Meet Nigerian man who may become first black British PM

On May 7, 2015, a Nigerian, Chuka Umunna, could
make history by becoming the first black Prime
Minister of the United Kingdom. Born in London in
1978, Chuka was bred in the UK. His late father,
Bennett, hailed from Anambra State while his Irish
mother, Patricia, is a solicitor.
Co-incidentally, Chuka shares startling similarities
with the United States President, Barack Obama, who
is the first black President of the world’s most
powerful nation.
For instance, Chuka is of mixed race, being the child
of a Nigerian father and an Irish mother while
Obama is also of mixed race, being the offspring of a
white American woman and a Kenyan father. Also
Chuka’s father, Bennett, was killed in a mysterious
car accident in Nigeria in 1992 while Obama’s father
was killed in a car accident in Kenya in 1982.
If history repeats itself as it is being predicted by
British political observers, Chuka, who is also a six-
foot tall lawyer like Obama, could become the first
black Prime Minister in the UK.
Chuka’s life story is perhaps a better guide to his
future political direction. It is the story of a rise from
the streets of South London (scene of some of
Britain’s worse race riots in the 1980s) to the
parliament. But it is not the story that some might
expect.
His father, Bennett, was a Nigerian labourer, who
arrived in Britain in the sixties with one suitcase and
no money. Having borrowed the fare from Liverpool
to London, he worked in a carwash, became a
successful businessman and died in a car crash when
his son was 13.
Bennett began an import-export business trading
with Nigeria and was starting to make a decent living
when he met Patricia Milmo, a solicitor, at a London
party. She happened to be the daughter of Sir
Helenus Milmo, a Cambridge-educated High Court
judge and a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Nazi trials.
They later got married, a rare combination during a
time of high social inequality and racism.
Chuka believed his father was killed because he
refused to indulge in corrupt practices when he was
running for the governorship of Anambra State
during the administration of former military
dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida (retd.).
Bennett died after his car ran into a lorry carrying
logs along the Onitsha-Owerri highway in Anambra.
Bennett had been splitting his time between London
and Nigeria – where he unsuccessfully ran for the
governorship of Anambra State and had taken a
stand against bribery.
At a point Bennett was also the owner of the Rangers
International Football Club of Enugu, the darling of
the Igbo people.
When quizzed about his father on Sky News, he had
this to say: “There was a lot of speculation in Nigeria
at the time around his death. He was a national
political figure standing on an anti-corruption ticket
and refused to bribe anybody.
“We don’t really talk about it because it is not going
to bring him back but I think he would be bowled
over that his son is now a politician just like him.”
Chuka, an English and French Law graduate from the
University of Manchester, who also holds a Master’s
degree from Nottingham Law School, says his
interest in politics was shaped by seeing extreme
poverty while visiting his father’s relatives in Nigeria
and the social divide in his own Streatham
constituency in the UK. He says that he is “not super-
religious” but that his soft-left values are “rooted in
my Christianity.”
The 35-year-old Labour Party Member of Parliament,
however, has two hurdles to cross if he is to make
history in the UK. This is because in the UK, for one
to become the Prime Minister, the person must first
be a Member of Parliament, the person’s party must
win majority of seats out of the 560 seats in the
House of Commons during the parliamentary
elections and the person must be the leader of his
party.
Presently, Chuka is the Member of Parliament for
Streatham, a position he has held since 2010 but
must re-contest in 2015 and win to retain the seat.
He is also the Shadow Business Secretary, a position
held by a member of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
The duty of the office holder is to scrutinise the
actions of the government’s Secretary of State for
Business, Innovation and Skills and develop
alternative policies. The office holder is a member of
the Shadow Cabinet.
According to the UK Telegraph, Chuka is rumoured to
have the strong support of a former British Prime
Minister, Tony Blair, who was also a Labour Party
leader.
According to the British newspaper, when asked if he
was Blair’s anointed candidate, Chuka said, “I really
don’t know anything about that.” However, when he
was pressed further whether he aspired to head his
party, he said, “I don’t entertain any discussion
beyond winning the election next year. That would
be completely hypocritical of me. To start thinking
about hypothetical scenarios would be totally
indulgent. All my energy is focused on winning the
election, and so should everyone’s. It will be very
close.”
Chuka is one of the youngest MPs in the UK having
been introduced into British politics by the current
Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, while he was in his
20s.
It was Milband that helped him become an MP and
later made him his Parliamentary Private Secretary
before he was promoted to the Shadow Cabinet in
October 2011. He is tipped to become Miliband’s
successor and could become the Prime Minister
should the Labour Party win next year’s election.
Chuka, however, claims to hate the comparison of
him and Obama which he terms the “construct of lazy
journalists.” He sharply divides opinion in British
politics. Good-looking, articulate, new-media-savvy
and a good orator.
According to FT Magazine, he is not universally
popular among his own colleagues, who see more
style than substance. “He just has a knack of
alienating people,” said one experienced Labour MP.
“He is probably the most natural communicator I’ve
seen since Tony Blair. The problem is that each week
he has fewer supporters than he did at the start of
the week.”
Even potential allies recount stories of apparent
slights or snubs. A senior party figure says, “Chuka
has put people’s backs up. They feel he is
inaccessible.” Another long-serving MP adds, “The
idea of learning the trade first is only for mere
mortals, not for him.” Peter Mandelson, the former
Labour business secretary who played a key role in
Blair’s rise through to the top, thinks the explanation
for this is quite simple, “Envy plays a big part in
politics,” he says.
Like Blair, Chuka sometimes connects better with
those beyond his own circle. John Cridland, head of
the CBI employers’ group, calls him “a guy with
whom we can do business.” Andrew Tyrie, Tory Chair
of the Commons Treasury Committee, say: “He’s
extremely talented and charming.” Andrew Adonis, a
former Labour minister, sums up his cross-party
appeal: “The best politicians are those who look
outwards not inwards.”
However, allies of the current British PM, David
Cameron, scoffed at the idea that Chuka might
represent a threat to Cameron’s second term bid.
“I can’t think of any issue where he’s put us under
pressure,” says one close friend of the prime
minister. “He’s pretty average – he’s a slick corporate
lawyer.”
Also, among his fellow party members, Chuka’s lack
of political definition is another source of irritation
as some claim they struggle to work out what he
really believes in. But Chuka says people should
show a bit more patience. “It would be rather
unhealthy if after just three years in parliament I
was setting out some blueprint for my country,” he
says. “What do people expect?”
But some see him as the potential leader of a
mainstream 21st-Century Labour party with the kind
of crossover appeal of Blair’s New Labour. Despite
initial reservations that Chuka might be a bit too left-
wing, Blair has started seeing him regularly. “Chuka
strikes Tony as very smart,” says one close ally of the
former PM. “Business is a particularly important
brief in tough economic times and Chuka seems to
be rising to the challenge.”
As if Blair’s blessing was not enough, Chuka recalls
the “honour” of spending “a small bit of private time
with former US President, Bill Clinton, who he
describes as one of his political heroes. “I think he
defies the left-right description,” Mandelson says in
approbation. “He’s part of a generation that
transcends those labels.”
He has also recently been to Europe to meet his
friend, the French PM, Manuel Valls.
According to statistics, almost 15 per cent of people
in Britain describe themselves as “non-white” but the
country has never had a party leader from an ethnic
minority background. Nobody has ever come close.
Chuka confesses that until his late teens he had not
even thought about a career in politics because there
was “nobody who looked like me” running the
country.
Chuka has been vocal in the call for a reduction in
government spending as well as issues on
immigration. “They [the French] have something like
40 ministers compared to our 80,” he says.
On the EU itself, he has called for reform, saying not
long ago that free movement of workers was not
intended to mean free movement of jobseekers. “As
one of the most pro-European shadow ministers, I
don’t think you can ignore the impact that free
movement has had on some of our communities,” he
says, adding that it has changed because there are
“many more EU members.”
He adds, “There’s a number of things we need to look
at. Those who tend to raise the issue of immigration
with me are my African and Asian constituents. They
want confidence there are proper controls.
“They want to see people integrate, which is why we
shouldn’t be spending all this money translating
documents and [instead] directing resources to
ensure people learn English. And you do need to
look at free movement.”
Next year’s election may not be based on ethnicity
but it obviously will be hard not to notice that a
British-Nigerian could become the leader of one of
the world’s wealthiest countries.
On the issue of ethnicity, Chuka has this to say, “A lot
of people presume – because of my ethnicity – that I
come from a particular social background. I am very
quick to disabuse people of any sense that I’ve
wanted and struggled in the way that, say, my father
did. I come from a fairly middle-class background.
People try and pigeonhole you in a box and I find
that frustrating sometimes.”
If Chuka is hard to pigeonhole, that may be linked to
his own pedigree. It seems likely, if not certain, that
Chuka, whose name means God is the greatest, is
destined to become a larger presence in his party
and thus a bigger potential target despite being a
person whose father came to the UK from Nigeria
without a dime.