Saturday Columnist by Dan Agbese
It was the dark continent. It is the cursed continent. Thus, did it happen that Africa, perhaps the luckiest continent in the world with unbelievable natural resource endowments, and a population of 1,466,649,930, accounting for 17.89 per cent of the world population, is the wretched of the earth. It is a beggar continent, dependent on handouts from the other continents for the survival of its 54 nations and their increasingly impoverished people.
This is a continent of contrasts and contradictions. It is suffering from the curse of the African big man. The curse of the African big man is composed of three lethal afflictions, each of which, were the continent a ship, could sink it. The first is the affliction of entitlement. African nations are still tribal and religious nation states within nation states. African countries are atomistic societies in permanent conflict with themselves and whose politics is characterised by competitions among the tribal and religious nation states for political benefits and the locus of political power at various points in the chequered history of each nation state.
This handicaps African nations in seeking for competent political leaders at national and sub-national levels. It is not who can but whose entitlement it is. This, as you should know, has a profound deleterious effect on the continent and its people. Adherence to the entitlement tradition tends to produce a variety of ambitious men (and they are usually men) with various degrees of total unreadiness for leadership in each country. In general terms, the result is the imposition of incompetent men who can only provide mediocre leadership on a country that requires informed and competent leaders able to distinguish between motion and movement. This must be why many countries on the continent tend to mistake their rise and fall as evidence of their movement. In Nigeria, we call this moving the nation forward.
The second is the affliction of indispensability. Each African leader is God-sent. This gives each man the right to believe that, having arrived with the divine halo, he is indispensable to his country. The country is, because he is. You are not hearing it from me for the first time that this continues to lead to what has been termed sit-tight leaders on the continent – men who refuse to obey the constitutional limits imposed on their office. It does not matter whether they wear khaki or agbada. Power is as sweet to the one as to the other.
Their first step is to remove the term limit, the legal constraint against the full flowering of sitting tight and refusing to go when the time is up. A two-term limit is expanded to three terms and thence to no term limits. In the event that death, the great spoiler of fun and enjoyment of power at the highest level, forces a term limit of its own for an African big man, he anoints his son as his successor. An indispensable man breeds indispensable sons and daughters to keep power in the family. Through this process, not unknown to millions of us, political power is domiciled in particular families.
President Omar Bongo of Gabon was not the first African big man to walk down that path but his son is a current example of what could go wrong with power hoarding as the exclusive preserve of lucky families. He was called thither in 2009 and replaced himself as president with his son Ali. Three weeks ago, Ali won his election for a third term. But he was not destined to anoint his own son to succeed him.
The soldiers in his country chafed at his manipulation of the presidential election to stay on for a third term. They pulled out their guns. Abandoned in the presidential palace, Ali became a perfect pathetic picture of a man deserted by power – forlorn, lonely and in dread of the fate that awaits him on the other side of the rainbow. All he could do was to call on his friends to go out and make noise. Noise-making has never restored a deposed president to power. I would not know how much noise people made but trust the Nigerians, they turned his pathetic cry for help into incredible dance steps.
Before Bongo, President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo, shot his way into power and became president in 1967. When death came calling, as indeed it must, in 2005, he handed the presidential sash to his son, Faure Gnassingbe. Power in the country so far remains domiciled in the Eyadema household.
The third affliction is the ingrained venality of the African big man who finds politics as the sure path to instant wealth. This affliction makes him conflate the national wealth with his personal wealth. He appropriates the wealth of his nation and in a twist of African logic, the keeper of the national wealth becomes the owner of the national wealth. This tendency has hardened into culture and tradition and is best defined by this long word, corruption. It was once a detestable word not uttered in polite societies. Not any more. In the ever changing societal mores and morals, the word is the current sesame that automatically opens doors and carves new doors where none exists to wealth and power in all African countries. The African big man is his country. Nothing strange there. After all, we still recall that the late Charles de Gaulle once said he was France. But he was not a curse to his country.
On the average the African big man usually comes into office as a military strong man. He soon removes his military uniform and waves the ballot paper in our faces as converted but faux democrats. The sum of the curse of the African big man on the continent presents us with a horrendous spectacle of a rich but poor continent and the arrogant squandering of riches by the few privileged men and families as they laugh at their wretched fellow country men and women. Thus, democracy is in retreat, the rule of law is trampled under foot and the right of the people to have legitimate access to the wealth of their nations is under lock and key. When power and the wealth of a nation are hoarded by a few, the many are deprived in the midst of plenty.
African democracy is forever in search of democrats. The pretenders to do the throne do no justice to democracy, the rule of law or respect for the rights of the people. There is a new scramble for Africa. The Americans and the Russians are establishing military bases in various parts of the continent. It is not for our sake; it is for their sake in pursuit of carving the continent into continued spheres of influence. It is what happens when countries are in want of good leader and committed leaders.
You are not hearing it from me here that we have at least seven more or less fossilised men on the continent whose right to remain in power can be only be questioned by the grim reaper. It is not difficult to see the damage their permanent hold on power and the wealth of their various countries has done to their own people. Take one instance out of the seven.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea shot his uncle out of power and himself into power in 1979. He is the longest serving president on the continent. Equatorial Guinea is an oil producing country. It has a tiny population of 1.7 million people. With a per capita of $26,000, it is the richest country in Africa. But 80 per cent of the people live on less than one US dollar a day. Talking of real poverty in the midst of plenty. The president has domiciled political power as well as the wealth of the nation in his family. His son is the deputy president, primed to succeed him when death comes calling, obviously. Father and son are living in unbelievable opulence. We have come to a point where the impact of the African big man can be summed up in three short sentences: they come, they stay, they loot.
Can the curse of the African big man on the continent be removed and the continent freed? It is a good question. It should task those who believe that the sum of the wealth of individuals in a country does not translate into the wealth of the nation. Our hope lies in functional democracy. But the same forces that have caged democracy make functional democracy impossible. Things ought to be better for Africa and the Africans.