Early last week news began filtering in that Robert Mugabe, the nonagenarian dictator who has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist since the advent of majority rule, might be on his way out.
The military in the country seemed to have finally had it with the incessant power plays revolving around Mugabe’s wife and liberation struggle cronies, and they declared that they were interested in ridding the country of the “criminals” around their fellow war veteran.
In among the most timid military interventions in civic affairs on the continent, the generals denied that they were taking over government, and urged people to maintain as normal a routine as possible.
In the meantime, frantic efforts were being made by actors on both sides to either take advantage of the situation or to try and restore the status quo, a virtual impossibility once the military leave the barracks.
No matter the outcome of the Zimbabwe situation, there are important leadership lessons here that might be of benefit to many an African leader.
The most important one is that no matter how much your cronies convince you that “the people love you and would do anything for you”, you cannot be everything to everyone.
There will always be a significant proportion of the population in your country who dislike you for any or no reason at all.
And the longer you stay in charge, the larger the proportion that dislikes, and eventually actively hates you.
African leaders often get into power on the crest of some real or imagined popularity, and over time this perception solidifies in their own minds so much so that they cannot imagine the country under any other leadership.
It would appear that the malaise that prompted the French monarch Louis XIV to declare that “l’etat c’est moi” (I am the State) lives on among many of our African potentates.
Perhaps due to the benefits of proximity to power in a system that lacks proper checks and balances, court poets and jesters are never lacking, and they outdo themselves in singing praise songs for the leader, convincing him of his own immortality or unprecedented longevity.
The end result is that many African leaders never think about life after office, because this is the same thing as contemplating their own death, a fearful taboo in these parts.
Even when fellow despots begin falling like flies as has been happening across the continent, those still in power continue to believe in their countries’ exceptionalism, and dismiss the “weak” despots who have lost control over their own people.
They delude themselves that they are well-liked and nothing similar would befall them.
Unfortunately, those that refuse to change with the times are eventually changed by the times.
African despots who use their role in the independence struggle to hang on to power well past their sell-by dates eventually meet a new generation of citizen who is not beholden to them, and demands the right to live in a free, open and democratic society unshackled by historical entitlements.
In 2002, Kenya began its journey out of the shadow of those that claimed some role in the independence struggle with the symbolic deposition of the Kanu kleptocracy and the installation of the Narc government.
Mwai Kibaki acted as the transition between those that would take power as a form of reward for their “sacrifices”, and those that would compete for it on the basis of manifestoes and plans for a modern prosperous state.
Today, while new forms of ethnopolitical entitlement have emerged to capture the citizens’ imagination in different parts of this country, we can proudly say that the naked advancement of those attitudes is unlikely to win national power.
Those that hold those attitudes must couch them in progressive language in order to win and hold legitimate power.
One hopes that an important outcome of the current political winds will be a new dispensation in which we respect all citizens as having equal rights and opportunities to grow and prosper as Kenyans, and not as members of any of our varied ethnia.
Atwoli is Associate Professor and Dean, Moi University School of Medicine [email protected]