British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who in the past sparked fury over comments about Africans, arrives in The Gambia on a charm offensive Tuesday as its new government considers rejoining the Commonwealth.
Johnson is to meet President Adama Barrow and visit the British-funded Medical Research Council, his ministry said, resetting ties after years of tension with former president Yahya Jammeh.
Jammeh frequently railed against Britain’s colonial rule of the tiny nation, and Johnson will be the first British foreign minister to visit since independence in 1965.
Johnson has hailed the December elections that unseated Jammeh after 22 years in power in The Gambia, saying they “highlight the continuing strengthening of democracy in West Africa”.
The visit will be his first to the continent as Britain’s top diplomat.
The talks with the president are expected to formalise statements by Barrow during campaigning last year that The Gambia would resume its place in the Commonwealth group of former British colonies.
Barrow worked as a security guard in Britain when he was younger and has made no secret of his wish to rekindle ties.
The Gambia has also just notified the United Nations it will rejoin the International Criminal Court (ICC), reversing another controversial Jammeh move from last year.
Johnson said ahead of the visit he was “very pleased that Gambia wants to rejoin the Commonwealth and we will ensure this happens in the coming months.”
Jammeh withdrew his nation from the group in 2013, calling it “an extension of colonialism”, but Johnson has his own history of controversy with Britain’s former territories in Africa.
– Controversial comments –
In a news column published in 2002, Johnson characterised the Commonwealth as having “crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies,” to welcome Queen Elizabeth II, using a derogatory term for black people that caused outrage.
He also parodied reaction to Tony Blair’s arrival in Congo saying that “the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down”.
The comments came back to haunt him when he ran for London mayor in 2008, and then again when he was named foreign secretary last year after Britain’s shock Brexit vote.
Diplomatic sources have said Britain is likely to target justice reform as an area in which it can provide expertise to the new government.
In a show of confidence in the Gambian tourist industry, which is dominated by British sunseekers, Johnson is taking a commercial flight to Banjul, and will also meet hoteliers.
Tourists were flown out of the country en masse in January after Jammeh declared a state of emergency when he lost the election to Barrow but refused to stand down.
On Wednesday morning, Johnson will head to Ghana to meet President Nana Akufo-Addo and visit the Blue Skies company, a juice-maker which has received financial support from Britain.
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