Never a dull moment - why we love Africa and its dictators

25Aug 2017
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
Never a dull moment - why we love Africa and its dictators

YOU  must just love Africa. I would never give up being an African for anything else in the world. Look what happened a few days.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) held its summit in Pretoria, South Africa's political capital. The summit bid farewell to two retiring regional leaders.

First, veteran Angolan big man José Eduardo dos Santos. Dos Santos, the third longest-ruling African leader after Paul Biya of Cameroon, and dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, has "been in things" (to use a good old Ugandan expression) for 38 years.

Angola heads to the polls today, and Dos Santos will step down, though he will still be at the helm of the ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

They also waved goodbye to Botswana's Ian Khama, who leaves office in April 2018, after his constitutional two terms.However, also in attendance was our man, Uncle Bob of Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe has been in power for 37 years, and is officially in campaign mode seeking re-election next year.

Soon turning 94, time has taken its toll on Uncle Bob's long revolutionary life. He is sickly, and recent videos show him barely able to walk or even wipe his own nose. At this rate, by the time of the Zimbabwe election in July or August 2018, he will probably need help to cast his vote.

But he won't give up just yet. Dos Santos turns 74 on August 28, 20 years younger than Mugabe.Uganda is also headed in the same direction, as the lifting of the 75-year age limit to allow President Yoweri Museveni bid for office in 2021 looms larger.

Usually, when presidencies-for-life are discussed, there is a lot of focus on the hunger for power of the Mugabes, Nguemas, Biyas and Musevenis of this world. They are usually the problem.

We never ask what it says about the countries where these men rule. Can it only be that their subjects are too afraid to oppose them, or that they are ruthless in suppressing Opposition? Are their politicians venal, so easy to buy off? Do the peculiarities of the type of colonial rule they endured explain anything?

What do Zimbabwe, Angola, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, Congo, and so on, have in common? It's hard to see.They are spread all over Africa, some are landlocked, and some are coastal.

Can these countries, after the Big Men leave, ever be democratic for long periods, or there is something in their soil and air that inevitably breeds despotism?

It is surprising how relatively little study of "these other things" there is. Part of it is understandable. If research suggested that all sorts of natural conditions make democracy impossible in Uganda, for example, then it would mean the country is doomed. It also negates the great possibilities of agency, i.e. that we Ugandans cannot bring about a truly free society however much we tried.

The possibilities of ending up with these "pre-destination" and dead-end kinds of conclusions thus make scholars reluctant to explore the subject.

But since this column is not the Ten Commandments, we shall be naughty and poke a stick in the snake's hole.

There are many tell tale signs that an African country might struggle with democracy, but the one that I find coincides (it might not necessarily explain) with authoritarianism of some variety nearly 90 per cent of the time is glorious history.

When an African nation has a glorious history, and its fair share of heroic emperors, kings, queens, and generals who fought foreign invaders, or had built great courts and had a tradition of learning, you need to be on a democracy alert. There you have your Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt, Angola, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, the Congos, Sudan, Swaziland, and others.

Those days, of course, when these great kings reigned, there were no formal notions of the limitations of a ruler's power.If a ruler didn't die in his sleep, in battle, or was killed in a plot, he or she just ruled on and on.

But if you look at the island states (Mauritius, Cape Verde), and the smaller countries that were territories that weren't led by larger than life figures (Botswana, Malawi), they have had a better chance of building liberal democracies.That still leaves us with Ghana, and even Senegal.

How come with the rich history of their rulers, they have fidgeted with modern democracy a little more successfully? It seems the answer is in finding a "right balance" as the Ghanaians have with the asantehenes, and the Nigerians with their chieftaincies.

Likewise, beware of a country that has great monuments (the pyramids in Egypt and Sudan, the Zimbabwe stone carvings), or colourful traditional costumes and rich foods (Egypt). A certain hankering for a glorious past creates fertile ground for a modern day despot to fill the void.