Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The unwritten epitaph on a tyrant

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

-- W H Auden

I posed a half-baked anthropomorphic theory sometime ago that went like this: Countries cannot but help but embody some of the characteristics of their leaders. I’d like to reprise that, but first let me start on a different path: the economy.

If the state of the economy is mostly tied up in base gut feelings and emotions and – dare we say it – mood swings, this theory can’t be anymore than half wrong. Think about it. Personal spending and family debt and the ideas of wealth are often tied up in how well one feels about his or her place in the economy and those prospects for the immediate future. Where do people get these cues? From ourselves? Surely. But others, too: our neighbors and peers? Maybe. I can’t help but think our leaders project these feelings. If a leader mimics confidence (and irrational exuberance), why should people not follow suit and go out to buy that third car?

Now, in richer countries, people are often privy to what their leaders do for fun or where they go to relax. In poorer countries – where the personal wealth of leaders are, um, a closely guarded secret – vacations and personal hobbies are best not discussed. It may also be that those richer countries want a chief they can somehow relate to. In West Africa, I’ll argue most people strive for heads of state who will fight for their rights, whether on the domestic front or in the international court.

But let’s get back to the traits of leaders being represented throughout the populace. Good leaders – or at least populist leaders – take specific cues from their people and change their habits accordingly. That’s what makes them popular: everyone sees a little of themselves in these leaders. For example, how did difficult was it for Cubans in the early 1960s to not feel a little more feisty and run out and purchase fatigues? What happens when the calendars begin turning over and people still find these aged leaders in power? Do their subjects still hold that same feelings for them? Do they emulate their senior citizen president as they once looked up to the young upstart?

It’s easy to say that power does strange thing to people. It must be unnerving when the trappings of power makes tapping into that psyche of a people difficult and nearly impossible. It’s hard to hear the cries of the street from the State House. Honestly, when did Castro lose his feel for Cubans? 1971? 1981? At what point does Hugo Chavez become a caricature?

Don’t cry for me, Guinea
It seems I always return to this theme when I am trying to figure out what it must be like to live in a country like Guinea. President Lansana Conte has been in power long enough to not know any better. Last year’s groundswell of opposition that rose against his sclerotic regime is well documented. But the old man stayed on, and the reasons for his continuing grasp of power are also well documented.

Now, the international press may highlight the extremes of Guinea. But the reality on the street may not be so intense, and life around the country may continue pretty much apace. But in the courtyards of their hearts and minds, Guineans must still have a general unease over what is going to happen at the top levels of their government. How can they not?

Conte can’t play magician and puppet master forever. Even if he has been reduced to being a mere puppet, his body may do him in before his masters do. With this in mind, though, it appears he is still winning the battle over the soul of his nation. At the one year anniversary mark of the peoples’ choice for Prime Minister – a condition for calling off last year’s bloody general strikes – it appears the man supposedly in charge has little relevance in today’s Guinea.

From Reuters:

Critics say little has changed in the impoverished West African country, which still suffers soaring prices, persistent electricity blackouts and endless intrigue surrounding President Lansana Conte, a diabetic chain smoker in his 70s.

Even more galling for families of 137 people killed in the 2007 strike -- most shot dead by Conte's police -- an official inquiry into their killings has yet to get off the ground.

Conte's presidency, which critics say is controlled by a small loyalist clique, has chipped away at [Prime Minister Lansana] Kouyate's authority.

A December presidential decree reassigning control of government business to a Conte ally was overturned only after Kouyate went to meet the ailing president. Days later Conte replaced Kouyate's information minister with another ally, prompting angry protests on the streets of the capital Conakry.

With the economy once again stumbling along for this mineral-rich country and people complaining of the water and power cuts, the trade unions have planned a general strike for March 31.

The good thing about these national myths is every country has more than a handful to go around. At one point, Lasana Conte may have personified stability, a trait Guineans may have desired back in 1984. Now that his time has definitely come, it will be interesting to see if anyone can pick up a new mantle for Guinea. The country is certainly ripe for change. And, my guess, so are its people.

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