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A Natural State of Being

This is a longer version of a story I wrote for The Scotsman about the role of the nation’s Afro-Caribbean community in the independence referendum campaign. To read the edited version, click here

THERE is an old Nigerian proverb that says the journey to manhood begins only when a man leaves his father’s house to build his own homestead. Home at the moment for Graham Campbell is Sighthill, a housing scheme to the north of Glasgow, but he is laying the foundations for something bigger. “We get independence,” he says. “We like the egalitarian, welcoming spirit in Scotland, it’s a country that shares traditions close to the hearts of our people. We like what it has to offer but as outsiders, we can also see its potential.”

A Jamaican-born, London-raised Rastafarian poet, musician, writer and charity fundraiser, Mr Campbell is the convener of Africans for an Independent Scotland (AfIS), though his Nigerian friends calls him oga pata pata – the boss. It is a fitting sobriquet, for come 18 September, the slim, dreadlocked figure in a crocheted rastacap, mustard brown tweed jacket and trainers could well influence the decision of a voter bloc the size of Motherwell.

Like many pro-independence grassroots organisations in the orbit of the main Yes Scotland campaign, AfIS has flown under the radar of the mainstream debate, but it has been heralded by key figures in Yes camp, such as Blair Jenkins, the chief executive of Yes Scotland and Shona Robison, the equalities minister. More importantly in a referendum that looks set to go to the wire, its arguments in favour of self-determination carry considerable weight among the African, Caribbean and Afroscots communities who call the land of Jock Tamson home.

On an overcast afternoon in Glasgow’s east end, Mr Campbell and a few colleagues have assembled outside African Embassy, a labyrinthine minimarket catering to those children of the Mother Continent who have wandered far and wide. It is the day before voter registrations close for the referendum and the AfIS band are eager to ensure all who are eligible have their say in little over a fortnight’s time, distributing leaflets in English, French and Arabic.

Inside, the Duke Street emporium is a sensory delight. Its small hair salon does a steady trade in cornrows and braiding while a rack of DVDs offer up Nollywood’s latest and loudest. The aisles, stacked deep and high, are chock full of delicacies such as beef biltong, dried yellow mystus and the irresistibly sweet smell of freshly baked Agege bread. Everyone I speak to, however, believes the choice advocated by AfIS to be even more gratifying.

Sitting in the barber’s chair while he has his head shaved, Kabir Rauph shoots me a quizzical glance in the mirror when I ask how he plans to vote. “It has to be yes, doesn’t it?” the 36-year-old replies. A Nigerian advertising student, he has already returned his postal ballot. For all the setbacks it has endured since gaining independence 54 years ago, he believes his homeland’s autonomy should inspire Scotland to follow suit. “A country deserves to control its economy and its future and the SNP’s argument for that is the best option,” he reasons.

Graham Campbell of AfIS hands out leaflets outside the African Embassy in Glasgow's Duke street. Picture by Ian MacNicol. Copyright The Scotsman.

Graham Campbell of AfIS hands out leaflets outside the African Embassy in Glasgow’s Duke street. Picture by Ian MacNicol. Copyright The Scotsman.

According to the 2011 census, there are around 30,000 Africans and 7,000 people from Caribbean nations living in Scotland – around 0.7% of the population – with South Africa and Nigeria representing the lion’s share at around 11,000 and 9,000 respectively. Once those with refugee status are discounted along with nationals from the likes of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the vast majority are qualifying Commonwealth citizens, able to decide Scotland’s future. Mr Campbell estimates around 30,000 will line up at the ballot boxes.

“Independence is not a journey without problems, but none of us would turn our backs on it,” explains the 46-year-old, one of the few members of Scotland’s Afro-Caribbean community to have stood for office. “Our countries left Britain’s control and understood the challenges that meant, but in this instance, Scotland will have all the advantages we didn’t have.”

It is a topic that has been addressed at the main AfIS level, but also in the multitude of splinter groups that constitute the Scottish African populace. Somali, Nigerian and Cameroonian residents have held talks on the referendum, while an especially engaged band of Kenyans have been staging debates every week in a Glasgow restaurant. Even those nationals of countries unfamiliar with the democratic process, such as the Eritrean and Sudanese people, the inability to cast a vote has not dissuaded them from discussing it.

For AfIS – which draws its members from over 25 different nations and has campaigned alongside other Yes splinter groups like English Scots for Yes – a key motivation is the desire to wrest control of immigration and asylum policies from Westminster and reshape them in a more progressive mould. Chimezie Umeh, the group’s secretary, argues that around 80% of asylum claimants in Scotland are Africans, the majority of whom are women fleeing persecution, dictatorships, war zones and the threat of rape and torture.

The Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence stresses the need for a “healthy population growth” and proposes a “controlled, transparent and efficient immigration system.” First Minister Alex Salmond has set a target to increase net annual migration to 24,000, a rise he describes as “modest” compared to the average net inward migration figure of 22,000 over the past decade. Crucially, the government also vows to reintroduce the post-study work visa, which would allow the estimated 30,000 international students in Scotland – around 3,000 of whom are drawn from outside the EU – to continue to stay in the country.

Mr Campbell, the son of a Jamaican father and Grenadian mother, agrees that the ability to take charge of what are at present reserved matters is integral to the community’s support for Yes, stating that such changes would mean a “better life” for Africans in Scotland. “A lot of people who came here ten years ago under the Fresh Talent scheme could be contributing a lot more to the economy,” he says. “The country needs to raise its working age population and most of our community fits that demographic, with two thirds of them holding degree level qualifications. The other big issue in our is immigration. Although around half the community are students, workers and migrants, those who have refugee status have suffered because of the UK Border Agency. It is an organisation that has made our lives hell in terms of establishing a community and we want to see it gone.”

Beyond such issues, those new Scots with ties to Africa and the Caribbean hold a profound and unshakeable belief that self-government is an inherent right. In the words of Chinaka Odum, a University of Strathclyde graduate who has lived in Castlemilk for six years, it represents a “natural state” of being. “Africans get that independence isn’t one vision, it’s a blueprint, an idea, a chance to make something new,” says the 36-year-old.

It is a desire based on ideology and history and as such, it seems impossible not to suggest that the community’s zeal for independence is in part motivated by the ills of British colonialism. It is a topic that is part of the debate, yet too how Scotland might learn from the role it played during the days of empire. For all the good done by men such as Sir John Kirk and Alexander Low Bruce in ending slavery and setting Africa on course for a brighter future (a mention, too, should go to those 13,000 estimable Glasgow residents signed a 1732 petition to abolish slavery, arguably one of the earliest coordinated human rights campaigns in history), it is important to remember how other Scots wrote darker chapters of the continent’s history as well as that of the Caribbean.

As the the second city of the empire, Glasgow was built on the trade of tobacco, sugar, cotton and people, the proceeds from which erected buildings and entire streets that today form the spine of the urban centre. It is thought there were around 80 slave traders from the city, while nationwide, the history books reveal that in 1834, one in seven British slave owners claiming compensation after abolition hailed from Scotland. Indeed, one Aberdonian, Alexander Allardyce, was responsible for taking more African slaves to Jamaica than the entire population of his home city.

In Mr Campbell’s view, the country has done better than most to acknowledge its past, and the renewal offered by independence presents the opportunity to further engage with it. “Scotland was a central part of the empire and in parts of Africa and the Caribbean, Scots were the predominant influence. I’m a Jamaican Campbell. There’s a history and legacy of colonialism and slavery, and Scotland has to own up to its role in it,” he explains. “There are many good historians doing that, and you only have to look at the Commonwealth Games, when artists and cultural practitioners were funded to tell the bad chapters of the nation’s past.

“Glasgow is big, warm and loving enough to tell its truths and that tells you a lot about Scotland. An independent Scotland would be able to build on that and have more of an equal role with countries like Jamaica, Malawi, Zambia and Nigeria, countries where it has left its footprint. The Scottish diaspora, let’s not forget, isn’t just Americans, Canadians and Australians, and I think a yes vote will help Scots think more carefully about their country and its place in the world.”

The group’s Yes vote is not unequivocal. Some Africans, Mr Odum reveals, have fallen for “scaremongering” warning they would be unable to travel to London. Mr Campbell agrees a “minority” have been piqued by ominous threats of the loss of passport status, with some even told “they would have to move to England,” myths debunked by the White Paper’s proposal for a common travel area and the prospect of dual nationality. Other Africans, claims Mr Campbell, believe “a guest shouldn’t set the rules when they’re in someone else’s home.” Even among many committed to the cause, support is conditional on AfIS being party to the negotiations for a written constitution, such is the desire for tangible, lasting equality.

“We want to be part of the negotiations for a constitution to create a fairer Scotland and bring an end to the inequalities we’ve experienced,” insists Mr Campbell, a Glaswegian for the past 13 years. “Unemployment among our young people is much higher than it is for the rest of the country even though our population is twice as likely to have a degree level education than the average Glaswegian. Even so, they are working in the security industry, in bars and nightclubs, areas of employment that are not commensurate with their experience and skills. We want an independent Scotland and we want a fairer Scotland.”

Indeed, though it would be a huge boon, some in the group acknowledge that an independent Scotland’s promise of a more compassionate immigration policy could have undesirable aftershocks, not least the prospect of a backlash from a minority with arms folded rather than open. If the history of other North European nations is any barometer, Mr Campbell reflects, such changes could spark a “right wing” reaction. “We would need to have proper political and community integration tools to deal with that, so I hope the Scottish Government is ready,” he  adds.

Yet such potential problems are being embraced. The consensus seems to be that come two weeks tomorrow, Scotland’s Afro-Caribbean will fraternity will vote en masse for change, continuing the long and storied narrative towards self-determination began by their parents, grandparent and great-grandparents decades ago and thousands of miles away. As another old African proverb has it, wherever a man goes to dwell, his character goes with him.

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About martynmcl

Senior reporter at The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. Views here, however, are personal.

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