This week’s special report focuses on the extraordinary situation in Bongobongoland. Once considered one of the world’s most stable and well-governed states, its rapid slide into reactionary autocracy and the increasingly erratic behaviour of its rulers has shocked the world. The speed and scale of this geopolitical disaster has left Bongobongoland’s allies wondering how things could have turned so ugly so quickly.
Bongobongoland was badly damaged by the global recession in 2008. Relative to the size of its economy, it took a bigger hit than most of its neighbours. Nevertheless, after a shaky start, the country appeared to be slowly but steadily recovering. Or so everyone thought.
The trouble began with an obscure dispute over membership of a regional trade body, about which few people cared and even fewer understood. However, these arguments soon became wrapped up with wider economic grievances and resentment against migrant workers from some of the country’s poorer neighbours. This led to a political crisis in which the prime minister, a member of the patrician tribe which had run the country for centuries, was forced to resign.
In the ensuing chaos, power was seized in an almost bloodless coup by the daughter of a holy man from the country’s prosperous southern provinces. Hopes that this might stabilise the situation were quickly dashed by the appointment of highly controversial characters to three of the country’s most senior ministerial posts.
The first, an itinerant jester and storyteller, famed for his colourful interpretations of the country’s rich oral history, had no government experience other than as headman of the country’s largest town. His appointment as foreign minister was greeted with dismay in the world’s capitals and was taken as something of an insult by the country’s allies. The new minister’s crude humour did not translate well to the diplomatic arena. In a few short months, his crass remarks and jokes about foreigners severely damaged the country’s reputation abroad. A nation once known for its deftness in international diplomacy is now a laughingstock in the world’s embassies.
Almost as bizarre was the second appointment, a medicine man from the country’s far north who had served under the previous regime before being forced out amidst allegations of cronyism and expense fiddling. Since his rehabilitation, his main contribution seems to have been a series of outlandish and unworkable plans that have served only to draw yet more scorn from the country’s neighbours.
The third appointment, a former soldier turned sugar trader, known as something of a maverick, is perhaps too straightforward his own good. His admission that the government had no idea what to do about the most serious issues facing the country and had made no contingency plans was refreshingly honest but didn’t do much to calm the nerves of business leaders.
Shortly after their appointment, the trio were embroiled in an unedifying squabble over government resources, with each one demanding that his rivals’ departments be broken up, and a row over who should have the use of a 17th century palace some 40 miles from the country’s capital.
The regime’s hostile rhetoric and adversarial approach to its neighbours has been matched by a strident reactionary authoritarianism at home. Backed by a press egging it on to ever more extreme policies, the government has viciously attacked the judiciary and loftily dismissed its critics as enemies of the people. In spite of this, the regime has very little opposition. The country’s parliament is supine and the regime’s opponents are disorganised, cowed and ineffectual. The official opposition, led by two sexagenarians steeped in the mythology of 1970s liberation struggles, has made little headway and has proved unable to mobilise popular support. Oddly, rising discontent seems only to result in increased support for the government.
The only serious opposition to the regime is in the far north, where long-standing resentment threatens to flare into open revolt. The chieftains of the far north have threatened to declare independence before but, despite the government’s dismissive reaction, many observers believe that this time they might pull it off. The secession of the northern province would deprive the country of what’s left of its oil reserves and would be a severe blow to its prestige.
In parallel to these developments there appears to have been a cultural shift in the country. Within the last year there has been a sharp rise in xenophobic and racist abuse which has sometimes spilled over into violence. There have been reports of people being attacked, and in one case killed, simply for speaking a foreign language. Initially it was thought that these incidents were confined to the remote areas of the country but recently there have been reports of similar incidents in the capital. There is some evidence that this hostile atmosphere is driving foreign workers away. So far, no formal warnings have been issued but expatriates and foreign visitors have been advised to remain vigilant at all times and to avoid speaking their own languages in public.
Matthias Bloggs, professor of anthropology and an expert on Bongobongoland, pointed out that it wouldn’t be the first time that a seemingly open and progressive country had fallen back into reactionary authoritarianism.
“Western liberals tend to assume that all societies will become more open and pluralist,” he said, “but look at pictures from Iran and Afghanistan in the 1970s and compare them to 2017. They looked more modern 40 years ago than they do now.”
He continued, “There are clear parallels between Erdoğan’s Turkey and Bongobongoland; the aggressive majoritarianism, the claim that an election victory means they can push aside all opposition, the attacks on the judiciary in the name of the ‘will of the people’ and a contemptuous dismissal of national minorities. Both regimes trade heavily on nostalgia and a stylised view of history, recalling the glories of long-vanished empires. Doublespeak is typical of such regimes, for example, imprisoning judges in the name of freedom or using the term ‘repeal’ to describe a measure which will increase executive power.”
But it is the sheer speed of the country’s fall from grace that has surprised Professor Bloggs.
“Eight or nine years ago, this country was seen as a stable anchor during the financial crisis. Its finance minister was highly regarded by the IMF. Nowadays even its friends are exasperated by the behaviour of some government ministers. Their language and attitudes are those of the football terraces not the embassy or the conference room. They are even talking about tearing up international treaties. It’s absolutely astonishing.”
Bongobongoland’s currency has already taken a hit and its economic forecasts are worsening. There are fears about what might happen if its trading relationships sour and it finds itself locked out of its export markets. The country has already been criticised for money laundering and opaque financial engineering. In its desperate search for cash, it might turn itself into deregulated bucket shop, where anything goes and anyone with money is welcome. That, in doing so, the country might become a pariah state seems not to worry its leaders unduly.
This sudden retreat into nationalist isolationism has left observers shocked and baffled. As Professor Bloggs remarked, “This is a once powerful and prosperous country turning its back on the rest of the world for reasons that no-one can quite understand. It has gone from beacon to basket-case in a few short years. It really is most extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.”
Disclaimer: This preposterous story, with its tacky colonial stereotypes, is purely a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real places or to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Update: A report from the FT’s correspondent yesterday:
A purged former finance minister – and ruling party politician – secured editorial control of a newspaper in the country’s capital today.
— Joseph Cotterill (@jsphctrl) March 17, 2017