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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.