ACCRA, Ghana (AP) — A rising star in Britain’s Labour Party, described by some as the “British Barack Obama,” Chuka Umunna urged the United Kingdom to more aggressively forge ties with West Africa’s fast-growing economies.
During a trade mission to West Africa last week that included a stop in his father’s home country Nigeria, Umunna, a member of the British Parliament, dismissed the comparison to the United States president.
“Let’s not beat around the bush. The reason why people make the comparison is, frankly, there are not that many black people in Western politics,” said Umunna, who represents the London district of Streatham and is Labour’s shadow business secretary. “And I’d love to have a situation where you can be elected as a black politician without constantly having comparisons made.”
Umunna, 34, grew up in Streatham and worked as a lawyer before being elected to parliament in 2010. The son of an Irish mother and Nigerian father, he said he made seven or eight trips to Nigeria “for pretty long stays” during his childhood. But prior to last week’s visit, he hadn’t been to the country since his father’s funeral in 1992.
Umunna said that while West Africa’s high growth rate is well-known, he was struck by just how different Nigeria seemed today compared to his last visit, which occurred during a time of military rule.
“It didn’t have the feeling of a country that was going anywhere in 1992,” he said. But today Nigeria “does have the feeling of a country on the up. What you find physically and you see on the street matches up with a growth rate of 7 percent, which it is forecast to have this year.”
He had similar things to say about Ghana, where at a reception Thursday night hosted by the British High Commission in Accra he said Britain was eager to help develop infrastructure and remove other barriers to economic growth.
“We are acutely conscious that we come here with some humility,” he said in brief remarks. “This is clearly an economy that is taking off, and we know that between 2011 and 2015 Ghana is forecast to be the eighth-fastest growing economy in the world. And of course that is at the same time that our economy in the U.K. has been struggling to grow somewhat.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Umunna acknowledged there was a feeling in its former colonies that Britain has been less engaged than other partners such as China, Brazil and India.
“I think it’s fair to say that there is a perception that we’ve been a bit complacent and because of our historical ties have felt somehow that we don’t need to put as much effort in,” he said. “I want to be very clear and send out a very strong message to policymakers and business communities in all of the West African countries that the U.K. wants to do business.”
Back home, Umunna said he was focused on helping put the Labour Party back into power in the 2015 elections under party leader Ed Miliband — something he said the party was in a good position to accomplish.
Umunna said he left the law for politics “to achieve massive positive change” and that he was frustrated being in the opposition.
Though widely regarded as an up and coming force in the Labour Party, Umunna has received some recent negative press related to his online footprint. Last month Britain’s Daily Mail reported that on an invitation-only social networking website, Umunna complained in 2006 that clubs in London’s West End “seem to be full of trash and C-list wannabes, while other places that should know better opt for the cheesy vibe.” The paper said the comments undercut the lawmaker’s “man of the people” image.
Umunna has also been criticized in the press for editing his own Wikipedia page to include references to “the U.K.’s Barack Obama,” something his office has said he has no recollection of doing. Prime Minister David Cameron made light of the story on May 8 in the House of Commons, saying, “Now he has been famously comparing himself to Barack Obama. As he would put it, can we change our Wikipedia entry? Yes we can.” In BBC footage of the remarks, Umunna rolls his eyes in response.
“With respect to the nightclub comment I’ve never claimed to be a saint,” Umunna told AP. “My generation, we’re probably the first generation to actually have grown up online and to have social media accounts . We all say stupid things in our younger years and I’m no different from anyone else, and I regret what I said and I can’t really say more than that.”
He declined to be specific when discussing his political ambitions. “I’m not particularly interested in positions and in my own personal position in as much as I am ambitious to actually do things and make a difference,” he said. “I’m ambitious in my politics and the kind of society I’d like us to build.”