Power-hungry strongmen give Africa a bitter taste of liberty

Wednesday January 3 2018

By DAUTI KAHURA
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With the start of a new year, I have found myself increasingly thinking about my motherland continent: “Africa My Africa”. “Africa My Africa” is the title of a famous poem by a famous poet – David Diop – a French West African negritudist, who was born in Southern France. It is one of the poems that have stayed with me since my high school days, when I read the poem for the first time and have forever been touched by its nostalgic sentimentality.

Diop died young (1927–1960), but his poetry rings so true today, just like it did when it was written in the early years of the 19th century. Allow me to quote its touching provocative first stanza:

Africa my Africa/Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannah/Africa of whom my grandmother sings/On the brinks of the distant river…..your blood flows in my veins/Your beautiful black blood that irrigates the fields/The blood of your sweat/The sweat of your work…
Africa the beloved continent had a tumultuous 2017. It is the year that started with a whimper and ended with a bang – as it were.

COMRADE BOB'S ZIMBABWE

Who would have imagined the Zimbabweans at the eleventh hour of the 11th month would ferret away their imposing despot, a permanent signature who had sworn before the political gods that he would rule the great Zimbabwe even when he was six feet under? But lo and behold, what happened? What happened can only be described as the mighty fall of a political juggernaut who had once come to believe in his infallibility.

Since the fall of President Robert Gabriel Mugabe (Comrade Bob), some of my compatriots have been sceptical, even cynical. “But what is the difference between Emmerson (Dambudzo) Mnangagwa (ED) and Robert Mugabe?” ED is Comrade Bob’s former vice-president, now president. And that is where they miss the point. After 37 years of Comrade Bob’s mercurial and oftentimes imperialistic rule, many Zimbabweans erroneously came to believe that to eject Mugabe was akin to uprooting the great ruins of Monomotapa. It was an impossible feat. The truth of the matter is Zimbabweans had resigned to fate and were just waiting for Mugabe to die. When a window of opportunity offered itself, Zimbabweans seized it and run away with it. Historical moments are made of this.

LIBERIA, A COUNTRY OF FIRSTS

Liberia, the small West African nation, had been wrought by war for the better part of the 1990s. But who would have imagined that one day in the month of December in the year 2017, George Weah, a footballer of no mean feat, would one day triumph on the electoral political field, just like he had done on the football field?

Weah, whose footballing exploits are legendary, was to become even more legendary, when for a period of time, he took it upon himself to bankroll the national football team of Liberia from his own pocket, money he earned as a professional football player in Europe.

When he won the presidential election contest on the second round, defeating former Vice-President Joseph Boakai, with a majority vote of more than 60 per cent, it was a testament that it had been just a matter of time before he ascended to the highest office of the land in Liberia.
Weah’s first attempt at the presidency was in 2005, when he lost to the first ever woman African president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Liberia has become a country of firsts in Africa. While Sirleaf was the first female president, Weah becomes the first footballer to be elected president in Africa. It was also the first time since 1944 that Liberia had experienced a smooth transition of power, signalling a forward match that if not interrupted by power mongers, should propel Liberia to greater heights of economic and political progress and stability.

RAMAPHOSA: THE MAN TO SLAY CORRUPTION?

Thirdly, in Africa’s economically most powerful nation, South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) held its national party elections last month and elected what many South Africans – as indeed many Africans – see as a man who should steer the rainbow nation away from runaway corruption.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s defeat of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was interpreted as a victory over sleaze that has defined President Jacob Zuma’s reign of “state capture” by inimical corrupt forces that seems to have overturned and overwhelmed Zuma’s presidency. Zuma has been South African president since 2009.

Yet, Africa is a continent of great paradoxes: It makes three steps forward, only to make three steps backward. On New Year’s Day 2018, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had to remind Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Joseph Kabila to honour the memorandum of understanding he committed himself to, with Catholic clerics telling him to vacate power, with his term having ended at the beginning of the year after he indefinitely postponed the presidential elections.

KABILA CATCHES 'PRESIDENTIALMIASIS'

Kabila, a young man of 46, younger than the just elected Liberian president George Weah, 51, has caught the African presidential disease of old tinpot dictators like Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda, Comrade Bob of Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and Cameroon’s Paul Biya. The disease called “presidentialmiasis” is a condition that infects African men who ascend to presidential positions, then realise they cannot do without them.

Museveni, on New Year’s Day, addressed the nation and among the highlights of his speech was to thank the Ugandan parliament for removing presidential term limits. Museveni’s ideas on African leadership — the less said about them the better. Suffice it to say, after ruling Uganda for 31 years, Museveni’s claim to continued presidency is at best cocky and spurious. Now 73, Museveni’s life presidency ambitions could not be achieved unless and until he tampered with the constitution. To make sure parliament toed the line, during the choreographed debate on the age limit, he would send his presidential guards right inside the precincts of the house to beat up recalcitrant MPs who were not dancing to his rap song.

RWANDA: AID 'FUELS' REPRESSION

His former comrade at arms, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, mid last year took Rwandans through a rigmarole of a referendum to effectively change the constitution so that he can rule the tiny Great Lakes nation indefinitely.

Filip Reyntjens, the Belgian expert on Rwanda, has pointed out that Rwanda is a dictatorship that might lead the country to exploding again: “My concern is Rwanda will explode again,” said Reyntjens in July last year. Journalist Anjan Sundaram, who worked in Rwanda for five years, in his book Bad News, lends credence to Reyntjens’s assertion, saying donor money helps fuel repression: “Rwandans benefit from aid on condition they do not criticize the Rwanda government.” David Himbara, the former principal private secretary, says Kagame runs Rwanda like fiefdom.

Although Kenya held two general elections in a space of two and half months, the country is as polarized as it was in December 2007, when a general election was first openly bungled, leading to social upheaval in parts of the country. The first election was held on August 8, 2017, which was overturned by the Supreme Court. In the repeat on October 26, 2017, a third of the electorate participated countrywide, with four counties not participating at all.

Predictions on how a particular year will pan out are usually a deadpan guesswork. I will not pretend to make any concerning Africa’s political trajectory. So, I will end with Diop’s last stanza, which says: “That is your Africa springing anew/Springing up patiently, obstinately/Whose fruit bit by bit acquires/The bitter taste of liberty.”