In times of crisis, desperate people tend to turn to those who aspire to become ‘saviours’. The likely saviours, using Biblical imagery, struggle to become Moses and lead their people out of mythical Egypt to an equally mythical Canaan.
The Biblical imagery shows the universal acceptance of the Hebrew narrative as representing liberation of the ‘oppressed’ from symbolic Egypt and pharaohs through possible divine intervention. In that imagery, all the ‘oppressed’ are children of Israel waiting for a saviour. Those who aspire to be Moses are many.
In recent times, Africa has experienced three phases of oppression from which they needed liberation. The first was slave trade and the extraction of human capital whose effect, as Walter Rodney argued, was to ‘under develop Africa’ perpetually while developing Europe and the Western Hemisphere.
The second phase was that of slavery in situ or the colonial states which neatly fitted the Biblical imagery - colonial states as ‘Egypt’ the oppressor, colonial governors and officials as the pharaoh, and the ‘natives’ as the children of Israel waiting for an anti-colonial saviour or Moses.
A few people emerged, especially in post-World War II period as anti-colonial champions and acquired the saviour reputation. They included two participants at the 1945 Fifth DuBois associated Pan-African Congress at Manchester: Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah.
The two believed in prioritising anti-colonial politics over everything else but they had different approaches to liberation and post-colonialism. Nkrumah, as the ‘Osagyefo’, mass mobilised the Gold Coast to become Ghana in 1957 and inspired such other likely saviours as Congo’s Patrice Lumumba. Nkrumah’s zeal, however, landed him in trouble with the West during the Cold War which planned his ouster in 1966. The West had previously arranged for Lumumba to lose both job and life. He became an African martyr.
Nkrumah’s success in West Africa in the early 1950s generated concerns in Kenya that a political disease called ‘Gold Coastism’ could spread to ‘white man’s country’. It came but not in the same way. That liberation approach was the Kenyatta inspired Mau Mau War which captured world imagination and turned him into Kenya’s Moses.
Aware of Lumumba's tribulations in Congo, Kenyatta avoided annoying the West and dumped the Mau Mau. He still remained the symbol of Mau Mau success which in turn inspired those in other white settler colonies who produced their own saviours in Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe.
The post-colonial states also produced different ‘saviours’, capturing imagination because of the crises they had to deal with. Having rescued countries from disasters, the people considered them to be saviours that are still needed to avoid going back to disaster.
These include Yoweri Kaguta Museveni who ‘rescued’ Uganda in 1986 from the Milton Obote–Idi Amin induced breakdown. He looked fresh as leader of new African leaders who, although they have aged, still wield great influence due to previous instability.
He exploits memories of pre-1986 chaos to stay in power and even to imply that his son should inherit the presidency. Neighbouring Museveni in Uganda is Paul Kagame of Rwanda who in 1994 acquired a saviour image by ending the genocide and stabilising the country. Assertions that Museveni and Kagame are not as democratic as some idealists would want us to believe, makes little sense in Uganda and Rwanda because the two have the ‘saviour’ attributes.
The third phase of the saviour phenomenon is manifesting itself in 2023 as young military officers turn against continuing neo-colonialism mainly in former French colonies in Western Africa. In this new wave of liberation, individual leaders are irrelevant to ending perpetual external exploitation. Saving the countries from the continuity of structures of exploitation through presidents as proxies creates new ‘saviours’.