hamdi has lived in London for 22 years, where he owns an independent satellite TV station. He won on a populist campaign promising half a million jobs, which he publicised on his TV channel. He did especially well in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid -- the working-class town where frustrated vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in January 2011, sparking anti-government protests in Tunisia and across the Arab world.

There are a number of reasons why his success is so improbable, not least the fact that his support for Ben Ali continued well into the revolution and there are reports that he has no plans to leave London.

One thing that shouldn't count against him, however, is his rise from relative obscurity in London, because he is one of several African politicians that share a unlikely background in the UK and have gained prominence in recent months.

In early September, staff at Newman Catholic College in North London were surprised to receive an email from learning support teacher Mohamed Ibrahim, announcing that he was resigning from his post to become deputy prime minister in Somalia's transitional government. Ibrahim had spent two years teaching at the college, but accepted the position after visiting the troubled and famine-stricken country during the school holidays. The Western-backed transitional government is still fighting Islamist group Al-Shabab for control of the country and Ibrahim may yet yearn for the comparative calm of a classroom filled with rowdy teenagers.

A couple of weeks later, on 23 September, Michael Sata was elected president of Zambia. The 74-year-old populist politician once worked at London's Victoria Station as a cleaner, and boasted to an interviewer that: "I never got any complaints about my work. I want to sweep my country even cleaner than I swept your stations."

And a familiar face popped up during Liberia's presidential election in October when former footballer George Weah became running partner to presidential hopeful Winston Tubman. Weah played for Chelsea, Manchester City and a number of other European clubs before making an unsuccessful bid for the Liberian presidency in 2005. On 8 November, Tubman, flanked by Weah, will be facing Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the run-off elections.

These politicians provide an interesting contrast to the scores of post-independence leaders who have passed through Britain's more conventional training centres -- the parliamentarians, monarchs and despots who have been whipped into shape at Sandhurst or who have passed through British universities.

Politicians of all political persuasions have been drawn from a small pool of British universities. Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe may have proved very different leaders, but both are law graduates from the University of London external programme. India and Pakistan rarely see eye to eye but have historically favoured Oxford graduates as prime ministers: India has appointed two Oxford alumni as prime ministers, Pakistan four. A shared education needn't lead to shared political values, it seems.

So while it would be great to conclude that these African politicians with new and unusual backgrounds could be a sign of a new politics, this probably isn't the case. It would also be unwise to draw too many conclusions from four separate anecdotes.

What can be said, however, is that in the often murky, nepositic world of politics, the introduction of a few outsiders is usually a good thing. It's just a shame that Hashmi Hamdi is neither a genuine outsider, nor a credible candidate.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear's. She previously lived in Tripoli.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.