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Jammeh and Africa’s leadership deficit


Alabi Williams

Alabi Williams

The sudden change of heart, and now defiance by outgoing Gambian President, Yahya Jammeh, not to relinquish power and retire home in peace, is another reminder of the leadership challenge in many African countries. Jammeh had lost the presidential election of December 1 to opposition candidate Adama Barrow, who scored 263,515 votes to defeat Mr. Jammeh who scored 212,099. Jammeh had called to congratulate the winner and even wished the country well going forward. The international community was stunned and full of admiration for Jammeh. No one thought the elections would be free and fair. No one thought the opposition could pull a win, because Jammeh had appropriated the state and its institutions. He was the state and he could do no wrong or make mistakes. To that extent, nobody thought Jammeh could lose let alone him agreeing to have lost.

Before he recanted, the world had remained breathless. Jammeh was on the way to becoming a hero, despite his previous shortcomings of 22 years. I’m sure the world would have forgiven him all infractions, if he were to handover without crisis. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation that is ever in search of great African leaders to decorate for noble acts would have jumped at Jammeh, not so much for any exemplary act of good governance, which is what the foundation was established to promote, but for abandoning his despotic ways to surrender power. The Mo Ibrahim foundation in some years could not locate any African leader worthy of its prestigious award, because good men are very scarce. Many would have pleaded on behalf of Jammeh.

But by Friday December 9, the man had changed his mind, saying: “After a thorough investigation, I have decided to reject the outcome of the recent election. I lament serious and unacceptable abnormalities, which have reportedly transpired during the electoral process.” Thus, Jammeh failed to suppress his lust for power, which is the number one disease that has ruined many African despots. He was just a starry-eyed young man 22 years ago when together with his ragamuffin colleagues they stole power from first generation leader, Dauda Jawara. The sit-tight bug that was the affliction of many of the first generation leaders had bitten the old man himself. After that 1994 coup, Jammeh grudgingly embraced the gale of democratization that blew across Africa. He transmuted from military head of state to civilian president and won election in 1996. He won again in 2001, 2006 and 2011. All that time, the elections did not experience ‘unacceptable abnormalities.’

The leadership gap in Africa remains very huge and unless monitors like The Mo Ibrahim Foundation continue to raise the stakes and demand compliance, it will remain high. The reason is that there has not been a deliberate grooming process for emerging leaders of the continent. The only noticeable training had been the military, which unfortunately did not prepare anybody for leadership roles in a civil society. The military trained fighters for the role of securing the territorial integrity of countries. But once the civilian administrations in many African countries (South of the Sahara) began to exhibit corporate governance weaknesses in the mid-60s and up till the late 80s, the military took the centre stage and succession process has become a difficult exercise in many countries.

It took a while to compel the military in African countries to embrace democracy once they had tasted power flowing fro the barrel of gun. After Kwameh Nkrumah had been overthrown on February 22 1966, it did not take long for Nigeria to do likewise. Other countries in the West Coast and Central Africa experienced repeated coups d’état and for many decades political instability was the recurrent decimal in Africa.

Democratic change required institutions and processes, which take time to assimilate. Even in Nigeria and Ghana, two countries with far higher levels of education and exposure, it took a while to keep the military in check. And that is why each election to recruit new leaders is fought like a real war. But once former president Goodluck Jonathan showed uncommon courage to concede defeat in 2015, it sent a signal that other African leaders are to be assessed along that benchmark. Ghana’s recent election at which outgoing president John Dramani Mahama surrendered even be final tally of votes raised the hopes of many that gradually, democracy is working.

It was Jammeh who has decided to halt the growth process. There has been the challenge to draw a link between democracy in Africa and the traditional system of government that colonialism met. Since African kings and monarchs subscribe to the so-called divine rights that sustains them in office until they breath the last, after which they are succeeded by persons of their ruling houses or lineages, the emerging democracy in many countries is yet to maintain a clean break from that old tradition. Nobody wants to relinquish power without a fight, because of the luxuries that are attached to kingship and political power. Whether it is American type democracy or any other type, politicians in Africa confuse their periodic election with the divine rights type of crowning.

Before the ousted Libyan Strong man Muammar Ghadafi was unhorsed, he had toyed with the idea of becoming an African King and he manifested it in his robes and jewelry. He had embarked on campaigns to have him crowned as king of Africa, perhaps to procure divine rights and legitimacy after staying in office for 40 years plus. Jammeh is a disciple of Ghadaffi. He too has been toying with a blend of African traditional institution and Western Democracy, to confer him with the privilege of life rule.

There seems to be a gap in post-office sustainability for former leaders, especially despots. There seems to be a need to have a facility that will groom former presidents and heads of state for life after office. This is what the likes of Jammeh urgently need. He was not fully formed at 33 when he stole power and has sustained himself in power with all the lies and trappings he created. It is difficult to take him out of power with the psychological assurance that he would not be demystified. He has created a false life and deity for himself and he has to be debriefed for him to surrender power.

Look at the one in Sierra Leone, Valentine Strasser, who plotted the coup of April 29, 1992 and was in office until 1996. Strasser was just 25 when he stole power. He didn’t understand the psychology of power, but just grabbed it all the same. He was not prepared for it, neither was he prepared for life after presidency. After he was deposed, he went to England to study law, but he could not complete the programme. He went to Gambia, thinking Jammeh would rehabilitate him. He was turned back, He returned to Sierra Leone and the last story on Strasser was pathetic. He is down and out, broke and living on handouts.

Jammeh, is perhaps, haunted by a post-presidency life that will be stripped of all the amulets and swords he carries about. He has awarded titles and degrees to himself, just to fill a void, and all that could become useless once he is out of office. Right now, Jammeh is on the loose and he has to be carefully managed.

That is the price we pay in Africa for not having the opportunity to groom leaders long before they assume power. Now, president Muhammadu Buhari, Liberian President and chairperson of ECOWAS, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Ghanaian president John Maham and Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone had to go and beg Jammeh to go. These leaders are old enough to be parents of Jammeh, if not grand parents. They went to appeal to the rascally young man. And there was no deal.

Nigeria once had a Centre For Democratic Studies, but all that had been abandoned. That we manage to hold elections does not mean we understand leadership. Our democracy is still largely a crash programme and the earlier we commenced the grooming of leaders, the better for us and for other African countries. Jammeh needs help, we all do!

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  • Chukwu

    Laurent Gbagbo’s present situation is awaiting Jammeh if he remained adamant in his devilish decision not to honour the wish of the Gambian people.

    May God have mercy on his miserable soul.

  • Thank you for your insight. Africa really needs a way to groom leaders. Love what you said “that we manage to hold elections does not mean we understand leadership.” I am passionate about leadership, especially in Africa. what steps do you think could be taken to establish this “facility that will groom former presidents and heads of state for life after office?”