Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Every dog has its day: Leadership and the cult of personality in Africa

In the United States, they say the longer a dog and his owner stay together, the more the two begin to resemble one another. In an anthropomorphically similar vein, how much do countries resemble their leaders? Let me put it another way: Do nations begin to pick up the traits of presidents, prime ministers in power, for it is these certain characteristics that attracted the populace to first vote for these people.

You could take this to mean many things. Is the United States still largely an incurious rich boy who somewhat recently found God? Is France more “moderne” and “chic” and now more happily married to a model than it was eight months ago?

I tend to believe in this argument – to a certain extent. Once a leader uses his or her personality to make a mark on a country, aspects of that personality within the national character – which had most likely always been there – shine a little more. Or, people pay more attention to them. (People didn’t pay that much attention to evangelicals in the U.S. before George Bush ran for national office.)

What then for African countries living under the rule of rulers for life? Is it more of the example of the dog and his owner? Was Burkina Faso wilder and looser when Blaise Compoare was in his mid-30s when he forced his way to power in 1987? Is Burkina Faso a staid and mature country today now he has reached a healthy “young” 57 and still in office?

In the Zimbabwe Standard, the human rights activist Brilliant Mhlanga asks similar questions of those living under long-ruling dictators, some of whom have spent their entire adult lives in office. Like the dog with a senile owner, what happens to people who have found themselves “being led by leaders whose geriatric state has become too dangerous not only to themselves and the coterie of people around them, but to their respective nations?”

Specifically, how did Togo fare during the final few laps of Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s rule?

…Eyadéma who managed to remain in power for 38 years and finally went wild before his death. Those who knew him closely even confess high levels of mental incapacitation; they say he had become so fuzzy to the extent that he even tended to forget some of his ministers after a cabinet reshuffle.

What about Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe has taken up to talking to himself, a trait he shares with Eyadéma.

Some social psychologists have referred to that condition as a return to the self; a dangerous state of mental warping capable only of producing a self-serving individual without a tinge of selflessness.

This is a child like state of mind. In such a state the nation and the people are positioned last. That state is bad and is a feature of most African leaders, surprisingly, when they are still in office.

And Cameroon, where Paul Biya has ruled since 1983, whom he describes as “a christian and French speaker runs this divided state with a heavy hand; of course, with the tacit approval of France.”

When he first got into power, he is said to have sweet talked everyone and showed positive shifts towards democracy, examples include his early call for a presidential election in which he stood as the sole candidate, and even called for relaxation of media laws. He challenged the media to work with him in order to address the challenges facing Cameroon. It was only at the end that the media woke up to discover they had been taken for a serious political joy ride, and it was no longer feasible to turn back. Now that he belongs to the geriatric ambit, he has even become more ruthless.

Mhlanga will continue this debate next week.

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