Alemayehu G. Mariam
The Triumphalism of African Dictators
There is nothing that is both amusing and annoying than the chest-beating triumphalism of Africa’s tin pot dictators. This past February, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda lectured a press conference: “There will be no Egyptian-like revolution here. … We would just lock them up. In the most humane manner possible, bang them into jails land that would be the end of the story.” That is to say, if you crack a few heads and kick a few behinds, Africans will bow down and fall in line. Museveni must have been a protégé of Meles Zenawi, the dictator-in-chief in Ethiopia. In 2005, troops under the direct control and command of Zenawi shot dead at least 193 unarmed demonstrators, wounded an additional 763 and jailed over 30 thousand following elections that year. That was the “end of the story” for Zenawi. Or was it?
In March of this year, Zenawi reaffirmed his 99.6 percent electoral victory in the May 2010 elections and ruled out an “Egyptian-like revolution” by proclaiming a contractual right (read birthright) to cling to power: “When the people gave us a five year contract, it was based on the understanding that if the EPDRF party (Zenawi’s party) does not perform the contract to expectations it would be kicked out of power. No need for hassles. The people can judge by withholding their ballots and chase EPDRF out of power. EPDRF knows it and the people know it too.” For Zenawi, electoral politics is a business deal sealed in contract. Every ballot dropped (and stuffed) in the box is the equivalent of an individual signature in blood on an iron clad five-year contract.
Following the recent uprisings, the delirious 42-year dictator of Libya jabbered, “Muammar Gaddafi is the leader of the revolution, I am not a president to step down… This is my country. Muammar is not a president to leave his post, Muammar is leader of the revolution until the end of time.” Simply stated: Muammar Gaddafi is president-for-life!
In 2003, Robert Mugabe, the self-proclaimed Hitler of Zimbabwe, shocked the world by declaring: “I am still the Hitler of the times. This Hitler has only one objective: Justice for his people. Sovereignty for his people. If that is Hitler, right, then let me be a Hitler ten-fold.” In Mein Kampf, the self-proclaimed leader (Der Fuhrer) of the “master race” wrote blacks are “monstrosities halfway between man and ape.” Africans have deep respect for their elders because they believe wisdom comes with age. Sadly, the 87 year-old Mugabe is living proof of the old saying, “There is no fool like an old fool.”
What makes African dictators so mindlessly arrogant, egotistically self-aggrandizing, delusionally contemptuous, hopelessly megalomaniacal and sociopathically homicidal? More simply: What the hell is wrong with African dictators?!?
Seeking to answer this question, I conducted an imaginary interview with Africa’s greatest, most respected and universally-loved leader, Nelson (Madiba) Rolihlahla Mandela. The answers below are quotations pieced together from President Mandela’s books, public statements, speeches, interviews, court proceedings and other publications and materials.
An Imaginary Conversation With President Nelson Mandela
Q. President Mandela, many African leaders believe they can cling to power forever by “locking up” their enemies and “banging” them in jail, shooting them in the streets and waging a sustained psychological campaign of fear and intimidation against their people. Is peaceful change possible in Africa?
A. “The government has interpreted the peacefulness of the movement as a weakness: the people’s non-violent policies have been taken as a green light for government violence. Refusal to resort to force has been interpreted by the government as an invitation to use armed force against the people without any fear of reprisals…
Neither should it ever happen that once more the avenues to peaceful change are blocked by usurpers who seek to take power away from the people, in pursuit of their own, ignoble purposes.
If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner. It always seems impossible until it is done.”
Q. Many African leaders “lead” by intimidating, arbitrarily arresting, torturing and murdering their people. What are the leadership qualities Africa needs?
A. “I always remember the axiom: a leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind. Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.
It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.
As a leader… I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion.
This [first democratic election for all South Africans] is one of the most important moments in the life of our country. I stand here before you filled with deep pride and joy – pride in the ordinary, humble people of this country. You have shown such calm, patient determination to reclaim this count. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
Quitting is leading too.”
Q. Many African leaders today believe they are “supermen” who have a birthright to rule their people as they wish. Does this concern you?
A. “That was one of the things that worried me – to be raised to the position of a semi-god – because then you are no longer a human being. I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed, but, nevertheless, sometimes fails to live up to expectations.”
Q. You have spent many decades in prison. Do you have any regrets for all the sacrifices you have made?
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Q. There are African leaders who say democracy and freedom must be delayed and rationed to the people in small portions to make way for development. Can freedom be rationed?
A. “There is no such thing as part freedom.”
Q. What is at the end of the rainbow of freedom?
A. “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”
Q. One African leader takes great pride in comparing himself to Adolf Hitler, the iconic symbol of hate in modern human history. Why are so many African leaders filled with so much hatred, malice and bitterness?
A. “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Q. Do you believe an election is a contract between Africa’s iron-fisted rulers and the people?
A. “Only free men can negotiate, prisoners can’t enter in contracts.”
Q. What can Africans do to liberate themselves from the scourge of dictatorship?
A. “No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.”
Q. Why are so many well-off Africans afraid to take a stand against dictatorship, human rights violations and corruption on the continent?
A. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us: it’s in everyone. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Q. How can African intellectuals contribute to the struggle for democracy, human rights and accountability in the continent?
A: “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”
Q. What is the one important thing young Africans need to guarantee a bright future for themselves and the continent?
A. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president…”
Q. What is you dream for Africa and humanity in general?
A. “I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself. I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent. I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses.
Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another. If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.
This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.”
Q. What are the choices facing the people of Africa today?
A. “The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defense of our people, our future and our freedom.”
Thank you, President Mandela. May you live for a thousand years! Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. (God Bless Africa.)
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ andhttp://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/