This week the unthinkable happened in Mali, a country in West Africa where March 22 this year an army captain, Amadou Sanogo and a band of willing soldiers, ousted a democratically elected President in a supposedly ‘peaceful’ coup d’etat. But first the background:
Since the advent of multiparty democracy and free market economy in Africa, soldiers have been made – by forces that dictate terms on how countries on the continent should be led - to accept the fact that politics should be left to politicians. And of course, with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague looking for criminals to nail to a lamp post, African soldiers have retreated to their barracks.
They only venture out on the streets to handle emergency situations or to head abroad for peacekeeping missions.
Also with donor countries’ insistence on human rights as one of the conditions for financial support, soldiers on the continent have learnt to treat civilians humanely – especially when there are cameras around. In the past, no civilian could choose to defy the government and still have the guts to step onto a military tank, during a demonstration, as was the case in Egypt last year.
In those days, wherever there were soldiers riding in their armored vehicles, pointing their machine guns at demonstrators and flaunting tear gas or other military paraphernalia meant to instill terror in civilians; no human soul could brave to stand there and risk to be counted among the dead.
Nonetheless, the most feared souls on the land were the heads of state, or President. Four of them in countries neighbouring Tanzania went as far as declaring themselves “Life President”. The one in Zaire even created a motif for television news, showing him amidst clouds, descending from heaven to save his people.
These presidents were so powerful and frightening that whenever they mentioned your name with a twinge of anger in the tone of their voice, it meant death certificate for you. The swift security boys would immediately corner you somewhere, beat you up and shove you in the boot of a state vehicle before dumping you in a river to be eaten by crocodiles.
Such was life, and fate, for many citizens who appeared to be thinking differently from the officially declared way of thinking – or even from a ban on thinking altogether.
Sometimes, the ‘Life President’ had to simply dream that you were planning to oust him and that in itself was a necessary, and sufficient, reason to get you murdered. In the end, the Presidents barricaded themselves heavily at home, in the office, while travelling, or working out. They always believed someone was out there to take them out.
Unfortunately most of these monster presidents never lived longer enough to experience real democracy. Some, like Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, may have been removed from power by an opposition party but real democracy was still a distant dream by then.
Back to this week: Some discontented citizens of Mali walked all the way to the Presidential Palace and took it over for some time. While there they traced the president, Dioncounda Traore, and gave him the beating he has probably never experienced in his adult life. The lesson in this case is not moral; it is simply about power shift.
Just a few decades ago, it was the poor citizens whose lives were being shattered by a finger click of an angry president. Today it is the citizens who are giving their presidents the beating. The hunter is becoming the hunted. While it is reported that the Malian president, Traore, has travelled to France to seek medical attention, in Tunisia the military prosecutor has asked the court to slap the ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali with a death sentence.
Ben Ali fled his country last year with his tail under his feet when his own citizens wanted to do to him what the Malians just did to their interim president.
Although the Egyptians had used a different style last year, when they thronged Tahrir Square instead of heading to the Presidential Palace, the results were the same: Former president Hosni Mubarak wound up behind bars and in court to answer charges of abuse of office and corruption.
By beating the president of Mali, the ordinary citizens of Mali have demystified the Big Man syndrome that hypnotized citizens of the continent into frenzied state of mind in which the most they could do about their miseries caused by bad leadership was lament silently.