The Curse Of The African Big Man
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda won his straight fifth presidential election two weeks ago as of this writing. That stale news throws up two fundamental problems that have chained democracy in Africa.
The first is that the days of the African Big Man are not numbered. Like Jesus said of the poor, we will always have the African Big Man with us. Makes you tremble.
The second point flows from the first. The right of the Big Man to define democracy and its best practices (more like worst excesses) in his own country is cast in stone. You cannot tell a man who wins 80 per cent of all the votes cast in every presidential election that he has the spelling of democracy all wrong.
There are four reigning Big Men on the African continent today. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago, 74, of Equatorial Guinea, leads the pack. He has been president of his country since he overthrew his uncle in a very bloody coup in 1979. He is said to be the third longest reigning non-royal ruler in the world. It is a proud record riddled with the unspeakable.
President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, 74, of Angola comes next. He too has been in power since 1979, playing the big man to the hilt. The quintessential African Big man is President Robert Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe. He is 92, and has been president since 1980. These days, this big man, who has never been slowed down by age or arthritis, tends to make it on his knees at public functions.
President Museveni of Uganda put his age at 71. His people believe he is closer to 80, which should have disqualified him from running again because the constitution caps the age for president at 75. He has an interesting self-deprecating answer to that. In his autobiography, Sowing the Mustard Seed, Museveni admits he does not know the exact date of his birth. He wrote: “My parents were illiterate and so did not know the date.”
You cannot beat that for an honest admission. He could be older or he could be younger but he is sticking to his declaration of age. He has been in power since 1986. In terms of longevity, his 30 years in power make him the baby among the four Big Men.
Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia, are up and coming junior members of the African Big Men’s club. Jammeh seized power in 1994. He now decks himself with titles that stretch across his tiny country. He is addressed as His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkun Jammeh Babil Mansa.
No, he is not unhinged. Megalomania, the big man’s exclusive affliction, has set in. If the names and the crazy titles remind you of the late President Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, then you can appreciate how far Africa has travelled from the shrine of the cult of personality. It has so far covered a short distance measured in inches.
Why do these men cling to power for so long, defying age and the sclerosis to which every man born of a woman must necessarily succumb? Seems like a silly question. Power is sweet and political power is the sweetest power yet invented by man.
During his electioneering campaigns, Museveni dropped interesting clues to rationalize his decision to hold on to power. At a campaign rally in January, the big man said he was running for his fifth term in office because he needed to finish the good job he is doing. He needs another five years to complete it, right? Don’t hold your breath. But here is the real gem. He said: “This old man who has saved the country, how do you want him to go?” He answered his own question: “How can I go out of a banana plantation I have planted that has started bearing fruits?”
Has the penny dropped? He considers being president perhaps for life as his just reward for saving his country. I do not think it would be fair to ask him to leave in the name of democracy. If there is morality in politics, then he should be allowed to sit back and eat the fruits of his banana plantation to his heart’s content. Democracy be damned.
We should encourage African leaders to feed fat on bananas. Their evolution from the primates may still be in progress. But this is not about banana plantations and the right to eat the fruits thereof. There is a Big Man in every African country. Some are small Big Men and others are Big Big Men. They have one thing in common: each man sees himself as his people’s messiah with eternal right to rule or misrule. I would like to see them eat bananas and dance owambe on banana peels.
Mbasogo and Santos have no use for bananas. They have not been tending banana plantations any way. They have been presiding over and looting the enormous crude oil wealth of their respective nations. It may come as no small surprise to many that the tiny Equatorial Guinea with a population put at between 700,000 and 1.2 million people is the richest country per capita on the continent. With a GDP of $19.286 billion and a whopping per capita of $25,925, this tiny island nation should be a paradise. Instead, it is heaven for the rulers and hell for the ruled. Much of the wealth is in the hands of Mbasugo, his family and his cronies.
Mbasugo has been described as the worst dictator in Africa. The redoubtable Mugabe holds the candle to him. There is no room for democracy to thrive in that country. Nor does he give a damn.
Santos was once lavishly praised for his competent management of his country’s economy. Angola was on the cusp of becoming the third largest economy in Africa, after Nigeria and South Africa in that order. It has turned into a pipe dream. Corruption intruded and turned what should have been a shining example of competent economic husbandry into an unhealthy and primitive accumulation of wealth at the expense of the country and its people. His daughter, Isabel, is the richest woman in Africa. She came by this stupendous wealth by the luck of her birth – being the president’s daughter.
Angola has a population of 24.3 million people; a GDP of $139.059 billion and per capita of $6,484. But 70 per cent of Angolans live below the poverty line of $2.00 per day. Santos is not anxious to use the wealth of his nation to unchain his people from the millstone of grinding poverty in the midst of plenty. Yes, the resource curse. Angola and Equatorial Guinea are prime examples of wealthy nations impoverished by the cult of the Big Man.
Museveni is not just sticking around to eat ripe bananas. His country would be exploiting and exporting its crude oil in the near future He sticks around to preside over the in-flow of petro-dollars. When the time comes, he will amend the constitution to remove the cap on the age of presidential candidates. Bet me.
Mugabe is the unlucky man among the four Big Men. He has no crude oil. His country is wretched with a wretched per capita of $1,041. He has to contend with the reign of poverty he brought on his country when he destroyed the mainstay of his country’s economy – agriculture. He cannot even have bananas to eat. If you are looking for a dog in the manger, look no further. This Big Man has run out of creative or even sensible ideas on governance. He is not there to make progress; he is there to ruin his country and his people. Awfully sad.
Indeed, each of these Big Men featured here is the ugly face of arrested progress and development in his country. Africa is not just a continent suffering from resource curse, in which the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty boggles the mind; it is also a continent cursed with the cult of the Big Man. One of Mbasugo’s self-awarded titles is: “gentleman of the great island of Bioko, Annobon and Rio Muni.” In 2003 the state radio declared him as “the country’s god” with “all power over men and things.” He was said to be “in permanent contact with the almighty (and) can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell.”
And God squirms in heaven.