People in many sub-Saharan African nations suffer and grumble, but they do not seem willing to pour out into the streets and demand accountability from their leaders. Do they believe change will come by merely wishing for it?
It is almost predictable. Soon, angry, red-eyed Arab youths will be on the move again. Not that the great trek for them has ended anyway, but this time they will fill squares in the Arab world to commemorate the second anniversary of the Arab Spring. Yes, the second anniversary of the Arab Spring, the name for the culmination of earth-shaking events which sprung Arab youths into action will bring out people to ask questions about the relevance or otherwise of their actions that pushed some of their sit-tight leaders out of their peacock thrones.
Since those events, Arab leaders have been on their toes as they have constantly been forced to steal glances over their shoulders since their carbon copies in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen lost out in the power game. Ahead of the celebrations, Syrian leader Bashir al Assad and Sudan’s Hassan Omar el Bashir are fighting the battle of their lives to cling to their shaky thrones. In the case of Assad, his own idea of fighting back not to join the growing list of disgraced leaders is to introduce a 49th law to Robert Greene’s ‘The 48 Laws of Power’. Assad’s 49th law is simple: ‘Decimate your subjects as much as possible; the fewer they are, the lesser the chances of opposition and the brighter your chances of survival!’ And why not? Power is a sweet intoxicant after all and the possibility of a know-all leader spending the rest of his life either behind bars or in exile should be resisted as much as possible. The situation is compounded by the morbid fear of a leader losing his life in the process of clinging to power.
With greater chances of more drama up north over the next couple of weeks, down south there is a pervading and foreboding silence that is observable only at a graveyard. Before Muhammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation triggered the Arab Spring, all eyes were literally on sub-Saharan Africa where many expected a spring or several springs to eject sit-tight leaders from their thrones. It is in sub-Saharan Africa that you have some of the meanest democratically elected despots who have cornered power for narrow, selfish and group interests. From Uganda and Eritrea to Nigeria and Burkina Faso, sub-Saharan Africa is littered with clueless leaders who foisted themselves or were foisted on their peoples not because of how prepared they are to work but because some vested interests somewhere see and use them as strings in the game of puppeteering. So far, they are still taunting their people and pretending as if there could not be a spring to throw them out. To them, the obnoxious title of President for Life remains relevant today as it was two or three decades ago and, as if to justify their seeming invincibility, they continue to conduct sham elections after compromising legislatures to grant them endless tenures.
Imagine this: Eduardo dos Santos has ruled Angola since 1979 when he succeeded the late Agostinho Neto and only claimed another term recently; Mbasogo Nguema has been calling the shots in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea since he killed and inherited his uncle’s presidential powers in 1979; Robert Mugabe has held Zimbabweans by the jugular since he came out of the bush to win elections in 1980; Yoweri Museveni has rubbished the credentials of the late Idi Amin Dada since he led a rag tag army to take Kampala in 1986. In Cameroon, the people have known only one leader in the person of Paul Biya since 1982 when Ahmadu Ahidjo willingly handed over to him. Blaise Compaore has been the main tenant of the presidential palace in Ouagadougou since he killed his friend, Thomas Sankara, in 1987. In Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki has succeeded in whipping his people into submission since 1993 after he led a war to break from Ethiopia, while Yahya Jammeh has been the only leader known to Gambians since he pushed out Sir Dauda Jawara in a 1994 bloodless coup.
In post-Mobutu Sese Seko’s DR Congo, Joseph Kabila is trying to achieve what his slain father, Laurent, failed to achieve. Laurent Gbagbo was forced out after he refused to quit State House weeks after losing in an election to Alassane Ouattara. Old man Abdullahi Wade of Senegal dropped plans to force his son on the people when he smelt a potentially dangerous spring only to grudgingly make way for his waterloo, Macky Sall. Togo’s Faure Gnassingbe Eyadema is busy quarrelling with his siblings over inheriting a country they imagine should be the private property of their late father. Paul Kagame of Rwanda is at the game and, by playing his cards right, he has metamorphosed from a victim to perpetrator of genocide in eastern DR Congo. But for death, Menes Zenawi would have played the elongation game for more years to come. Other African rulers tried but failed to perpetuate themselves in power. Not satisfied with ruling for two terms totaling ten years, Tanja Mammadou, a former army general who was later elected president in Niger was chased out in a noon-day military takeover after he sought to extend his rule. Olusegun Obasanjo avoided a similar fate when he grudgingly quit after he failed to extend his rule.
Late last year, one black African child unsettled me when she sought to know whether all she had been watching on Aljazeera could happen in her home country, Nigeria. I knew what she was talking about: the first anniversary of the Arab Spring was on then, and as part of the celebrations, many Arabs, young and old, men and women, were captured by Aljazeera on major streets in the Arab world demanding more openness. Indeed, at the time she asked the question, the Egyptians were on the move again, this time, to demand an end to military rule and an accelerated move toward participatory democracy. I assured my young interrogator that the art of policemen pouncing on and brutalising unarmed protesters was not restricted to seemingly backward and developing countries as the practice was even more pronounced in some supposedly civilized and developed countries. She nodded in what I took to be an acceptance of my position. She even went on to say she watched, again on Aljazeera, some supposedly decent and civilized American policemen spraying pepper at students on a university campus.
But what she wanted to know had nothing to do with the universality of police brutality. Rather, she wanted to know if people in her native Nigeria could feel the need to defy death and take to the streets to hold their leaders to account. What manner of answer do you give a (then) nine-year-old on this harmless though controversial question? I realized there was need for moderation. ‘Well’, I started off. ‘Let us assume it cannot happen here because the chances are rather slim.’ I could see disbelief written all over her face and I knew she barely restrained herself from protesting. Her question, unsettling as it was, remains one issue that interests and agitates many minds. But I did not feel the need to encourage her by showing undue enthusiasm.
The next question was natural: What makes the chances slim here? This time, I was prepared. ‘Because Africans, especially we black Africans, do not see the need to die for a cause we believe in. We may murmur, insinuate, complain and raise all the dust in the Sahara but at the end of the day, we end up honouring and celebrating treasury looters. This is why you are not likely going to see people on the streets to protest bad government policies.’
I am not sure whether my response satisfied my interrogator but I am sure she wanted more convincing answers. Why do people think bad government will go merely by wishing it? Why do people indulge in lamentations and insinuations as if these will turn round their fortunes? Why do we praise those who defy death to demand good government elsewhere but find it out of place to do so at home? Why, even when people take to the streets here, they target fellow suffering countrymen and women? Why do people kill in the name of religion rather than direct their anger at non-performing leaders and treasury hijackers? Pray, is it not one of the ironies of life that clueless leaders continue to have their way in the most backward parts of the world whereas people in societies that are relatively better off are increasingly demanding accountability from their leaders?
Of course, there will always be more to say and ask in societies where mediocrity in leadership is considered the norm - and celebrated.
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* Abdulrazaq Magaji lives in Abuja, Nigeria, and can be reached at [email protected]