Where do we go from here?

In 20 years, I wonder if it will be clear where the rot began? Where did everything start to fall apart so badly? Was it when the George W. Bush called intervention in the Middle East a ‘crusade’? Was it when the lines started to gather outside Northern Rock, or that time the UK voted not to take in unaccompanied child refugees? Or was it, perhaps, the 23rd of June, 2016, the day that the world’s third largest aid donor, one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council and nine nuclear weapon states, opted to give up on the very ideal of internationalist cooperation?

I woke up this morning, and for a blissful few minutes, I forgot that yesterday the UK voted on whether to leave the European Union. Then it came back to me, and I struggled to get signal while trying to control my fear. And I read. I read that, by a margin of less than 4%, the UK had voted to shut itself off from its key trading block, its shared history, its international partners. I read that we had been offered a choice between the evils of a campaign built on lies and a campaign built on fear, and chosen the lies. I read that the pound had dropped to its lowest level since 1985. I read of a global crisis brought about with willful madness. I read the statuses of friends, speaking out of terror or desolation. Then I started to wonder what happens now?

I started contemplating visa marriages, and looking carefully at my family tree, though neither seems to offer a simple solution. One friend has proposed writing to our MPs, calling on them not to follow the (non-binding) result, given the scant margin of victory. I may do that, because if we can cling on to our place in the EU we must. But I fear it wont help. It may be a small mandate, but it is bigger than any government has had for a long time. To ignore the result of the vote would only cause more turmoil, and give parties like UKIP a stronger platform. No Conservative government would risk that. The Prime Minister has already accepted defeat.

No, I fear that with this decision we have left the EU for good. Our departure will certainly weaken the Union, which will turn inwards, to shore itself up against countries like ours who wanted to be in the EU, but not have to be properly in it. They certainly wont be welcoming back this fifth column of a country. It also means the end of our own Union. Scottish independence is the inevitable result of yesterday’s vote. As for Northern Ireland…

What makes me especially sad is that this whole thing is a political gambit gone awry. The Conservative hierarchy never wanted a referendum. If the general election forecasts had been right, the referendum policy (put in to assuage the Conservative right and keep UKIP at bay), would have been cast aside in coalition negotiations. It should never have happened. And yet, somehow here we are. Well, we have made our bed, and now we must lie in it.

The question is, what exactly does that bed look like?

There are two paths ahead of us. I’ve mentioned the path the Leave campaign seemed to want before. The narrow-minded vision of England, where anyone who has lived here for less than two generations is an outsider. Where we believe our unrepresentative parliament ought to be the only authority to which we are beholden, regardless of its regressive and flatly illegal judgments. I mean, it doesn’t matter if our human rights are flouted, so long as the people doing so aren’t foreign right? If we take this path we turn inwards. We say, to hell with the world’s problems. We’ll just shut the gates. Here begins dystopia.

Our Union Flag wont be there much longer. I’ll be amazed if the flag lasts the year.

But there is an alternative, if we have the drive to grab it. The EU might be closed to us, but we can still back the kind of politics which shares the EU’s vision of cooperation over isolationism. We can continue to contribute to the economic union as a member of the European Economic Area, which will mitigate some of the more severe economic damage (though I fear we will still have a hard road ahead of us – today my savings dropped so much that I have abandoned the idea of ever owning my own home). We can change our political direction. We can become the kind of country which welcomes refugees from Syria, Iraq and from the rest of the world. We can accept the fact that housing shortages and stretched public services are not the fault of some mythical other, but of the very government we believe is superior to European cooperation. We can increase foreign aid spending and reduce military investment. We can continue to support international cooperation in academic research and industry. We can continue to praise the immigrants who keep the NHS afloat. We can accept both the horrific reality of the world ahead of us, and our duty to not just play a small part, but lead global action on climate change, on food and resource shortages, on population upheaval. We can send in diplomats and doctors, rather than drones. We can save the civilisation from itself. But only if we put our backs into it.

This wont be easy, but it is not impossible. 48 per cent of voters want this path. And that 48 per cent includes our best educated, and our youngest voters. People I know and love. If I were to poll my Facebook feed, it would be 90% remain! That gives me hope. We have to be the change we want to see in the world, and we are the people who can be. That is something to cling to.

I began by asking if, in 20 years, this will be seen as the beginning of the end. It may well be. But only if we let it. And that is not something I plan to do.

The Ideology of In

This article was written for bloc, a left leaning political forum based in Yorkshire, where it appears in a slightly edited form. Being a busy collective, with real jobs and everything, they were down to the wire on publishing, so this appeared here first. Nonetheless, I would like to thank them for all the cool stuff they do, and for letting me be a part of it.

A problem shared is a problem halved. We can share our problems 27 times!

Over the last few months, we have heard a great deal about the mechanics European Union membership from both sides of the referendum debate. Competing claims about the economic benefits or costs of our membership, about control of our borders and about the percentage of our laws which emanate from Brussels have been splashed all over the news. Opposing sides have interpreted the same data and reach radically different outcomes, which goes to prove the old adage about “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. I believe, based on this debatable and much debated evidence, that the case for remaining in the European Union is much stronger than that to leave (see for example here, here and here). A decision to leave would be a gamble at best, and it would take us down a path from which there is no turning back. A vote to remain is pragmatic – it allows us to keep our options open. Leave is a one-way street, and I don’t like look of where it will take us.

All that being said, I believe the debate has largely ignored the strong, ideological case for continued membership of the European Union (though the Green Party are taking steps to address this). In contrast, the Leave campaign has emphasised its ideological identity through rhetoric about regaining control of our borders and laws. This seems strange since, in an uncertain world I believe the European ideal is vitally important.

The European Union began life as an economic project, which ostensibly aimed to improve trade between its members. Yet from its earliest beginnings, this economic project was expected to bring unity and stability. After two wars in which Europe tore itself apart it was believed that shared economic success would prevent such divisions – and it has succeed. You may have noticed that Germany and France haven’t been a each others’ throats since 1945, despite the formers post-war division. Similarly, smaller states like Holland and Belgium have not been the victims of external aggression, even in the height of the cold war, in part because they were part of a larger block which had a shared commitment to stability. 70 years of western European peace is not something to look askance at. Living in Coventry, I am constantly reminded of the damage that we can inflict on each other. Anything which helps prevent such folly should not be lightly abandoned.

Of course, the “it has prevented another war” argument is slightly spurious. The post-war balance between the capitalist west and communist east arguably had a bigger impact. Still, unity and stability remain laudable aims, embodied in the foundational principal of “ever closer union”. This, of course, makes UKIP supports’ skin crawl, but it needn’t be interpreted in a strict political sense. Ever closer union doesn’t automatically mean a United States of Europe (though I am not sure that would necessarily be a bad thing). What it means is that we focus on learning about, and developing what we share with our European neighbours, by living, working and openly mixing with them. It means we engage more deeply and more effectively across the region, both as individuals and states..

The last century was dominated by what the philosopher of peace and conflict, J. P. Lederach calls ‘identity conflicts’. Identity conflicts are the result of divisions we have created ourselves: Black vs White; Jew vs Arab; Tutsi vs Hutu; Bosniack vs Serb. These conflicts existed because the parties involved chose not to cooperate with one another. If we turn away from Europe we are establishing another such contrived division. Yet this seems to be what a lot of people want. They want an insular turn, believing we can simply remain aloof. Isolationism for the 21st Century. Isolationism was tried by the USA nearly a century ago. Americans believed sorting out the world’s problems had cost them enough. They hoped to remain aloof and independent. That went well, until the great depression hit ten years later. In the end, Pearl Harbour brought them crashing back to reality, and forced them to re-engage with the world. Hardly the strongest track-record for a political perspective, and they were an emerging super-power, in a world before globalisation.

In contrast, despite a decent military, a strong economy, and a few far flung islands, the UK no longer controls a global empire on which the sun never sets. Alone we cannot do all that much to make the world a safer, fairer place. But as part of the European Union, we are part of one of the largest economic blocs in history. We have the combined human and capital resources to achieve great things. For example, including Human Rights clauses in EU external agreements since the 1990s has achieved far more than the UK would have alone, acting as a carrot for good behaviour, and a stick (used against Belarus, Myanmar and Sri Lanka) when standards are not met. Collaboration also means we can handle big problems. The EU has struggled to deal with the ongoing refugee crisis, brought about by turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, not because it is too united, but too divided. Further division will only worsen this situation. And we haven’t seen anything yet. As climate change progresses through this century, millions of people will be displaced, food and water sources will be lost, there will be social conflict and open war. When that happens, we will be glad to shared the burden with our European neighbours.

Try as the campaigns might to focus on economics or immigration, at the heart of the European debate is a deeper question. What kind of a country do we want to wake up in the day after the referendum? Do we want to work together, or do we believe we are better off alone? For those of us in the remain camp, the answer is obvious. If we vote to leave the EU, we will be falling back into past follies. Believing we are better alone, we will cut ourselves off from the people who should be our closest allies. This will prevent us handling the existential threats of the new century, and will condemn us to repeat past mistakes.

“History repeats itself. It has to. Nobody listened the first time”.

Ghana: More Food for Thought

One of the things I did to raise money for my International Service ICS placement to Ghana, was to spend four days living below the poverty line, on £1 a day. It was an eye-opening experience, which got me thinking a lot about how not having food security (let alone choice) feeds into a wider powerlessness encouraged by poverty. I thought about people in the UK who struggle to feed their children, and feel unable to provide the life every child deserves and I thought about the 25% of Ghana’s population who live below the poverty line (which works out as about 5 Cedis a day – roughly the cost of a loaf of bread to feed a family for one meal).

The problem is that I was only thinking about one part of life, drawing on an image I formed as a child.

Let me explain. When I was growing up, we were not especially well off. Our nice Cotswold farmhouse cost more than we could really afford, and this made money for other things tight – so it mattered to my parents that they were able to put decent meals on the table – that we never went hungry. It also mattered when, for whatever reason children will, I decided I didn’t want to eat. When I didn’t finish my meal, I would be admonished with talk of children starving in Africa. There was not of course, any suggestion that I should put my excess food into a Tupperware box and post it to Ethiopia or Chad. Rather the point was that I should be grateful for what I had, because other people were not so lucky.

Imagine, then, my astonishment on finding that my (generous and hospitable) host family here in Ghana routinely provide me with enough food to feed at least 3 people. While I didn’t expect my host family to be among the 25% of Ghanaians who live below the poverty line, I didn’t expect them to be quite so far towards the other end of the spectrum when it came to food. I didn’t expect such apparent excess. It sits uncomfortably. I can’t help thinking about the people in Tamale who haven’t eaten today, and feeling guilty that I have so much. I wish they could come and share my Fufu, Banku or Rice.

My host brother and sister prepare Fufu

[These staples dominate our meals. Rice comes as normal, rice balls, Waachi (rice and beans) or Jollof (cooked in tomatoes and chilli) while Fufu and Banku have consistencies not unlike instant mashed potato, the former being more doughy. Common accompaniments include spicy tomato sauces, fish, ground-nut soup (a personal favourite), and sometimes a little meat. Breakfast is normally a large hunk of bread and a cup of instant, pre-sweetened white ‘coffee’. If I am lucky I might get a boiled egg or an omelette on the side. Lunches are generally biscuits or frozen yoghurt.]

At our in-country training, my cohort of volunteers was shown a TED Talk by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, called The Danger of a Single Story. The talk explores Adichie’s own roots as an author, but its key point is clear from the title. All too often we are shown only one image of Africa. The same image, from news reports and films, from rock stars and NGOs. Africa is war-torn and poverty-stricken, beset by HIV pandemics and corrupt leadership. This is the Africa of DEC appeals and child soldiers.

This makes it easy to forget that this is a continent into which you could fit Europe, China, India, and the USA, and which is almost as diverse, in culture, in economies, in wealth. But more than that, just like anywhere else, every country is diverse. Ghana has its elites, its white collar workers, its working class labourers, just like anywhere else. But that is not the story the world sees. We see the naked children surrounded by flies, living in mud huts. We homogenise, we tell ourselves “This Is Africa”, its all the same, its a continent almost beyond hope.

When my host mama, Kate, refuses to give me smaller portions, knowing full well that I won’t finish all that she gives me, she is sharing a small part of the of the variety which is Africa. A part we in the West don’t often see, unless we experience it first hand. She is living generously, welcoming a guest into her family, and giving me plenty of food, on the basis that it is better that I have too much than too little. She, just like my own mother when I was a child, is proud of the care she can offer me. I should be equally pleased to accept my huge portions in the spirit in they are intended.

Burundi, Rwanda and the Cliff Edge

Burundi, Rwanda and the Cliff Edge

About a year ago, I was lucky enough to meet Dean Israel Ndikumana of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Bujumbura. He came to Coventry as part of a larger visit to the UK, and his visit caused us a few problems, as several key staff were on leave. But his problems were far bigger. You see, just as he was due to return to Burundi, there was an attempted coup d’etat, forcing him to alter his travel plans. The coup was part of larger political turmoil which is ongoing, and, knowing someone caught up in the events, I have maintained a close interest them ever since. The roots of disorder lie in the decision of President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third term, apparently in breach of the country’s constitution. The coup attempted to remove him so free elections could be held. Its failure deepened violence, which has continued unabated since, and despite Nkurunziza’s victory an election boycotted by opposition parties.

Most of the violence appears to be the work of armed groups from both sides of the political divide, and has deteriorated into a situation comparable to gang warfare, with tit-for-tat revenge killings common, particularly in Bujumbura. Around 450 people have been killed since disorder began in April of last year, including senior military personnel, while some 250,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries, including Rwanda.

Burundi emerged in 2005, from a civil war between the country’s Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. The conflict was closely linked to that of Rwanda (a country with the same ethnic make-up), which saw the genocide of Tutsi and moderate Hutu in the spring and summer of 1994, along with the widespread war-rape and other war crimes. To say that tensions remain between the two ethnicities would be an understatement. Nonetheless, after ten years of peace, political parties in Burundi no longer follow ethnic lines and so far, to the relief of the international community, the conflict has maintained a purely political split. The attempted coup against Nkurunziza in May 2015 was led by a General who had served in the very same Hutu rebel group as Nkurunziza in the civil war. The General had previously condemned Nkurunziza’s plan, and appears to have been acting in order to prevent further violence.

All of this makes recent accusations that Rwanda has been arming anti-Nkurunziza rebels rather alarming. A UN Security Council report claims that 18 Burundian rebels have admitted to being recruited and trained in Rwanda by military personnel, and that further assistance – including funding, training and logistical support – has continued into 2016. If true, these reports (which Rwanda denies) would indicate that Rwanda is intervening in Burundian affairs, in a way which will escalate and perpetuate the disorder (in contrast with other regional governments, which have sought to negotiate an end to hostilities). The recent decision to expel some 1,300 of the tens of thousands of refugees currently sheltering in Rwanda is likely to further destabilise the situation. The country is playing a dangerous game.

What, then, might the objectives of the Rwandan establishment be? Ethnically motivated political scheming is not new to the region. It seems likely that that the murder of Rwanda’s moderate Hutu President Habyarimana in 1994 was not the work of his Tutsi opponents, but of hard-line Hutu, who wanted an excuse to initiate what became the Rwandan genocide and secure their position. Rwanda’s current president, Paul Kagame, is a Tutsi. If he is arming rebels and seeking to destabilise Burundi, it is hard not to think that he has an ulterior motive, tied into the legacy of the Tutsi-Hutu conflict.

This is all the more ominous as Kagame has blamed Nkurunziza for the ‘massacres’ occurring in Burundi and called on him to remember the lessons of the Rwandan Genocide. Of course, seeking to prevent genocide is commendable, but Kagame seems willing to act outside his own state, particularly in the interests of the Tutsi minority. It would not be a huge leap from supporting Burundian rebels on a small scale to direct intervention. Such intervention could seek to oust Nkurunziza, but if this were achieved by main force, a return to civil war would be highly likely. Since Kagame and Nkurunziza are Tutusi and Hutu respectively, this would almost certainly reignite the ethnic conflict. Indeed, Kagame must be conscious of this; he may be mentally preparing for a return to civil war, and seeking to secure the position of Burundi’s Tutsi minority. Conflict could even spill over into DR Congo, which also descended into war after the Rwandan genocide, and is currently looking down the barrel of a political crisis.

Or perhaps Kagame is planning to fight only a proxy war, a common choice in the last half century of Africa politics. Think Angola. Kagame could weaken his neighbour without ever explicitly intervening, and incurring the wrath of the African Union. From there, anything is possible…

At the moment, Burundi is in the midst of a political crisis. It has neither become all out civil war, nor has it split along ethnic lines. Yet this is a clear concern for the international community. The African Union is seeking to mediate a cessation of hostilities, the UN Security Council is considering extending monitoring in the country, and the International Criminal Court has now established an investigation into the violence of the last year. It is clear that Burundi is seen as standing on the edge of a precipice. Even as the rest of the world is seeking to coax Burundi away from the cliff, it looks as though Rwanda may be trying to push it off.