Africa is sitting delicately at the crossroads of hope and despair. It is one of those defining moments in world history, when winds of change seem to effortlessly blow societies wherever they will. When they are done with them, new orders are born. Those who bend to give way to the winds survive to tell the story. Those who stand in the way of these winds are blown towards destruction. The wise will either bend to let the winds pass, or they will use them to paddle their canoes of state.
The apocryphal story has been told of King Canute of the 11th Century, detailing how he tried to stop the tides of the ocean. The storyteller Huntingdon says one day the king sat on his throne on the seashore and commanded the violently approaching tides to stop. “I am the king of England. I order you to stop,” he told the tide. But the tides came, all the same, causing him to run away in indignity. Do African leaders have the flaw of failing to read the tides of time?
Yet the tides of time are not respecters of authority. They have often left humankind marveling; “How are the mighty fallen!” These past four months, the world has seen the all-powerful Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe get deposed without a single shot being fired. This week, two African giants fell. Again, not a single sound of gunfire. Jacob Zuma of South Africa succumbed to pressure from his African National Congress (ANC) party. Whining and begrudgingly, he resigned. A new President was sworn in the next day, without the trademark African sound and fury about swearing in. Haile Mariam Desalegn of Ethiopia went a day after Zuma. He did it in typical Ethiopian style.
In September 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie II, also known as Ras Tafari the Lion of Juda, succumbed to a popular uprising. He was literally killed in (his) office and secretly buried in a toilet. His successor, Aman Mikael Andom, was assassinated within two months of taking over. The killers had until just the other day been his supporters. In under two years, the man who took over, Tefari Benti, was killed within two years in another palace coup led by his deputy, Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mariam reigned from February 1976 to November 1991, when he also succumbed to self-styled revolutionaries, called Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afwerki – the latter who would become President of independent Eritrea. And now Haile Mariam Desalegn has surrendered to unending public protests.
Of course, telescoping a story such as Ethiopia’s from Haile Selassie to Desalegn oversimplifies a complex matter. Yet the common thread is simple. From 1916 to 2018, and from an emperor to chairmen of a communist party, on to presidents and to prime ministers, Ethiopia has changed at the very top only after the death of the incumbent, or deposition – or both. It is the kind of change many African leaders seem to like. Hence, whether they make it a part of their official titles like Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda or not, they love to be life presidents.
Even when the facts starkly stare at him straight in the face, the African strongman stares right back. He trusts that some angel of mischief will help him against the wind of change. He will desperately hang in there until the day he comes tumbling down like a bunch of bananas. Mugabe, Zuma, and Desalegn all failed to respect signs of the times. A series of motions of no confidence said nothing to Zuma. Mugabe was the unabashed global face of state capture. And in Ethiopia, Desalegn has survived on high handedness and serial states of emergency.
Suffer attrition and reprisal
In the end, it is all futile. In this futility lies a thin film of forlorn hope for a troubled continent. Maybe – just maybe – Africa can take lessons from the tragic endings? Maybe here in Kenya, for instance, the leadership could begin reflecting on the wisdom of attempting to establish a state that is only a brutal ethnic-based power machine? Apart from the fact that it invites innocent tribal citizens into undeserved condemnation, such a state leaves behind shame as its only legacy. Worse still, the incumbent’s family and close associates often suffer attrition and reprisal when, finally, the chips are finally down.
Even the most scornful leader ought to pause for a moment and reflect on his probable destiny with history. Even if you despise everybody, think about your family and friends. Someday you must go. How will you go? Where will you leave them? When draconian leaders leave, they have often thrown those they loved into turmoil. Even recent history is replete with these people who misled themselves into believing that amassing of power and wealth and surrounding themselves with their tribesmen was the elixir of life. Augusto Pinochet, Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko, Jean Pierre Duvalier, Macias Nguema, Idi Amin, Milton Obote, Muammar Gadhafi, Sadaam Hussein, and a battery of other crackpot types all left in tatters those they thought that they loved – hopelessly scattered in the winds.
Our own Uhuru now has power firmly in his hands. He has rearranged the investigative, legal, security, immigration, finance and military sectors in a frightfully portentous manner. Everything in the current Jubilee leadership now suggests that something very sinister is in the offing. The party has made sharp verbal attacks against the Judiciary. Put this together with the shaking up of the Judicial Service Commission, the mother of the Judiciary. Throw in the ambiguous removal of the Attorney General – maybe a dismissal, or maybe preparation to become the next Chief Justice – rope in the removal of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the changes in the Police Service. The pieces monstrously begin falling together. In a continent sitting at the crossroads of hope and despair, has Kenya chosen despair over hope?
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- The writer is a Strategic Public Communications Adviser. [email protected]