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Boris Johnson Called Africa a Country, But Are We Really Surprised?

Africa is a continent made up of 54 countries.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson puts his hand to his head as he delivers a speech about Brexit on the first day of the Conservative Party Conference 2016 at the ICC Birmingham on October 2, 2016 in Birmingham, England. On the opening day of the annual party conference, British Prime Minister Theresa May has confirmed that the deadline for triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be the end of March 2017.  (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson puts his hand to his head as he delivers a speech about Brexit on the first day of the Conservative Party Conference 2016 at the ICC Birmingham on October 2, 2016 in Birmingham, England. On the opening day of the annual party conference, British Prime Minister Theresa May has confirmed that the deadline for triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be the end of March 2017. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

We all knew it would be a rough transition for Boris Johnson to take over as Britain’s foreign secretary. After all, this is the same shaggy-haired, loudmouthed former mayor of London who has said publicly that he wasn’t sure if he had snorted cocaine or icing sugar and once got so aggressive during a rugby game that he tackled a small Japanese child. Let us not forget he also published a dirty goat-related poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, just weeks before he was named foreign secretary. And now, as Britain’s top diplomat, he’s expected to be well, diplomatic.

But in case there was any fear he’d get too serious too quickly, Johnson proved this weekend that he’s still his same old self when he referred to Africa as “that country” in his first conference with Conservative Party leaders.

“Life expectancy in Africa has risen astonishingly as that country has entered the global economic system,” he said.

Johnson doesn’t exactly have a history of saying much of note with regards to the continent of Africa. In a 2002 column for the Spectator magazine, he argued that the end of colonialism, not colonialism itself, was at fault for developmental problems across the continent. His entire  argument seemed to be based on a single trip he took to Uganda, a country he described as one where too many people squat on their haunches, slowly waving their hands to move the flies from their faces” and where “too many people are rootling aimlessly for rubbish, competing with the marabou storks.”

“The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more,” he wrote. “The best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty.”

Well, maybe a start would be for the head of the British Foreign Office to learn the the difference between Africa’s 54 countries, too.

Photo credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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