Pro­fes­sor Stephen Chan

The Africa Report - - CONTENTS - Ste ephen Chan Pro­fes­sor r of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies, UK

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.

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