In what has become a familiar refrain for African countries, Rwandan President Paul Kagame extended his country’s term limits thus granting himself the chance to extend his already exhaustive stay in power. Joining Kagame in the exclusive club of would be despots is the youthful and “born-again” leader of a country as small and historically perilous as his. That leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, won a disputed election last July that virtually guarantees him the right to govern Burundi until fate decides to surrender him into the hands of Hades. Word from Messrs.’ Kagame and Nkurunziza is that their rule represents the will of the people of their respective republics, and a casual glance at the winning margins of both men suggests that their claims are true; Kagame claimed 93% of the vote in the last election while Nkurunziza’s 70% should make him envious of his neighbor.
Kagame and Nkurunziza’s overtures burden with questions those of us who value the intrinsic and instrumental aspects of multi-party politics and call home the states where such practices are regnant. Why are African leaders always on the look-out for the latest opportunity to extend their diabolical rule? Why does the electorate once more retain these power hungry foxes despite their deplorable records on governance and human rights? And perhaps more pertinently now than ever before, what should the international community do about these evil characters?
Two forces intertwine and reinforce each other to explain the insatiable appetites of African despots for power. First and foremost the palpably erroneous, falsifiable and conceited impression that leaders gain their power and rule over their citizens under the celestial sanction of an all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful divine grandfather. Though to be fair, believers of this notion have a basis, though wrong, to believe in the divine origins of their mandate. Romans 13:1 says “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but from God; the powers that be are ordained by God.” It however remains to be seen whether this verse is an endorsement of the reigns of maleficents such as Stalin and Hitler (the church celebrated and honored both), but what is certainly known is that almost all religious dictators consider themselves so ordained. If the Hand of the Lord does indeed choose leaders, then it lamentably elects to do so in the most retrogressive of manners. Kagame rose to power off the heels of the atrocious sectarian violence of the Rwandan Genocide; Nkuruziza also rose to office on roughly the same circumstances. Spoiled for choice, I furnish gratuitously the names of Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan – wanted for war crimes but shielded by certain undesirable types, Eduardo Dos Santos whose firm hand dictates affairs in Angola and the scrofulous Robert Mugabe, who has outlived and out-waited many who waited for his death in earnest.
The combination of leaders rising to power immediately after conflicts and a messianic adoration for them is to blame for their obsession to hang on to the reigns of office as well as the citizens participation in abetting and accepting the regrettable state of affairs. The credulity and sickening ignorance that come with dictatorships is perfectly depicted in Orwell’s Animal Farm. A vignette from the book says it was custom to give “Napoleon the credit for every successful achievement and every stroke of good fortune”, so much so that the Chickens praised him for their innate ability to lay eggs, so much so that the cows gave thanks to him for the taste of water he had no hand in purifying. Don’t all these sound awfully reminiscent of the praises showered on African leaders? The cruel and ugly hippopotamus look-alike Idi Amin Dada, who was the dictator of Uganda, claimed to have divine perception up and beyond that of ordinary human capacity, while others like Kenneth Kaunda of my native Zambia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana spun the narrative that only they could implement development programs, act as conduits to the West (exclude Mugabe) and ensure a continuity of ideas and principles they forced their citizens to uphold as their own.
There is a sinister reality in all this. One can sense all the underpinnings of the messianic as portrayed in Christianity and that of the philosopher king in Plato’s The Republic. The citizens’ acceptance of their leader’s omniscience explains their willingness to fall under the rule by creatures that are vile, mean-spirited and paternalistic. Exactly how people fall under the impression that they have an obligation to continue supporting bad leaders is no mystery; it has already been shown that religion leads to lethargic citizens and narcissistic leaders in political matters, but the other reason stems from how leaders gain their power in the first place. Leaders that come to power after the end of a conflict tend to go on further than necessary, with the aid of their citizenry, because their victory in battles for independence or sovereignty venerates them in the hearts and minds of their people. Everyone begins to look at a nation’s performance as a comparison between the period of conflict and the period after, which expectedly makes the later vividly more favorable and acceptable than the former. Forgotten are the freer and more open days before turmoil took effect. If citizens compared the states of affairs between post-war and pre-war periods, I suppose they would be less inclined to accept the mediocre “new normal” they are forced to live under as they can look at the past for quick reference.
The world must put an end to African dictators and it must do so now. It must stop the almost groveling appeasement of characters who scrupulously castrate their citizen’s ability to freely and intelligently exercise their political agency. I have no intentions whatsoever of suggesting that religion in itself is responsible for dictatorships, but I can safely claim that in African states it is a necessary condition albeit an insufficient one. This case is not easily curable through the abolition of religion, and even if it was, there is no need to explain the hold that fables and folktales about heaven and hell have over people. I believe the eradication of dictatorships should aim to tackle the problem from its root. Rather than waiting for sectarian violence to be sorted out by a country’s citizens alone, the international community should step in fast by either preventing it from happening, or publicly supporting one side so that the whole effort does not look like it rested on the bravery of one man. This sheds off the messianic rhetoric that is associated with successful rebel leaders and dictators by showing victory as an achievement by a tandem of forces as opposed to a lone one.
It is a lot harder to deal with despots when they get in power. One cannot simply shun dictators due to the geopolitical forces at play and the threat of more base elements taking office. It most times also happens that the west is deep in cahoots with dictatorial leaders whose countries they use as labs for economic experiments to test the efficacy of schemes such as foreign aid, the despised structural adjustment programs and charity programs that are often times imposed on unsuspecting recipients. I lack confidence that the United States, Britain and France would welcome the departure of Kagame, who they have promoted as a poster child for what foreign aid can do, referencing Rwanda’s impressive economic record over the past 15 years and its stellar record on female representation in politics. They wouldn’t. Removing leaders that allow such programs to exist is a risk that the west is not willing to take, a risk enhanced by the rise of China, which negates the probability of the west acting unilaterally to topple African dictators.
One philosopher intelligently put it that prevention is better than cure. The same applies to African dictatorships. Only God, the west and Africans themselves can change the continents lot. God’s scriptures prove him to be a suspect ally in this drive by his penchant for allying with misfits, the work then is left to the Western world that prides itself on championing democracy and determined Africans taking ownership of their own fates. If these two slack back, events as they have unfolded in Rwanda and Burundi will indeed become the “new normal”.