UDOGIE: EVER WONDER WHY AFRICA IS LIKE THIS?
LIKE how? African men (no women) who succeeded the colonial masters after independence were for the most part very formidable leaders. But they quickly succumbed to sycophancy, and then corruption and brutality. Several accounts of this are recounted in colourful detail in the book, The State Of Africa by Martin Meredith. Consider Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah. While in prison, he contested Parliamentary elections and won. Confused by this feat, the British colonial masters were in a quandary regarding what to do. Inevitably, they released him from prison, drove him straight to the state house and asked him to form and head a new government. A formidable character, he went on to secure independence for Ghana in 1957. Thus, Ghana became a beacon of hope and a template for freedom fighters across the continent, especially next-door, neighbour Nigeria.
Nkrumah was a workaholic. He exuded vitality. His whole life was dominated by politics. A bachelor at 47, he took no interest in sport, or food, or personal comfort. He did not smoke or drink. Asked what his hobby was, he replied: 'Work'. But as Ghana's leader, Kwame Nkrumah was accustomed to a diet of endless praise As part of his personality cult, Nkrumah assumed grand titles: Man of Destiny. Star of Africa. His High Dedication. And most famous of all Osagyefo meaning 'victor in war' His statue stood outside the parliament. His framed photograph adorned offices and shops.
In this atmosphere of unbridled praise-singing and sycophancy, corruption soon began to fester. Under his watch, all kinds of dubious schemes were being proposed and executed Odd items - a 5 million pounds warship for the navy, a 7,500 ton luxury boat built for Nkrumah himself - started popping up. Ministers flaunted their wealth openly. Krobo Edusei, a minister, gained notoriety when his wife ordered a 3,000 pounds gold-plated bed from a London store. Soon, government's external debts soared. At a cabinet meeting on February 11, 1963, when the finance minister announced that Ghana's reserves stood at less than 500,000 pounds, Nkrumah was so shocked that he sat in silence for fifteen minutes, then broke down and started wailing.
He was also a deeply flawed man, a 'lonely and isolated figure.' In a half-hearted way, he tried marriage. Without mentioning a word to his closest colleagues, he arranged with Egyptian President, Gamal Addel Nasser, to obtain a bride from Egypt, a woman he had never previously met until she arrived in Ghana on the same day of the wedding. Fathia Rizk spoke only Arabic and French. Nkrumah spoke neither Arabic nor French. Still, the marriage produced three children. But when an author mentioned 'married with three children' in Nkrumah's book, Neocolonialism, he struck it off saying it was totally irrelevant.
But where Nkrumah had issues with marriage, Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Cenral African Republic was prolific. His excesses included seventeen wives, a score of mistresses and an official count of 55 children. For him, there was no pretence. He liked to describe himself as an 'absolute monarchy' and forbade mention of the words democracy and elections. He promoted himself to the rank of General, then to Marshal, for 'supreme services to the State.' He himself held twelve ministerial portfolios and interfered in all the others. His sexual proclivities were voracious. He installed wives and mistresses in separate residences, leaving his palace several times each day to pay them visits, holding up traffic on the way. In the country's rush to independence, Bokassa gained rapid promotion. He was a sergeant for seventeen years in the colonial army. Then he was appointed Chief of Staff of the country's 500-man army by his cousin, President David Dacko. He staged a coup, toppled Dacko, clamped him into solitary confinement for three years and then went on to plunder the country.
Then there was Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie who also had long and vicious grip on power. Even in his late seventies, he refused to discuss the issue of succession. Not even when he slowly became senile. When the Minister of Public Works, Saleh Hinit, appeared at the palace one day, the emperor turned to his aide asking: 'Who is that man? What is he doing here?' At a state dinner in honour of President Mobutu of Zaire, Haile Selassie summoned an official to ask, in their Amharic language, who the guest of honour sitting opposite him was. This remained the sad state of affairs until the army struck and one Major Mengistu Haile Mariam, took over from where Emperor left off. Mengistu was to become even more infamous.
At the time of Uganda's independence in 1962, Idi Amin was a newly commissioned officer, promoted from the ranks. A man described as a virtual illiterate, with no schooling and limited intelligence, he had been recruited as a trainee cook into the colonial army. A massively huge man, he held the national heavyweight boxing champion for nine years. Idi Amin staged a coup in January 1971 with little resistance. With little understanding of the workings of government, he had little interest in it beyond using it as an instrument of severe and brutal oppression. Arguing with him was dangerous.
No one was immune. The country's chief justice was dragged away from the High Court, never to be seen again. The university's vice chancellor disappeared. The bullet-riddled body of the Anglican archbishop, still in ecclesiastical robes, was dumped at the hospital mortuary. His own family wasn't spared. Told that his wife was found with her limps dismembered in the booth of a car, he expressed no surprise. Only ordering that her dismembered parts be sowed back to the body so he and the children can view. Amin would go onto to promote himself to the rank of Field Marshal, declare himself president for life, and award himself bogus military medals and titles like Conqueror of the British Empire. By time his rule ended in 1979, in a coup, he had left Uganda ravaged, lawless and bankrupt with a death toll of 250,000.
In this atmosphere, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania was a breath of fresh air. Or was he? He was widely regarded as a leader of 'outstanding ability whose personal integrity and modest lifestyle was in sharp contrast to the extravagance and corruption for which other African presidents had generally become renowned'. He also had a title, but an affectionate one, Mwalimu, meaning 'teacher.' 'He dressed simply, took no interest in the spoils of leadership. His intellectual energy was formidable.' He even found time to translate into KiSwahili, two Shakespeare plays, The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar. He had many admirers.
But in 1967, in a paper titled Socialism and Rural Development, Nyerere laid out his proposals to establish self-sufficient socialist villages across the country. In what was to become a 'villagising' movement, he, declaring that 'To live in a village is an order.' People were being rounded up and shipped forcefully to the village to live and work. 'Between 1973 and 1977, some 11 million people were placed in new villages, in what amounted to the largest mass movement in Africa's history'. This was in sharp contrast to a place like Singapore, where Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, was forcefully herding people, including farmers with their chickens and pigs, petty traders, the poor, etc into gleaming skyscrapers. Two policies, executed with equal zeal and enthusiasm, but with sharply different outcomes today.
On the night of April 12, 1980, a 28-year old master-sergeant along with seventeen other junior soldiers forced their way into President William Tolbert's bedroom, and pumped bullets into his head. Thus Samuel Doe became the youngest and lowest-ranking officer to seize power in Africa. From then on, Liberia descent to hell accelerated. He believed that he was protected by supernatural powers. He had a coterie of juju men from all over Africa, notably Togo. He would go on to amass a personal fortune estimated at over $300 million. Then he met a violent end when insurgents, led by Prince Johnson ambushed him at ECOMOG quarters. A film was made of Doe's interrogation. 'Johnson sat calmly behind desk, drinking beer. 'Cut off one ear,' he says. Doe is held down flat. A knife slices through an ear. Doe screams. The film shows Johnson holding the ear high above his mouth and then chewing it.'
But why won't Africa be like this anyway? Shortly after seizing power in Sudan in 1989, General Omar al-Bashir addressed a rally holding a copy of the Koran in one hand and a riffle on the other. Bashir's coup marked the beginning of an Islamist dictatorship that dealt ruthlessly with Muslim and non-Muslim opponents alike. Only one country in the world, an African country, Mozambique, has a gun, an AK47as a symbol on its national flag!
• Udogie is the Publisher of BottomLINE Newsletter