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Does the road from Brexit end in the Commonwealth?

By XN Iraki | November 29th 2016


“Mtoto akililia wembe, mpe.” If a kid cries over a razor, give him or her. Britons asked for a wembe during the referendum on European Union membership and they got it.

Going by the economic statistics, the wembe has started injuring the kid. But Britons will not take it lying down. Human beings have over the ages looked for solutions to their problems; and Britons will. Britain will need an alternative to EU market despite the popularity of Brexit. Could it be commonwealth?

After the wind of change gave uhuru to former British colonies an association called the commonwealth was established. Some members of the commonwealth became republics and got their own heads of state while others became dominions and still have The Queen of England as the head of state.

This group has 52 countries from populous India, Nigeria and Pakistan to small countries like Nauru and Fiji. Rwanda is one of latest members joining in 2009. Mozambique joined in 1995.

Trade between UK and EU has generally been in EU favour. Will shift to Commonwealth make a difference? Observers will note that, the special ties with former colonies have changed. At one time it was very close; Kenyans needed no visa to visit UK. Now they do. In Kenya, studying in UK was once a badge of honour and prestige. Of Kenya’s four presidents, two studied in UK.

In the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps after liberalisation of the economy, some think it was the CNN effect, things changed and we all started going to the USA. You recall the Greencard craze? Some argue persuasively that the shift to USA had started much earlier with the Airlift around 1959 that included Obama’s father.

Indian labour

Lots of students are requesting me to write recommendation letters to study in UK universities. It seems the tie is shifting back to UK. Noticeably, UK seems to enjoy a solid trade surplus in services which include education. Will UK recoup in commonwealth what it will lose in EU, despite a trade deficit with it? It will need lots of work, thanks to history and new global realignments.

The former colonies have moved on, and rely less on UK. They have got new trading partners. One of them is China. Kenya is one member of the commonwealth that has shifted to the East, to India and China. The railway line UK built using Indian labour has a competitor, a new rail build by Chinese. Yet, there was a time you could be arrested for hanging around the Chinese or Libyan Embassies.

Other countries have become competitors to UK which always had advantage in manufacturing, like India and her pharmaceuticals. Almost all manufactured goods in Kenya were made in England, from the locks in the house to the cars on the road. Not anymore. UK shift back to commonwealth to shore up what she will lose in EU will meet more competition.

The soft option for UK is services. On this she has a first mover advantage because of language and history.

It will take time before we conduct business in Chinese, have our textbooks in Chinese, take holidays there, get tried in courts in Chinese or mandarin or consider it prestigious to have a degree from a Chinese university rather than Oxbridge. Confuciusm will take time to threaten the dominance of Christianity.

Further, the generation that experienced British rule has mostly left us. How many of you can differentiate Bwana from Memsahib? The current generation is more attached to social media than history creating a neutral ground for trade. Noted how we are brand conscious?

After Brexit, expect more British firms to start rediscovering the commonwealth. It is not surprising the British PM, Theresa May was in India this month. It is not just trade; expect more culture exchanges with UK firms and schools. Will London retain its status as a global financial centre without EU?

Kenya could benefit from this shift by attracting investments from UK. Brexit could fan the embers of the British Empire that once ruled a quarter of the world land mass; but in a vastly changed geo-economic landscape.

Will be bumpy

While the empires competitors were immediate neighbours from France to Germany, the current competitors are far flung. The full economic effect of Brexit will take time to be felt both in UK and the rest of the world.

While Brexit has become a byword, not much has been written about how it will affect other EU countries. Will there be less confidence from investors in getting into EU?

The road from Brexit to new economic prosperity could be through Commonwealth, but it will be bumpy. It might mimic the early days of the empire; without war with treaties and intense negotiations doing the trick.

—The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi. [email protected]

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