President Obama’s speech is like the elephant that was visited by six blind men, except that this time instead of six visually impaired men reporting their sensation of the elephant it is millions of people interpreting and projecting their perceptions of what the US President said at the Accra Conference Centre last Saturday. Everyone takes the part they love or hate, or even love to hate and amplifies it to their hearts content. Some have called it tough love, in the manner of the biblical prescription not to spare the rod and spoil the child. Others say he spoke down to Africans like a father scolding a child. I would rather endorse the comment passed by a perceptive friend: he told Africans what all right-thinking Africans already knew.
There is a sense in which Mr. Obama’s speech was a self-revelation to the self, like seeing yourself for the first time in a mirror after a haircut. It takes more than a second to realise that this is just you as others see you. For the right-thinking African, the themes of the speech may have been rehashed in the mind a million times, and many have canvassed them at meetings, forums, articles, lectures, debates and conversation. But after that what?
That is where Obama comes in: it is not just the rhetoric, although that helps. The cadences and intimate stops; the inner rhymes of the spoken convictions all help to convey the message in the most appropriate way. The man has a way speaking that makes the old sound new and exciting.
Take this for example: Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions. Yes, we know that and have said that and preached that. But maybe because we have said it for so long using too many words, this simple assertion said so simply bore a new power that can be deployed as a weapon. I can dance all day to the sound of that simple sentence. Africa does not need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.
We have known for so long that the Africa big-man syndrome is the obstacle to development in this continent. The desire for some leaders, especially those who come to power through force of arms or undermine their constitutions, to stay in power for ever has been recognised as the source of tension, violence, corruption, kleptomania and therefore of underdevelopment and poverty in Africa.
Perhaps it is necessary here to explain the Africa big-man or strongman syndrome as a specific reference to a type of perverted leadership that monopolises power by destroying all dissent, taking their countries’ money to be their own, commandeering women as if they were chattel, dictating to parliament, if there is one, placing restrictions on the media and above all controlling the judiciary and the security apparatus of the state. Mr. Obama was not talking about “strong men”, who as some have suggested, are needed to run strong institutions.
The African strongman does not allow for the development of institutions but instead makes himself the only institution that matters in the country. The African strongman is above every institution, including the constitution, and believes in his heart with former French President Charles De Gaulle that “L’etat ce moi” – I am the state.
Africa’s founding fathers were the original strongmen. Kwame Nkrumah, Azikewe, Awolowo, Kenyatta, Kaunda and the long list of independence leaders, in the immortal words of Shakespeare, “bestrode the world like Colossus “; begetters of the constitution; giver of life… in Ghana Nkrumah was “Civitatis Ghanensis Conditor”, - Founder of the Ghana nation. They differed in ideology and outlook but all believed in their status as the vehicles for their nations’ manifest destiny.
It made sense in the 150s and 60s. Leadership was characterised by a strong sense of Weberian charisma in which the leader had to show enormous amounts of evidential dedication and almost godlike devotion to his person and every person he liked and every project he endorsed. They were not alone; the world was like that. The United Kingdom had Winston Churchill chomping on a fat cigar; France had De Gaulle frowning on everyone from on high; the US had Kennedy who was simply a phenomenon. In their places we have Gordon Brown, Nicholas Sarkozy and Barak Obama; can you imagine anyone of them wearing a high military kepi, or chewing on a Churchillian cigar. Not likely.
Today, we would laugh at the Africa big man and his inbuilt sense of insecurity if this issue was not so serious. I once arrived at an African capital just as the presidential plane was about to land. We were shooed to one side and had to sit in the heat while Son Excellence disembarked. At the foot of the plane’s steps were lined up all the ministers, deputy ministers, managing directors, ambassadors and their deputies – and all of them formed a never-ending conga-line that snaked the entire length of a curvilinear red carpet.
They were being introduced to the President. In other words, the Strongman who had been away a few days was being introduced to the ministers that he had appointed. He was not being welcomed back by the vice president and a few officials but everyone had to leave their offices to be on that tarmac to be introduced to the President. It was explained that failure to turn up would count as extreme disloyalty. He wanted to be reassured that no-one had thought of staging a coup in his absence.
These strongmen are a serious drain on their nations’ finances because the entire state security apparatus is organized around protecting them, their families and cronies. Furthermore, because they cannot trust their own people they feel the need to hide their stolen wealth abroad. A few days ago, a court in Switzerland ruled that money banked in that country by the late Congolese dictator, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, should be returned to his family. Mobutu, who later named himself, Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga (all-conquering warrior who goes from triumph to triumph) was reckoned by Transparency International to be third most corrupt leader in world history.
The strongman syndrome is self-perpetuating. The latest strongman wheeze is the father-and-son regime perfected by the oxymoronic republican dynasty in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, popularly known as North Korea. The late Laurent Kabila of the DR Congo was replaced by his son Joseph Kabila; the late Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo (toujour au pouvoir!) has been replaced by his son Faure Gnassingbe. The Gabonese Democratic Party founded by the late Omar Bongo has just announced that Ali Ben Bongo would be the candidate of his father’s party at the coming presidential election. This means he will be the next president of Gabon. Obviously, where strongmen rule the sons also rise!
As President Obama said, the African strongman inhibits the growth of institutions and is therefore bad news for the continent. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of them, and the earlier thinking that a new breed of leaders would move away from the authoritarian ways of their predecessors has proved way of the mark. The African people need to think seriously about this phenomenon as some leaders are derailing the democratic train that appeared to have been set on course since the beginning of the 1990s throughout the continent.