By Kayode Soyinka Mrs Theresa May, presenting herself to Queen Elizabeth as the new British Prime Minister. The emergence of Mrs. Th...

By Kayode Soyinka

Mrs Theresa May, presenting herself to Queen Elizabeth as the new British Prime Minister.

The emergence of Mrs. Theresa May as United Kingdom's new prime minister is slowly steadying the ship of state that was destabilised by political turbulence in the wake of the June 23 referendum, which narrowly voted in favour of exiting the European Union (EU).

It had been said, during the dramatic turn of events, and immediately after the sudden resignation of David Cameroon as prime minister, that the UK would need a safe pair of hand to steady the ship of state, steer and negotiate its exit from the EU.

From among the names bandied around to take over from Cameron, it was obvious to me that the next prime minister would not be the rebellious Boris Johnson because, if examples in recent British political history are anything to go by, perfidious politicians like Johnson don't ultimately clinch the trophy and get the benefits or spoils of their perfidious act. Michael Heseltine easily comes to mind.

The erstwhile former secretary of state for defense, like Johnson, orchestrated the putsch that led to the eventual resignation of a more powerful Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990. And when Heseltine became the cynosure of all eyes and most pundits placed him in pole position to take over as prime minister, the grand old barons of the Conservative Party came up with a political masterstroke. They stunned everyone with their choice of John Major, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who, at that time, was more of an obscure, quiet politician and threw him into the political centre-stage as their alternative to Heseltine to take over from Thatcher.

Major became prime minister and went on to quickly steady the ship at the time, and even went on to win a general election on his own name in 1992 on the back of the reversal of the unpopular poll tax which had cost Thatcher dearly. The victory confirmed him as his own man and not anyone's puddle. It was therefore not a surprise that Johnson did not make it to No. 10 Downing Street eventually.

However, in another dramatic twist of irony for the former Mayor of London, when people thought he was down and out, politically finished, and completely written off, he has, to the consternation of many, been brought back so quickly into reckoning by being named the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. The appointment would generate even more controversies within the UK and abroad. Johnson had badmouthed several world leaders in the past and it would look awkward, if not embarrassing, for him to be representing the UK as foreign and Commonwealth secretary. He was hounded by the media and asked if he would be making apologies for his past unguarded utterances and misdemeanours, to which he refused to give a straightforward answer. However, despite his unsavoury notoriety, his appointment into such key, top four position is a clear and strongest indication of the realisation by Prime Minister May that it is better to have Johnson inside rather than outside and it was therefore politically astute that she acknowledged the fact that she would need Johnson around her to play a prominent role in her new government, most especially as she navigates through the delicate process of negotiating the UK's exit from the EU.

The difference in the voting between the REMAIN and LEAVE campaigners was marginal, leading to the suggestion that the decision shouldn't necessarily be accepted as it is only advisory and not legally binding. And subsequent calls have even been made either for parliament to vote again on it to make it legally binding, or a new referendum conducted to vote against exiting. As the whole situation got muddled up and the country in deep crisis, bringing in Johnson to such key position in government may have helped to calm some nerves especially among pro-BREXIT campaigners who are urging the new government to move fast and get out quickly. As if to assure them too, and knowing that the UK's own honour and integrity is at stake, Mrs. May has said that "BREXIT MEANS BREXIT"; that is to emphasis that the U.K. will be out of the EU as decided at the referendum, and that's it, no going back! A Secretary of State for Leaving Europe has been appointed in pro-BREXIT David Davis.

The outcome of the EU-membership referendum was totally unexpected and therefore shocking. Cameron took the greatest political gamble of his life by calling for a referendum. It was an unnecessary and reckless gambit he took. The debate on whether to leave or remain as a member of the EU has always been there and had to be confronted by nearly all prime ministers before Cameron. But unlike Cameron they maneuvered quite carefully and did not dare subject such a hot potato to a referendum as Cameron naively did. The decision to call for a referendum exposed either Cameron's political naivety or desperation to win the last general election and remain in power at all cost. He took the risk most certainly to derive political advantage. And like a gambler riding a tiger, he ended up finding himself in the belly of the tiger. He failed woefully and embarrassingly. It is therefore right, in my view, that he should resign and allow someone else to navigate the messy process that will eventually exit the UK from the EU. That has now become the responsibility of Mrs. May, who, it must be said, has long had the reputation for being the quiet lady of British politics. She played low-key role during the referendum campaign but she's known to be a "remain" supporter and in favour of tighter immigration control.

No issue has divided the UK and almost tore it apart in recent history than this emotive issue of its membership of the EU and the call for a referendum to settle the argument once and for all. Apart from the fact that the outcome of the referendum was a revolt or a coup against the ruling British establishment, what we saw play out during the referendum campaign itself was therefore the clash of two different generations - the older, what I would call the "Empire Generation", who still look at the United Kingdom as if she's still the colonial, imperial power of the past, dominating the entire world. The flag-waving "Rule Britannia" generation who prefer their island mentality and would like the UK to be truly "independent" and have nothing to do with Brussels that they so much loath and view with contempt for wanting to impose a federal system on them, which they detest and believe has no relevance, and of no use to them in today's world.

This generation voted unequivocally to exit, not necessarily having given a serious thought to the consequences of their action. That only dawned on them after the deed had been done! Whereas the younger generation and the more educated ones prefers to be in Europe because of the advantages, especially of Globalisation, and realising that their island nation-state of only about 65 million people, in this time and age, cannot afford to continue to be an island on its own - it has to reach out, engage diplomatically, relate and trade with other nations around the world.

The UK will on the long run survive the attendant repercussions or consequences of the decision it has taken to leave the EU. Contrary to other opinions, the country was not completely taken by surprise with the decision to leave. For instance, it has, for some time before the referendum, been working on contingency plans on what to do if the vote should go against remaining in the EU. Immigration staffs, for instance, had been going through retraining on new approach to immigration if the decision is to exit - a decisive factor in the way the voting went. For what you may or may not know, if passports will have to be changed when the UK finally leaves the EU, as we now know would most likely be the case, one should not the surprised if the design of the new UK passport is now ready and only waiting to go to the printers. Mrs. May would know better about this as she was the Home Secretary, presiding over immigration matters, before becoming prime minister. They are that well organised, leaving nothing to chance. And we saw how proactive the Governor of the Bank of England was that a contingency plan had been in place in anticipation that the decision might be against remaining. This he rolled out immediately the decision was known and confirmed, and he, in August, announced a cut in the interest rate in order to stabilise the economy. The economy has not had the collapse that was widely predicted before the referendum vote. Instead, we have seen in early September the rebound in the value of the Sterling, which had lost ground to the US Dollar as the immediate aftermath of the referendum result. And even a boost has been recorded in UK manufacturing.

For us in Africa and the Commonwealth, especially Nigeria, the UK exiting from the EU could have both positive and negative repercussions and consequences. When Prime Minister Ted Heath took the UK into what used to be known as the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, all powers pertaining to UK's trade relations with the rest of the world were transferred to Brussels, and the UK started losing interest in its traditional allies, its former colonies in Africa and the Commonwealth more generally. It started trading and investing more with her European cousins. Even if the UK had, for old time sake, wanted to continue trading directly with Africa and the Commonwealth after joining the EEC, it was no longer able to do so because it had surrendered that power and authority to the EEC. The only way it could work for the UK to continue trading indirectly with Africa, Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP) Commonwealth was the signing by the EEC of the Lomé Convention, updated in the Cotonou Agreement and later the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). Therefore, exiting the EU in about two years' time might help to reverse this situation. And here lies the opportunity for Africa to strike new trading deals with the UK directly, because by the time it leaves the EU it would, as a country now on its own, have no trade agreement with any country in Africa or anywhere in the world! The UK would have to start all over again and be able to decide on its own with whom it would like to trade and on what terms; not having to go through the bureaucracies of the EU trading bloc.

Therefore, there are very serious consequences for Africa arising from the UK's exit from the EU. The continent must now start to consider what its responses should be. The continent now has at most two years from the date the exit clause is triggered by Britain to put new policies in place to deal with these consequences. For instance, Africa will soon be able to strike new deals and trade directly with the UK as it used to without going through the EU. Another advantage for Africa is that it will still be able to trade within regional blocs - for example the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) - with the EU; encouraged to do by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Further, these trade arrangements might be enhanced if the UK's departure from the EU precipitates the collapse of the unpopular EPAs. This would also mean that the pressure on Nigeria to sign (so far it has refused to do so) would end. Rather, led by France, a new trade agreement could be put in place, which would incorporate Nigeria, the region's largest economy and market. In addition, Nigeria would be able to negotiate new terms directly with the UK when it eventually leaves the EU. So there could be "win-win" situation one might say, for Nigeria, Africa and the Commonwealth.

On the down side, the UK exiting from the EU means that Nigeria, Africa (most especially Anglophone Africa) and the Commonwealth will have lost a very powerful ally and perhaps most influential voice that can speak on their behalf within the EU! And that is sad! Only two Commonwealth countries will now remain as members of the EU - Cyprus and Malta - and even together they do not have the gravitas and influence of the UK and therefore cannot speak effectively for Africa and the Commonwealth within the organisation. But to compensate for that the UK must now take the 53-nation Commonwealth more seriously, constituting as it does one-third of the United Nations (UN) membership. The importance of having such a bloc in the UN as an ally should not be lost on the UK. It will need Africa and the Commonwealth as allies in the UN especially in times of trouble like this.

Further, the election of Baroness Scotland as the new Commonwealth secretary-general has handed Britain an advantage in her pursuit and implementation of a post-BREXIT strategy and agenda. Caribbean-born Patricia Scotland fought an unprecedented acrimonious campaign to be the candidate of the Caribbean for the prestigious London job despite the fact that she had spent all her adult life in Britain and considered to be British - she came to Britain from Dominica at age 2 - where she had served in several top government ministerial positions (she was a former British attorney-general) and currently still sits in the country's upper chamber, the House of Lords, as baroness, which makes her an establishment figure.

In a campaign that was brutal especially with the unabashed use of a mainstream London newspaper to cast aspersion on the reputation of her closest rival, she saw off Sir Ronald Sanders who many had considered to be the most experienced, therefore the best, candidate for the job because he is more at home with the Commonwealth and the way it works, and was a more popular candidate among Caribbean countries to represent them; and an African candidate Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba from Botswana who incidentally had once been a deputy Secretary-General in charge of political affairs at the secretariat and equally eminently qualified for the job. There were many observers who saw the clandestine hand of Britain in what propelled and sustained Scotland's adamant campaign despite most Caribbean countries rooting for Sanders, and they considered her the choice of Britain, a British candidate coming through the back door. There is no doubt, however, that Scotland has strong links to the British establishment and this may well help strengthen the Commonwealth's role in exploring new opportunities with the UK.

In implementing a post-BREXIT policy therefore, there are a number of underlying factors that can help to bring the UK and the Commonwealth closer together. The Commonwealth is Britain's familiar turf where she has traditionally had immense goodwill, exercised and still exercises enormous influence. And, in fact, the Commonwealth platform couldn't have been better set for her to carry her new trade agenda through, considering the fact that the Secretary-General Baroness Scotland is British, the Head of the Commonwealth Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is British, the secretariat of the Commonwealth, Marlborough House, is in the British capital city of London; the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is going to be in Britain next year in 2017, meaning the British Prime Minister will be the chairman of the Commonwealth, playing a central role in coordinating relations among the 53-member nations. What a coincidence therefore that all these aspects have aligned, which can be utilised by the UK as it sets out to strike new trade deals and agreements with nations of the Commonwealth on exiting the EU.

On a final note, the decision to leave the EU has inevitably thrust the UK into a new and uncertain political direction. First, it has claimed the prime minister, who incidentally has also in September suddenly announced his resignation, with immediate effect, as a member of parliament, therefore an end to his political career, as its first casualty. It is a big risk and serious gamble that the UK took, especially when one is reminded that the decision might have the added unpleasant repercussion of Scotland gaining independence - Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. If the UK fragments for example with the departure of Scotland, then this may well influence other separatist movements in the Commonwealth, such as Biafra in Nigeria, Quebec in Canada and those in India and Pakistan, to seek independence.

However, for the UK, even if Scotland exits, the country will continue to be a powerful and influential political, economic and military powerhouse, and a traditional ally and friend for Africa and the Commonwealth. The next few months and years will be very fascinating, particularly to see whether any of these opportunities will come to fruition.

This article was first published in the October/November 2016 edition of Africa Today

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