Why does global populism continue to appeal to voters when it continually demonstrates that it is in the service of a corrupt global elite? Because, it is in service of a corrupt global elite.
The rise of populism across the US and Western Europe has been well documented, but it is not only an American or European issue. The ugly nativism and anti-immigrant fervor that typify today’s right-wing populism make it clear that populism is also a concern for international relations, with implications that extend far beyond talk of trade wars and border walls.
Commentators across the UK and the USA seemingly struggle daily to understand and explain the “turn to populism.” But those who live with endemic political corruption that is often more visible in poorer countries have long hoped for populist redeemers (or really anyone) to come in and clean up their politics too. Many commentators have accused both Donald Trump and Brexit supporters of turning the UK or US into “banana republics,” the once-proud empires now just ordinary, well, shitholes. A byproduct of this populism has been to reveal that the corruption and kleptocracy that plague many poor countries is just as prevalent in wealthy countries. In fact, as is the case with the Brexit-Lesotho connections making headlines lately, they are often two sides of the same potentially illicitly-obtained coin.
For Basotho, the sad saga of British Brexit financier Arron Banks and his links to the leaders of the Basotho National Party (BNP) in Lesotho only heighten the sense that the malaise of the political class in Lesotho runs deep. The deep imbrication of Banks with the Basotho political elite is not a one-off. Rather it is a feature of the endemic corruption at the heart of the international political order, and a by-product of the ease with which people can move capital across borders.
The Banks case suggests that “corruption” is as much an integral element of the political systems in the West as it is in African countries, and that simple narratives about “corrupt African leaders” need to be complicated (should there be a Mo Ibrahim-equivalent prize for American and European political or business leaders?). With Banks operating with seeming impunity to post large sums of cash to leaders in Lesotho and pour millions of unexplained pounds into the Brexit vote, perhaps Transparency International’s #8 ranking (out of 180) for the UK is not all that far from Lesotho’s #74 after all. This intertwining of internationally-corrupt figures likely helps explain why people across the globe are upending the political order in the hopes of finding the key to better governance.
Previous reporting had called into question Banks’ claim that much of the money he poured into the Brexit campaign came from a diamond mine in Lesotho. This turned out to be patently untrue, as the mine was so far from profitable that it is about to close operations. Reports also note that Banks had sent £65,000 to the personal South African bank account of Basotho National Party (BNP) leader (and government minister) Thesele John ‘Maseribane in 2013, and that Banks had funded large parts of the electoral campaign of the BNP for the 2015 general elections in Lesotho.
It has since come out that in addition to the funds given to ‘Maseribane, who is currently Minister of Communications, Science, and Technology, Banks also funded Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s 2014-15 stay in exile in South Africa (though Banks denied such payments). The reporting linked the funds given by Banks to ‘Maseribane to the issuance of a mining license for Banks’ company (though Banks, again, denied such a link).
‘Maseribane, whose father also led the BNP and was Deputy Prime Minister of Lesotho from 1965 into the 1980s, went on camera to deny that the money was in any way meant to influence the issuance of a license. He claimed that the payments were normal ones to receive from “a friend.” For those watching in Lesotho, where some estimates place 57% of the population as living below the poverty line, a “donation” of that size to a politician is unfathomable. The payment suggests the degree to which corruption is enmeshed with the highest levels of politics and government in Lesotho, and the degree to which the citizens of Lesotho are disillusioned by a politics that works only for those involved at the highest levels.
For those who have long watched the operations of the Lesotho government, the details of this particular story are new, but the general outlines are not. Dating at least to the late 1990s with the issuances of contracts for the first phases of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, outright bribery and tender collusion (along with a cynical lack of concern for those most impacted by projects) have long been endemic in the Mountain Kingdom. This has led to large-scale public cynicism among Basotho about ever getting good governance.
The recent coalition era of Lesotho politics since 2012 has been, in many ways, a response to this popular disenchantment. Prime Minister Tom Thabane has come to power twice now in the span of 5 years with a coalition of parties (including ‘Maseribane’s BNP) running on an anti-corruption platform. Their argument was that long-time Prime Minister Mosisili and his party had presided over public corruption and needed to go. The coalitions were, thus, in many ways populist revolts based largely in Lesotho’s urban areas aiming to sweep away a corrupt old elite. Neither of Thabane’s coalitions has effectively punished or eliminated government corruption, and one of the big questions looming over current Lesotho politics is how the populace will react if corruption continues under the rule of the anti-corruption campaigners. When leaders cloaking themselves in populism fail to “drain the swamp,” what then?
The story of a maybe-corrupt government minister in Lesotho is in front of western viewers because of the sexy connection between Banks’ money and the Brexit campaign (with whispers of a Russian connection hanging over it as well, for good measure). For much of the UK viewing public, this story is surely being seen through a partisan lens, based on personal opinion about Brexit. The Lesotho connections are merely exotic sideshows inserted seemingly gratuitously into the key political questions that will define the UK for the next generation at least.
For those who hate Banks and the dark money that funded Brexit, it is, of course, natural that Banks went to far-away places to make and/or launder money, and then bring it home for nefarious purposes. For Brexit supporters, the campaign against Banks (as he himself suggests in a BBC interview) is one where a successful businessman is facing extreme questions from a partisan media about business practices in far-flung places that have no bearing on his political views in the UK. The unspoken narrative from the BBC interviewer is that were Banks to try something so brazen, so clearly corrupt, in the UK, it would never fly. Thus, in all the narratives of Banks, his South African and Lesotho connections (his “African connections,” for the majority of the viewing audience) are treated as somehow separate from his UK business operations. They work under different standards. The implication: Surely the open corruption seemingly practiced by Banks and ‘Maseribane could never happen in the UK!
And yet, the Brexit voters, the Donald Trump voters, those who put anti-immigrant populists in power in Poland, Hungary, and Austria (to name a few), and the seeming fatalism of voters in Lesotho are all connected through stories like this. These individuals are reacting to stories that play out along similar lines to the Banks/’Maseribane tale where the powerful are able to cross borders and access capital at will. When journalists ask tough questions about where the money came from, why it crossed borders, and whose interests it served, those involved smile and plead friendship (‘Maseribane: “Can you respect my friendship with Arron?”) or deny that anything nefarious could be going on (Banks: “[The money] came from my bank accounts… from my own wealth.”). Thus, ordinary citizens can reasonably conclude that these are wolves raiding the henhouse without even bothering to wear sheep’s clothing. Why do you need disguises when you can simply deny that you are a wolf and still face no consequences?
In Lesotho the turn to populism and/or fatalism is more easily understandable; ‘Maseribane all but admitted to corruption. He did not deny that significant money came into his personal South African bank account from Banks, and did not deny that Banks and his associates funded their 2015 election campaign. And yet, ‘Maseribane and the BNP remain important coalition partners of the ruling government. Why would Basotho trust such a process?
Banks treats the British public with the same sort of disdain, arguing on camera that his “business interests” are what funded his public Brexit campaign, even though the reporters lay on a table in Lesotho the “evidence” he has put forward for that wealth—five tiny unprofitable stones dug up in Lesotho. In treating the British public with such disdain, he lays bare one of the roots of European populism—with “leaders” that will baldly lie about the exchange of large sums of money, why should people trust any leaders, save for those claiming to want to overthrow the whole damned system? With his smug smile on camera, thus, Banks is engaged in the process of tarnishing not just his own reputation (if it were possible to do that more), but also any good name that the political classes and political “influencers” might have had left in the UK.
Why do people in Lesotho distrust their own government at increasing rates, and why did Britons, in the eyes of many commentators and economists, cut off their nose to spite their face in voting for Brexit? It is in part because of individuals like Arron Banks and Thesele ‘Maseribane who freely pass large sums of money, ideas, and business permits across international borders at the same time that people without political connections and access to large amounts of cash are restricted from doing so. Banks and ‘Maseribane get to decide who benefits from large sums of cash, while those whose lives are spent in grinding poverty in Lesotho or in a stagnating working class in the UK have no such option. The populist rhetoric that ordinary people don’t have a chance to succeed because the deck is stacked in favor of the wealthy and powerful is clearly demonstrated by their actions.
Will the Banks saga change anything in either the UK as regards Brexit or in Lesotho? In the short term it is not likely. What it will do is hammer home, yet again, that the political status quo is not working—and that it has not been working for many people for quite some time. Why should people, either in the UK or in Lesotho, trust the political class, which seems to profit handsomely no matter what? The saga might lead some to even ponder the question: What good is democracy if those who are leading campaigns and funneling money to support causes cannot be held accountable? Why should people vote for anyone OTHER than someone claiming they will clean up the system, no matter how dodgy some of their other views might be? In a world where the truth does not matter, why trust anyone? As Dan O’Sullivan framed Trump voters in the US, “they do not accept life in America as it is today, and they will vote, if courted, for the one guy willing to walk through life as a six-foot upraised middle finger to everything known and despised.”
In the end, however, there is no simple answer to the rise of the complex and nebulous phenomenon of global populism, especially given that one of the features of populism is a strongly local element. The questions this saga raise, however, point to the rise of a global political and economic aristocracy. The intertwining of this global elite in their business and political deals that remain opaque to the great majority is a feature, not a bug, of this system. Even if any of the investigations into Banks (including a just-confirmed one opened in South Africa by the Hawks) manage to dent his Teflon persona, the damage to public institutions and popular trust in the political class has already been inflicted.
So, why does Arron Banks own a highly unprofitable Lesotho diamond mine? We have no conclusive answer, and despite all the high-quality journalism from good governance groups like Open Democracy and MNN CIJ, and now Channel 4, the BBC, and the Mail and Guardian, we may never actually know. That matters because it means that the good citizens of the UK and Lesotho who are not part of this elite, those who are facing the struggles of putting daily bread (or papa) on the table are getting shortchanged yet again by their political leaders. For some the turn to populism is the only thing that is left short of nihilism or complete disenchantment from the political systems that have for too long sold them short.