By Mathew K Jallow
Senile octogenarians, youthful maniacs, barbaric psychopaths, and crude nitwits; they all share the same idiosyncrasies: greed, moral decadence, ignorance, cruelty. They dress in leopard skin, popularized a fashion trend, owned lion statues, sat on golden thrones, and carry the Islamic Quran close to their chest.
They bear the blame for Africa’s lost generations, but left the burden and the agony of poverty on the shoulders of its dispossessed population. They are loathed and reviled. They are the cause of Africa’s unsettling lurch to the dark and dangerous side of politics. Today, sixty years on, their tragic slippage from civilized society to crippling inhumanity, continues to saddle Africa with the haunting images of abject poverty and insufferable brutality.
Since the dawn of independence, the African continent has been trapped in a state of permanent dysfunction. I was too young to understand how the deification of African leaders started, but its continuation is written in the blood of its wretched and beleaguered population. It is a history, which in part, was perpetuated by international geopolitical interests, but that is a small piece of this mega African tragedy. African leaders’ greed and fixation with political power is at the center of the failed politics that have brought devastation to a continent.
The early years of African independence were infused with heavy doses of hope and idealism, but disappointment soon set in as the hope began to fray. The euphoria surrounding independence movements began to slowly dissolve into nothingness, and utopia became exactly what it is; mere fantasy. Africa’s pioneering heroes were trapped between two diametrically opposite forces; own up their failed policies, or turn into monsters from the unacceptable end of human behavior.
In the political savagery that soon followed, the “men of consciences” emerged from the military barracks in countries drifting into inevitable chaos and anarchy. The rise of the armies to power was a watershed moment, which quickly accelerated Africa’s downward spiral into political disorder and economic collapse. It seemed that the history of greed, brutality, incompetence and corruption, which the armies continued, had come to stay.
Growing up, one pioneering independence movement leader, in particular, captured my youthful imagination. I worshipped the grounds he walked on. I was full of teenage exuberance, but I was not naïve. I was a blank slate trying desperately to create my own identity. I was both ignorant and susceptible to intellectual manipulation. My mind was fertile grounds for anyone to write their own script on. I fell for the adulation of other humans. I did not understand it, nor cared to know. But I did it. I became a follower. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, occupied much of the vacant space in my mind and influenced my early political consciousness. He was my pied-piper. But a handful of other characters too played significant roles in casting their long shadows on my political and intellectual development, and helped shape my political world-view.
Osajeyfo Dr Kwame Nkrumah was larger than life. In hindsight, Osajeyfo, or Savior, the name of endearment Ghanaians give him after independence, may have started African leaders’ crazy infatuation with empty titles and meaningless accolades.
My gradual maturation into the world of politics came at a huge price. I disowned the people I once adored. At first, I was in a state of denial, but in the end, evidence prevailed over fantasy, and helped free my mind of the terrible stigma of socialism. The dogma socialism personified, was both utopian and inherently intransigent. Put simply; the ideals of socialism were the flight of fancy. Led by Dr Kwame Nkrumah, African leaders who were dabbling in a failed political ideology; Tanzania, Ghana, Guinea-Conakry, Congo, began bankrupting their counties and brought mounting poverty to the streets of their beleaguered countries. The risks of socialism were great; the benefits, negligible and dangerous.
At the other end of the political spectrum, the indoctrination of Africa’s young minds in Marxist ideology, was as fashionable as was Timothy Leary’s popularizing of LSD on college campuses around the US. In another sort of way, Africa’s young were drawn to the intoxicating social and political rebellion Soviet socialism represented. A political doctrine spread by violence and maintained by political tyranny, was the perfect antidote to the freedom of the mind. African leaders of the period salivated over their good fortunes. But this nightmare political culture spawned a massive brain drain, which gave rise to the characterization of Africa as the epitome of failure and absolute incompetence.
In many African countries, the post-independence political ideologies were founded on premises hostile to Western values, as exemplified by Ghana. Kwame Nkrumah’s drift towards Soviet style political tyranny, meant complete state domination, and peoples’ forfeiture of their civil rights. The poster-boy for anti-western imperialism, and the post-independence voice of Africa, the larger than life, Kwame Nkrumah, soon became the trailblazer who lost his way in the fog of his extraordinary ambitions, and helped doom Africa for the decades to come.
Inarguably, the center of Africa’s political and cultural activity, Ghana offered the good and the bad; successes, but also abject failures. Ghana, more specifically, Osajeyfo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, was the archetypal African paradox; the brilliant political strategist who brought both hope and ruin to a continent he sought to lead. His noble idea of a great Africa, unified by necessity, would have to wait. In Ghana, his star was beginning to dim and send his regime into a tailspin. Not even he could foresee his fall from grace, and sudden loss of power.
The Africa’s military coups, political repression, silencing of dissent, mass incarceration, economic mismanagement, and the phenomenon of the one-party state, so popular in the early years of African independence, were the brainchild of Osajeyfo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. Today, the Nkrumah effect continues to color African politics; the addiction to power, the economic stagnation, deterioration of citizen welfare, lack of human rights, and the pugilistic political atmosphere. The terror of African leaders in allowing robust political dissent as constitutionally guaranteed, is still anathema as it was when Kwame Nkrumah ruled.
And back when it took mails a week to reach America, much of what happened politically around the globe was almost a mystery unknown around the world. The idea of human rights was not on the international radar, the championing of economic transparency was decades away, snail mail was still in vogue, and African leaders routinely got away with murder.
Much like Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, Africa is riddled with political hysteria induced by debilitating fear of losing power. But, understanding the mindset of African leaders, sixty years after the collapse of colonialism, is critical in getting a grasp of their incomprehensible lust for political power. Even in an era of ubiquitous cell phones, cameras and instantaneous news broadcasting, the crimes against African citizens are more prevalent now than in bygone years.
In West Africa, Gambia, more than any other country, epitomizes everything that is morally wrong, and intellectually dishonest. Simply put, the Gambia is a microcosm of the ugly, vicious and inhuman nature of African politics. The executions, state sanctioned murders, endemic corruption, tribalism, economic ruin, exploitation of natural resources for personal benefit, the daily doses Yahya Jammeh’s fake fury; all combine to make the Gambia a living hell. Yahya Jammeh’s political demagoguery, a relic of Sekou Toure’s rambling anti-western propaganda, makes him look like a schoolyard bully, yet he has succeeded, beyond imagination, in making the Gambia completely subservient to his will.
It is hard to talk about the Gambia without getting caught up in tribal issues, however, most Gambians, regardless of tribal affiliation, have made conscious decisions not to be drawn into Yahya Jammeh’s bigoted public policy issues. If there is one place where Stockholm Syndrome has found a firm footing, it would be in Gambia. Today, Gambians in the diaspora have made a habit of predicting how long a new appointee to Yahya Jammeh’s regime will take to fall from grace, and they are right most of the time.
Whether Gambians are motivated to stay silent by paralyzing fear, or by familiarity with the pain of mental servitude; it is hard not to feel pity for them. It is as though Gambians have become zombies, without voice and without opinion. The kind of control Yahya Jammeh has over his Gambian subjects, is imperial, and has nothing, whatsoever, to do with elected republican constitutional democracy, as the Gambia is supposed to be.
On a trip to Benin in 1989, I was stuck by the level of fear Mathieu Kereku’s regime had brought on his people. What I witnessed seemed absolutely surreal. I noticed how our irritated guide reacted when I pointed towards the presidential palace. The reminders of ruler Mathieu Kereku were ubiquitous, but above all, as in the Gambia today, the people of Benin dared not mention the ruler’s name in public. And like Benin, it is as though Yahya Jammeh has reached for the sky; a deity of some sorts, with power over life and death. On returning home to the Gambia at Yundum Airport, I was overcome by an indescribable rush of emotions; happiness and pride of being a free Gambian.
But, not even Mathieu Kereku had wielded the level of power, authority and control Yahya Jammeh holds over the Gambian people. The constant fear of arrest, incarceration and worst, deaths; are incessant reminders of the tragedy of Yahya Jammeh’s reign of terror, and the paralyzing fear he has planted in the Gambia.
Yahya Jammeh has learnt the African way of politicking. He has perfected it in his own way, and it has served him well for two decades. And like the old and senile, wide-eyed ignoramuses and greedy kleptomaniacs, Yahya Jammeh has mastered the science of political longevity, in spite of the contemporaneous stories of chaos, murder and mayhem his regime brought on the Gambian people. The Gambia may not be Zimbabwe, and Yahya Jammeh may not be Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, but like Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Mobutu Sese Sehou, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, the writing is perpetually on the wall for him.
This is the story of the African paradox; a continent with resources like no other place on earth, but with the poorest people on this planet. It is also the story of elected and unelected leaders, who, time and again, have changed into brutal rulers, amassed wealth, usurped power, and on top of all that, are worshipped as deities by the people they have reduced to objects abuse and neglect.
The legacy of African leaders, is a story of pitiful ignorance, but, also of pervasive corruption, in a continent drenched in the blood of people who dared to have voice. For, Africa is a place where the sweep of history has left its horrible mark; fear, poverty and of leaders who live large at the expense of an impoverished population.
As for me, I am going back to doing what I always do; continue my quest to understand the soul of Africa’s leaders and what turns them into monsters that have kept the African continent, still dark as the night, still stuck in a state of despair, and still oblivious of the changing world around them.
For now, I digress.