When the US President Barack Obama visited Ghana in his first mandate some years back he had famously declared that Africa, the blessed land of his late father, did not need strong men in power but strong institutions. Then he had innocuously provoked a continental debate over the declaration as he had hit a major point by pointing out a major problem militating against the democratic evolution of the poor black continent. Since then, however, very little has changed in terms of real change in the way and manner our despotic leaders behave and see leadership.
In Africa the state institutions are deliberately emasculated to stifle dissent and favour the strong-man syndrome. Many countries are still reeling under the dictatorial tendencies of old kleptocrats and megalomaniacs in power for interminable decades. Democracy (or a semblance of same) has thus been reduced to some glorified dictatorship, one in which the ‘leader’ is both omnipotent and omniscience. In some cases the strong man represents everything: the state, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary!
Visiting Kenya, his fatherland, earlier this year, President Obama had again taken a strong stand against the many dictators spoiling the African political landscape. He stirred another round of controversy when he declared in Nairobi in his characteristic candour that those leaders who argued that quitting power would endanger their states and provoke chaos and anarchy should consider themselves as having failed to provide quality leadership for which they were ‘elected’. Quite apt indeed! When a leader fails to prepare for his succession then he should not be seen to have succeeded in his brief for the right thing to be done was to have organized a peaceful transition given the transience of power.
But even the demise of strong men never served as useful lessons for other strong men ruling over their peoples with or without their consent. The fate that befell Saddam Hussein never stopped Slobodan Milosevic from butchering the Balkans. The brutal killing of Ghaddafi has done little to dissuade other little Ghaddafis from criminalising the state and committing evil here and there.
In Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza has turned his country into a banana republic where vultures feast on dead bodies piling up on the streets every other night. By forcing his way to power again in an illegal third term gambit Burundians in their thousands had fled to neighbouring Rwanda and other places as security has generally deteriorated with police brutality being met with grenade explosions by the opposition forces resisting the imposition. Now the die is cast with the Rwandan-like genocide appearing ominously on the horizon. Nkurunziza is suffocating his country and one of two things might happen in the nearest future: either he succeeds in killing Burundi or Burundi will kill him!
In the two neighbouring Congos the Presidents are manoeuvering their ways toward perpetuating their stay in power. While President Denis Sassou-Nguesso has almost succeeded in entrenching himself in power by organising a sham of a ‘referendum’ that made his third term bid a foregone conclusion President Joseph Kabila is accused by the vibrant opposition forces of manipulating the weak state institutions to pave way for another term after the expiration of his constitutionally-mandated two terms.
West Africa (exemplified by Senegal, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin Republic and Ghana) seems to be leading the way in deference to Obama’s exhortation. The democratic institutions of the states are given free hands to operate with pacific transfer of power the established norm. Though Abidjan had in the distant past produced an efficient strong man in the late Houphouet-Boigny (who ruled for 33 uniterrupted years methodically developing his country infrastructurally beyond his time) democracy has been entrenched with the recent brilliant re-election of President Alassane Ouattara for a second term of five years. After the post-election crisis of 2010-2011 when the then incumbent President, Laurent Gbagbo, now awaiting trial in the Hague-based ICC, refused to cede power to the present president Cote d’Ivoire is indeed back economically and politically and majority of Ivorians are happy with the sterling leadership quality of the economist they affectionately call ADO.
In Zimbabwe the Mugabe muddle has almost destroyed the economy of the country. The national currency, the Zim-dollar, is now ‘dead’ and ‘buried’, replaced as it were with competing other international currencies like the US Dollars, the British Pounds and the European Euro. And in the face of these challenges Comrade Mugabe is not yet done with the leadership of the former Rhodesia. As things stand today there is no successor in sight and if Mugabe drops dead today Zimbabwe risks implosion. Today there is generalized paranoia as no one trusts anyone with Grace Mugabe positioning herself for a possible grabbing of power post-Mugabe! At 94 or thereabout the oldest head of state in Africa is not yet tired even though he naps and snores every now and then in international functions.
In Uganda, a country in east Africa made famous internationally by the late Idi Amin Dada for his brutality and cannibalism while in power, Yoweri Museveni is set to go for yet another ‘mandate’ after decades in the saddle. A strong man in his own rights Museveni by his body language does not see Uganda without him in charge. He even had the effrontery to hit back at President Obama after his Nairobi declaration saying egoistically in effect that it was up to Ugandans (and not Obama) to determine and decide who governs them. But the problem here lies with the obvious fact that the Ugandans are not allowed to practise true democracy because of Musevenism. The state institutions in Kampala are so much compromised that providing the checks and balances in a typical democratic fashion exists only on paper; all are amenable to Museveni and his whims and caprices! Life and death are under his command, he determines who lives to see another day or who dies!
In Cameroun President Paul Biya remains the source of all powers for decades running. He represents the very best description of the strong man syndrome afflicting the continent. While the opposition exist and make some noise sometimes Biya makes the sun shine or brings down the rain and thunder at his convenience with little or no challenge! Though he has done relatively well in terms of economic management and stability of the polity Camerounians are still subjected to political slavery with the issue of succession a taboo or no-go area in any public discourse.
In North Africa, the Arab Spring revolution had come and gone overthrowing two strong men — one in Tunis and the other in Cairo. It took the immolation of an artisan in Tunisia for the uprising to be started. The then dictator, Ben Ali, was forced to quit power and now living on forced exile in Saudi Arabia. Today Tunisia, despite the constant menace of terrorism, has established durable democracy with a free and fair poll that produced a president. Tunisians, post-Ben Ali, are enjoying freedom of expression and free enterprise with state institutions functioning normally.
In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, the deposed strong man, today stands condemned by the court for murder and state terrorism after killing some protesters during the Arab Spring that removed him from power. Egypt has elected yet another strong man with military background, President Sisi, thereby compromising the revolution that ousted both Mubarak and Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mossi. But one thing is sure: Sisi would be different from Mubarak because the international community are watching him very closely and Egytians are wiser now than ever before. Besides by his actions and utterances Sisi appears to be more patriotic and less power-hungry than Mubarak.
In Burkina Faso, the revolution of last year’s October saw the end of the Blaise Compaore’s dictatorship that spanned 27 years. This Sunday a new democratic chapter will be opened in the lives of the people as they go to the polls to freely elect their President. Former President Compaore, now living in exile in Abidjan, who came to power by killing his best friend and the revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara, in a bloody coup d’etat was one of the ‘best’ strong men in power because he was very diplomatic and crafty. He was able to hold sway for decades by using both subtle intimidation of the population and the non-existent invincibility. But when the young Burkinabes woke up from their slumber they said a big ‘No’ to Compaore’s latest attempt to hold on to power by changing the constitution to allow for another term. The streets of Ouagadougou were painted with blood as the presidential security guards opened fire and killed many agitators.
The late Omar Bongo Ondimba was a strong man in Gabon and now that he is no more his supposed “son” Ali Bongo, is finding the shoes of Bongo the father very big to wear! The diminutive Bongo was a good leader but his long stay in power almost made nonsense of his giant strides in power. In Congo-Kinshasa the late Mobutu Sese-Seko was sacked from power after many decades of political pestilence by the late Kabila whose son, Joseph, is learning how to be a strong man in power. What Joseph is doing or trying to do in Kinshasa reminds one of what Faure Gnasingbe is doing in Lome. Gnasingbe succeeded Eyadema, his father, after the strong man had ruled the tiny country with iron fist for more than thirty odd years. Today President Faure has made it possible for him to rule for eternity as the Togolese constitution has no term limit for any president! Between the late Eyadema and Mobutu the depth of destitution in their respective countries is so staggering that one wonders if the two were not made insane by the trappings of power.
In the final analysis one would like to recommend the Ghanaian example for the glorified ‘victims’ of the sit-tight syndrome. Ever since the strong-man Jerry John Rawlings left the presidential palace known as Osu Castle in Accra no Ghanaian sitting president has ever operated from there! From John Kuffour to the late John Atta-Mills they had been performing their presidential duties from their residences other than the state house. Alassane Ouattara lives in his house and goes to work in Plateau’s presidential office. Laurent Gbagbo was so much captivated by the state house in Cocody-Abidjan that he considered it his birthright to live there even in the face of a lost presidential election. There is life after power and former President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria has shown the way.