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.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

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