Professor Stephen Chan
Dustin Hoffman starred in a film called Little Big Man. It was curiously tragic but satirical – about a world that no longer fitted the grandeur of one’s history, and a sense of self-realisation. Hoffman’s character is thus named by the Cheyenne tribe that raises him, thanks to his brave exploits. When the Indians are decimated by the white man, someone who has been big has to prepare himself to die small. The label ‘Big Man’ is also associated with Henry Stanley’s Victorian adventures exploring Africa. He blasted his way across the continent. When he came across rapids in a river that did not allow his boats a path through, he dynamited the rocks out of the way. He became known as Bula Matari, the blaster of rocks. Nothing could stop him – as long as he had dynamite. After a time the idea of ‘bigness’ became associated not just with rank and dignity, not just with a history of heroism, not just with age and wisdom, but with the sense that the Big Man could do things. He could make things happen. When nothing happens any more, when he commands the rocks to disappear, but the rocks just stay, all the waving of his arms in the air does not save him. He becomes an impersonator of himself. He becomes stupid. The Big Man appeared in modern China (Mao), in Romania (Ceausescu) and in Yugoslavia (Tito). They all finally became shadows and caricatures of their former selves. Today, Donald Trump waves his arms in the American air and promises to be the next Big Man. The actual Big Man of the moment, Vladimir Putin, sits on his motorcycles – or subdued tigers or bears and fallen judo opponents – and smirks at a pretender who seems stupid before he even starts.
One of the tragic characteristics of some European and Asian Big Men has been the likeness between themselves in their last days and themselves as embalmed corpses on public display. Formaldehyde gave them the same texture as a rubber sex doll lying permanently in state. In their old age, before death and embalming finally came, did they think of themselves as relics-to-be, as doll-like curiosities for the morbid public gaze? There are some genuinely little Big Men. Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh, clinging to power in December, was president of a tiny, narrow country that in turn clung to a river that would have been just another river in Senegal – except that in colonial rivalries Britain detached the tiny strip of land from France. It grows good peanuts. The tiny area by the sea attracts middle-aged European women in search of muscular adventure. The local joke was that the airport could not have been built north to south, as the
Mugabe is the world’s oldest leader, but not yet its longest-serving president
country was not tall enough. But Jammeh thought, as the Biggest Man in a tiny country, he was a gift from God. He could cure AIDS. He was messianic. He was surely very important. He was only ridiculous.
It is this danger of appearing less than they might wish that hangs over the rest of Africa’s Big Men. The oldest national leader in the world is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. He turns 93 this February, and his country is once again entering a major economic downturn. He speaks of standing yet again in the 2018 elections, but the risk is that the new bond notes that constitute a sort of auxiliary currency may have helped fuel terrible inflation by then. Defeat by a bond note, rather than by any consortium of opposition leaders – themselves veterans who are never replaced by a younger generation – might not be the finest political epitaph. But, in fact, Mugabe, although he is the world’s oldest leader, cannot yet claim to be its longestser ving president. That distinction belongs to Equatorial Guinea’s dictatorial Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo who, at only 74, has been in power since 1979 – a year longer than Mugabe. That’s 37 years in power for Mugabe and 38 for Obiang. Even China’s Chairman Mao, who died at 81, was only in power for 26 years. Age is a defining characteristic for those who have served too long. Angola’s José Eduardo Dos Santos is at least standing down this year, at the age of 74. Jacob Zuma, whose African National Congress party has not only run out of steam but has become unhygienically corrupt, is also 74. Sudan’s Omar al-bashir is 72, as is Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.
Not all leaders over 70 outlive their usefulness. At 73, the recently retired US Secretary of State, John Kerry, was a statesman with amazing energy – not to mention new diplomatic ideas. These may all be undone now by 70-year-old Trump. The most pathetic figure of all Africa’s aged Big Men was of course Malawi’s Hastings Banda. He was born around 1898 and lived till 1997. He ruled from 1961 to 1994. Mugabe knew him, and worked with him, not least in opening negotiations in Malawi with the Mozambican rebel leadership. This led to the Rome peace treaty – arguably Mugabe’s last great hour of accomplishment. But Banda, by the time of Rome, was the object of ridicule by his fellow presidents. It was said, by them, that he had to wear padded plastic underpants under his fine suits.
The time to go is surely before one becomes incontinent and drools at state dinners before international television cameras. At that time, Banda’s self-assumed title, Ngwazi, the Conquering Lion, appeared unfortunate. At least he didn’t acquire Joseph Sese Seko Mobutu’s string of titles, among them Messiah, Father of the Nation, Guide of the Revolution, Supreme Unconquered Warrior. Mobutu was depicted every night on national television as an angel riding on a cloud in heaven. He ruled from 1965 to 1997, by which time what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo was a mess. His ‘authentic’ dress may have inspired Bob Dylan’s ‘Leopard-skin Pillbox Hat’ – not a song written to be complimentary. The point is that, at a critical stage, just marginally after the moment when he should have let go, the Big Man starts appearing stupid. At a momentous time in history, when the northern hemisphere seems hell-bent on religious wars, economic suicide and alt-right leadership – all of
Where is the young, highly educated, forward-looking leadership?
which will greatly impact upon Africa – where is the young, highly educated, forward-looking leadership that will make the continent an exception to global meltdown? Why has Africa never produced a Barack Obama? Why does everyone look backward? A case in point is Zimbabwe. President Mugabe keeps talking of the triumph of liberation. It was indeed a great triumph. In the power struggles of today’s Zimbabwe, there is meant to be a grouping called the G40, referring, it seems, to a younger generation – although it too seems to have elderly ideas. But, at the 2018 elections, those who will then be 40 were two years old at the moment of liberation in 1980. It is a sobering reflection: that the Big Men of Africa have nothing in common with the youthful bulk of their populations and will not be alive to see the future for which they have not prepared.