The Gambia Gambit

“Everybody who is written about has an image of what he will look like on the printed page. He is always disappointed,” wrote the South African commentator Jonny Steinberg

…And so the Norwegian Conservative Party Prime Minister Erna Solberg (born in 1961) may have more reasons than most to be disappointed. In October of this year, mainstream Norwegian news media covering the launch of an unauthorized and utterly unremarkable political biography of her, highlighted her youthful adventure with a young Gambian exchange student at the University of Bergen in Norway. Some sample headlines: “Erna silent about Gambian ex-boyfriend;” “Feared harassment – silent about Gambian ex-boyfriend” ran the sensational (later amended) headlines of the internet editions of the mainstream news outlets Aftenposten and NRK.

It was not that Solberg—a proverbial career politician if there ever was one, who was first elected to the Norwegian Parliament aged twenty-eight, who true to her social origins in the upper bourgeoisie of Bergen (Norway’s second largest city and a conservative political bastion) has hardly ever held any ordinary form of work—had not told this story before. When she was first appointed to a cabinet post in the center-right Bondevik Government in 2003, a post in which she would earn the Thatcherian media epithet ‘Iron Erna’ for her aptitude in learning to walk and talk to the tune of increasingly restrictive popular views on immigration (Muslim immigration in particular), Erna Solberg did an interview with the tabloid newspaper Verdens Gang (VG) in which she talked at length about her two-year relationship with her Gambian ex-lover Ousmane. It had apparently occasioned more than a bit of talking behind her back in Conservative Party circles in Bergen. That is until she broke off the relationship after a visit to Ousmane’s home village in Gambia, and realized the challenges of the ‘cultural differences’ between them. There was, as a matter of fact, also a reference to her youthful adventure in an interview with the mainstream regional newspaper Bergens Tidende (BT) ahead of Solberg coming to power as prime minister after the parliamentary elections in Norway in 2013.

So if this was ‘strategic silence’ and ‘self-censorship’ on Solberg’s part it was of the kind that white middle-class male desk editors in Norwegian liberal news media regularly conjure up out of thin air in order to create seemingly ‘sensational’ headlines intended to attract readers. It happens in a time in which Norwegian news media face a long downwards spiral in terms of both readership and revenue. It is to the Solberg’s credit that she herself has never sought to instrumentalize her youthful adventure with Ousmane, especially given the fact that since October 2013 she has, in coalition with the populist right-wing Progress Party, presided over the most right-wing government in Norwegian democratic history. It is a government which is committed to monumental tax breaks for the wealthiest and most powerful 1% of the Norwegian population, and has installed the swiftest and most efficient forced deportation machine ever seen in Norway (in the face of the world’s worst refugee crisis since 1945.)

So what do the sensationalist media reporting on Solberg’s youthful adventure with Ousmane tell us about the state of affairs in Norway? As of 2014, there are an estimated 97, 000 people of African descent living in Norway, a small country of approximately 5 million inhabitants. Although Norwegian historians have established that there have been Africans in Norway since 1596, African immigration to Norway is by and large a modern phenomenon, dating from the 1960s.

There is a long-standing and not very honorable Norwegian tradition of externalizing various forms of racism both historically and presently, so that anti-black racism, the most paradigmatic form of racism is always and inevitably located elsewhere. Ordinary Norwegians may comfortably condemn such racism when manifested in say, the USA United States or South Africa, without ever taking a closer and introspective look at the racism and discrimination which continue to blight the everyday lives of black Norwegian.

It is a central part of the national mythos in Norway that it was innocent of the sins of colonialism: A modern corollary of this national mythos has been that there is no racism to speak of in modern Norway. Norwegian historians have in recent years exploded the former myth; the latter was exploded by a number of racist-motivated murders in the 2000s.

And yet, Norwegian mainstream media’s continued fascination with the by now utterly unremarkable fact (in the context of an increasingly multicultural Norway) that black and white men and women may feel attracted to one another and – heaven forbid, may actually engage in sex with one another! – tells us that there is still a long way to go.

Sindre Bangstad

Sindre Bangstad is a social anthropologist currently affiliated with the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oslo in Norway. He is the author of Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia.

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