Boris Johnson, Libya and Dead Bodies

Boris Johnson is no stranger to controversy and in recent weeks his position has come under an extreme amount of scrutiny. The former mayor of London and current UK foreign secretary, has faced calls to resign in the light of Theresa May’s Brexit stance. The tensions between him and the rest of the cabinet have been pushed over the edge due to his latest comments on Libya. Boris Johnson suggested that the city of Sirte has the potential to become a new Dubai once “the dead bodies” have been removed. Regarding these comments, a source at Downing Street stated, “We did not feel it was an appropriate choice of words.”

Johnson’s full comment:

“There’s a group of UK business people, wonderful guys, who want to invest in Sirte, on the coast, near where Gaddafi was actually captured and executed, as some of you may have seen. And they literally have a brilliant vision to turn Sirte, with the help of the municipality of Sirte, to turn it into the next Dubai. The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away and then they’ll be there.”

Many Libyan politicians were quick to criticise the foreign secretary. Salah Shubi, a member of Libya’s House of Representatives, described Johnson’s words as “cruel” whilst the former UK ambassador to Libya said that Johnson’s latest blunder was another example of his “inability to keep his mouth shut”. In addition to this, the House of Representatives’ posted on its website that Johnson’s comments were “irresponsible” and called on the British Government to apologise for the offence caused. Libya’s Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, met with Peter Millet (the UK’s ambassador to Libya) seeking an explanation for the foreign secretary’s comments.

Johnson is also facing criticism at home with politicians and the media applying more pressure on him and Downing street. The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, implied that these comments could put the potential trial of Hashem Abedi at risk. Abedi, the brother of the Manchester Arena bomber, is said to have played a crucial role in the Manchester Arena attack and Burnham wants him to face trial under British law. Burnham stated that Johnson’s comments were “worse than embarrassing” adding ““we are looking for cooperation from Libya and I do not think the person with responsibility for UK diplomacy can just go and shoot from the hip everywhere he goes.”

Former Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, recently stated in an interview with the BBC that in “any normal situation” the foreign secretary would be sacked. Despite his gaffes and blunders, Johnson is one of the most influential figures in the Conservative party and Theresa May is aware of this fact. If she were to sack Johnson, the threat he may cause her premiership from the backbenches would leave her government hanging on by a thread. Johnson defended his comments on Twitter accusing the media and politicians alike of having “no knowledge or understanding of Libya” and wanting to “play politics with the appallingly dangerous reality in Sirte”.

Johnson visited Libya in August 2017 announcing that £9 million will be given to the Libyan government to tackle the threats of terrorism and trafficking. Furthermore, the funds are expected to help clear more than 5,000 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left by Islamic State. Sirte was seized by ISIS in March 2015 and was recaptured back in late 2016 through a coalition of US airstrikes and Libyan government forces. However, the UN- backed Libyan government has been struggling to clear the IEDs left behind during the year-long siege.

A small remark has unfolded into a chaotic mess for the UK government with cabinet members critcising the Foreign secretary as well as defending him. Damian Green attempted to avoid the question when asked in an interview with Sky News but admitted that Johnson should “choose his words more carefully.” Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, told the BBC that it was “very unfortunate language. I don’t want to defend that.” Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, said: “There comes a time when the buffoonery needs to stop […] he does not belong in the office of foreign secretary.”  Likewise, Jo Swinson said that Johnson’s comments were “unbelievably crass and insensitive.”

After a disastrous party conference, the conservatives were hoping to bounce back in the coming weeks; however, their agenda has been overshadowed by the remarks of their foreign secretary. Also, Theresa May has faced calls to resign from former party chairman, Grant Shapps. The mounting pressure is leaving her government in disarray and it almost seems inevitable that she will come crashing down with it.

Featured image | Boris Jonson : BackBoris2012 Campaign | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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