Special report: Bongobongoland

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:


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12 Responses to Special report: Bongobongoland

  1. Ian Erskine says:

    Brilliantly done.

  2. Julia Mac says:

    Utterly brilliant. Glad I don’t live there . . .

  3. Jim says:

    How you can turn the UK leaving an inward looking and undemocratic (and increasingly authoritarian) customs union in order to expand trade and links with the remaining 90% of the worlds population into ‘national isolationism’ and ‘turning ones back on the rest of the world’ God only knows.

    Remainers are going through some sort of mental breakdown – any country that isn’t in the EU is suddenly isolationist. Is New Zealand isolationist? Australia? Canada? Switzerland? Norway? Brazil? Japan? The USA?

    Face it, you lost a democratic vote. Yes you think Brexit is a bad idea. But no, you don’t get to decide to ignore those voters just because you think you’re cleverer than them. Imagine if in 1945 the people who had just been voted out of power in favour of a new economic paradigm – Socialism under Clement Attlee, had unilaterally decided that socialism was ‘a bad thing’ for the wealth of the nation (and they would have been right) and said ‘Sorry chaps, you’re not getting the nationalisation of the Means of Production you voted for, because its all bullshit, and we’re just going to continue with free market capitalism as before’. No, of course you don’t think that would have been a viable and democratic position to take. And neither is demanding that Brexit be ignored, because you went to university and think that makes you better than someone who didn’t. The men and women who voted Labour in 1945 were undoubtedly less educated on average than their Tory counterparts, but no-one said ‘Ignore these uneducated bigots, what do they know about economics!’ did they?

    • For your analogy to hold, then the electorate must be given the chance to vote again, no? That, after all, was the case in 1945. There was another vote in 1950, and yet another just a year later in 1951, which put the Conservatives back in power. In 1974, the electorate was given the chance to change course twice in the same year.

      I don’t think we should have another vote now, but how about holding one when the likely repercussions are known? Would that not be democratic?

    • P Hearn says:

      Jim – save your breath! I think some Remainers are genuinely going through a mental trauma: they’re so wedded to the only world-view it’s possible to entertain, (i.e. theirs), that it’s come as a genuine shock that some people don’t see things the “correct” way. Nobody they know disagrees with them, so how can anyone else?

      I’m amused that it’s the traditional Labour north that took us out of the EU, and Labour luvvies have spent every minute since calling them bigots, racists, morons and much worse. An interesting way to treat one’s support base, and to win friends and influence people.

      One day, in a few decades’ time, some Remainers might stop and say to each other “do you think the IN campaign we ran was a bit crap? Not terribly full of positive reasons to stay, but rather a litany of dire warnings of the punishments to be meted out should we leave”.

      Until then, they consider the responsibility lies elsewhere and they are victims of a heinous injustice. Best to leave them to have a little sulk (like Ted Heath) for 40 years or so.

    • Charlie says:

      Someone’s getting representative democracy and direct democracy mixed up. Also, the people did vote out that Attlee government a few years later, because the thing about elections is, they happen again and again. But apparently Brexit is now permanent and must not be questioned at all.

    • Dipper says:

      spot on Jim, as always.

    • Mick says:

      I think you are ignoring the obvious here, the manipulation of the less educated by an elite for whom exiting the EU will bring them rich reward, and the unwashed will burn in flames.

  4. bill40 says:

    It was an OK effort but entirely spoiled by the completly implausible storyline, the hallmark of an amatuer writer. For a tale such as this there has to be at least the possibility of it happening somewhere but it couldn’t…
    Hang on a minute…

    • David says:

      Utterly juvenile , and unfortunately , the way this formerly interesting blog has been headed since last June .
      Get a grip Rik .

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