“We do foreign assistance for altruistic reasons, certainly for humanitarian reasons, of course. But the main reason we do foreign assistance is we do it in the American national interest”.
—Roger Wicker, American Politician
The quote above, whilst very American, could be attributed to a long array of countries across the globe. Replacing “American” with “British”, “Russian”, “Chinese”, “Iranian”, or “South African” would still maintain the spirit of the quote. I chose this quote to highlight that a country’s actions or inactions with respect to events in another country are usually powered by national interests and not some idealistic morals.
I recently watched David Oyelowo’s “A United Kingdom”, based on a true story about Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and Ruth Williams, a British lady. Set in the 1940s, the movie covered their lives, how their marriage was threatened by many interested parties, and how they fought for the right to be married (and stay married). After watching the movie, I read about the Khamas and was pleased to see that the movie generally stayed true to reality. Here are a few thoughts I gathered from the movie.
First up is the national interest of South Africa. South Africa’s devilish apartheid policy was gathering steam at the time of the Khamas’ marriage and the larger racialist government refused to tolerate an interracial leadership right across their northern border. The power brokers in South Africa must have felt having a neighbouring country led by an interracial couple would be an unpleasant contrast to their bigoted apartheid policy. To prevent this, they were ready to use whatever leverage they had against the British Empire who were supposed to protect Bechuanaland.
Intertwined with South Africa’s is the national interest of Britain. The British Empire wanted South Africa’s gold alongside uranium for its nuclear plants and nuclear bombs, and so was willing to make a deal with the devil while touting the blessedness of Christian goodwill. When viewed from a standpoint of decency, the behaviour of these two countries makes no visible sense. However, when viewed from a moral-bereft standpoint of national interest, one can see why two countries would be bothered that the leader of another country chose to marry a lady whose skin colour contrasted with his own. Coming forward to today, with allegations of Russia meddling in the US elections, US involvement in several coups around the world, China wiretapping the African Union’s headquarters, or Iran “helping” Hamas with weapons to confront Israel, one can see national interest at play in every incident where one country acts (or stands by when capable of acting) in another country’s affairs.
Another take from the movie is the use of duplicity during election campaigns. Winston Churchill went on the record to pledge that if his party won the elections, Seretse’s unmerited exile would be cancelled. However, he won elections and made the exile indefinite. At least, unlike a recent Nigerian scenario, Churchill did not go on the record to deny ever making such a promise. Sadly, many politicians would make unforced promises they have no intention of keeping, just to get the public to grant them a taste of power.
There is also the behaviour of Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama, who opposed his marriage to Ruth and opposed his ascent to the throne. Later scenes showed that even though Tshekedi opposed Seretse, he did it out of a genuine belief in tradition, not that he hated his nephew. Disagreements are part of human existence but when we disagree, we should be mindful whether we are disagreeing on principles or are fuelled by blind hatred.
Let me conclude with Seretse and Tshekedi dropping their claims to the throne of Bechuanaland in order to get Seretse’s ban annulled. “Stooping to conquer” is sometimes the best strategy, especially when faced with a much stronger adversary. Seretse transformed from king to a private citizen and helped fight for his country’s independence, became Botswana’s first prime minister and helped set it on a path towards development. I wish Nigerian leaders would borrow a leaf from the life of Seretse Khama.
Image Credit: behance.net