Down memory-lane with Africa’s sit-tight presidents

on   /   in Femi Aribisala 12:22 am   /   Comments

By Femi Aribisala
AS we celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, it is important to highlight what makes him so exemplary, especially on an African continent so bereft of good leadership.  Why are there so few Nelson Mandelas in Africa?  Unlike him, why are African leaders so power-hungry, self-seeking and corrupt?  Nelson Mandela was an African.  He was born in Africa and he grew up in Africa.  However, in many respects, he was very un-African.

Mugabe

Mugabe

After spending a whopping 27 years in prison fighting for democracy in South Africa, Mandela chose to be president of the country for only one-term of five years.  After such a long struggle, many might not have begrudged him if he became a life-president.  But that was clearly anathema to Nelson Mandela.  How can one understand this within the African context?  It is a very un-African approach to political power.

Mandela’s contemporaries

African leaders are not inclined to relinquish power once they get hold of it.  In Africa, when a man fights for power and succeeds, you have to kill him or he has to die to get him to leave.  When he fights for power and succeeds, his office becomes his entitlement.  It is his spoils of war.  Public property is privatised.  Government is run as a personal estate.  This has been the case with Mandela’s contemporaries, even in the Southern African sub-region.

Like Mandela in South Africa, Robert Mugabe fought triumphantly for the independence of Zimbabwe.  Like Mandela, he became Zimbabwe’s first black African president.  But unlike Mandela, Mugabe has refused to relinquish power.  After 33 years in office, Mugabe is still Zimbabwe’s president.  He has maintained that position by manipulating elections, falsifying poll results and by killing and intimidating his opponents.  Clearly, Robert Mugabe intends to die in office.  And yet, Zimbabwe is a country: it is not the personal property of Robert Mugabe.

Another contemporary of Mandela that is so unlike him is freedom-fighter Eduardo dos Santos of Angola.  He has been president of Angola since 1979 for 34 years.  Lately, he has changed the constitution to enable him to stay in power until 2022 when he will be 80 years old.  The bet is on that even that date might be subject to review if he happens to live that long.

As Special Adviser to Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Nigeria’s foreign minister in the 1980s, I was privileged to meet many of these sit-tight African presidents first-hand, including the taciturn Robert Mugabe who refused to acknowledge Nigeria’s million-dollar gift to Zimbabwe for holding the 1986 Nonaligned Summit until prompted by his aides.  What I observed were heads-of-states who clearly could not hold a candle to the man the whole world is celebrating now: Nelson Mandela.

Houphouet-Boigny

Felix Houphouet-Boigny was President of Cote d’Ivoire for 33 years.  At his death, he was the third longest-serving head-of-state in the world, after Fidel Castro of Cuba and Kim Il Sung of North Korea.  He was the first President of Cote d’Ivoire, and he died in office as President.  When we met him he was over 80 years old; nevertheless he said to us: I refuse to grow old, so that I can serve my country and Africa.

He asked us to meet him in Yamoussoukro instead of Abidjan.  Yamoussoukro was Houphouet-Boigny’s village, but he had so privatized the government that he decided it should replace Abidjan as the nation’s capital.  A lot of money was sunk into that fruitless exercise.  It was only after his death that the capital was transferred back to Abidjan.

President Houphouet met with us at what I can only describe as his private castle in Yamoussoukro.  As castles often are, the president’s castle was surrounded by an artificial lake.  The lake was filled with live crocodiles which, our guide informed us, had to be fed raw meat several times daily; sufficient to feed a large number of Ivoirians.

The President led us down a long corridor with glass-showcases on either side filled masses and masses of pure, glittering gold of every description.  He boasted that they had been in his family for generations.  People are surprised that I like gold, he said.  It’s just that I was born in it.

The president then treated us to a lavish three-course lunch in a dining-room that could accommodate over 100 guests.  Everything was custom-made.  The cutlery, the plates, the glasses were of the highest quality with the president’s name, or his initials, H.B. inscribed on them.  This man who became in effect the life-president of Cote d’Ivoire said to us: I myself, I am not from Cote d’Ivoire.  I came from Ghana.  But I can’t claim today to be Ghanaian.  I am Ivoirian!

Gnassingbe Eyadema

Gnassingbe Eyadema was president of Togo for 38 years.  He came in through a coup d’état and refused to leave until his death.  Eyadema ran Togo as a personal estate.  He made his mother the mother of the nation and made her birthday the national day.  Under him, Togo was militarised.  An entourage of 1000 beautiful women sang his praises everywhere, as did highly-indoctrinated school-children.  When you heard a siren in the streets of Lome, you must drop whatever you were doing and clap ecstatically, on the understanding that it must be the president passing by.

Eyadema ruled Togo as a ruthless dictator.  If you opposed him, you were likely to be killed.  One particular incident made a deep impression on me while we were in his office.  His foreign-minister came to show him some document.  He held it obsequiously so that the president could read it, but his hands were shaking so vigorously, it was obviously impossible for him to read it.  It was embarrassing to watch, but Eyadema was amused and he relished in it.

Eyadema took us to his village where a national monument had been erected in memory of his late mother.  While most countries have a tomb of the Unknown Soldier where wreaths are laid to honour their patriots, Eyadema converted his mother’s graveside for this purpose.  President Babangida was then asked to lay a wreath there.

Muammar Gaddafi

Muammar Gaddafi was the Leader of Libya for 42 years; making him by far Africa’s longest-serving head-of-state.  Once he seized power through a coup d’état in 1969, he had no intention of relinquishing it.  He held on to it until he was killed by his own people in 2011.  When we went to see Gaddafi in 1986, he was already a hunted man.  The Americans had fired missiles through the window of his bedroom and killed his adopted daughter on the bed.  At the time, Gaddafi was reportedly sleeping in a tent in the yard.  Gaddafi no longer lived in his attacked house but had made it into something of a national museum.

When you came to see Gaddafi, you never knew where he would be.  His precise location at any given time was top secret.  Some would be kept for weeks before seeing him, even when they had previous appointments.  Because we were from Nigeria, Gaddafi did not keep us waiting for too long.  Someone came and announced: the leader will see you now. But the question was where exactly.  It soon became clear that it would not be in Tripoli.

We got in a car and were driven to some undisclosed location for three hours, and then had to walk in an open field.  We were then told to wait.  Soon a man came practically out of nowhere to see who we were.  He was wearing a jumpsuit, the type of all-in-one suits that roadside mechanics wear.  His hair was unkempt and he had a big beard that needed trimming.  As he came nearer, it became clear that it was Gaddafi. There was nothing head-of-state about him.  He looked like someone who had been deprived of sleep and probably needed a wash.  A carpet was unfurled and some chairs placed in that field; and that was where Gaddafi met us.  In that peculiar hideout, he had two of his young sons with him.  They would soon become terrors in their own right, by all subsequent accounts.

What is the point of being head-of-state if you cannot even sleep in your own bed at night?  What kind of life is that?  Gaddafi’s predicament brings to mind the late Saddam Hussein of Iraq; another sit-tight president perpetually on the run.  The story goes that you would just be told without prior notice that Saddam was spending the night with you, and you would have to surrender your bedroom.  Later on, Saddam might send you a carpet as a thank-you gift for your enforced hospitality.

Hall of shame

Some of the other sit-tight African presidents we met in those days are still in power today, over 25 years down the road.  They include Dennis Sassou Nguesso who has been president of the Republic of Congo all bar five of the last 34 years.  Nguesso was so vain; he kept a big mirror on the wall overlooking his desk.  While he was talking to you, he would be busy admiring himself in the mirror.  Paul Biya has been president of Cameroun for 31 years.  In Biya’s Cameroun, the people were constrained to wear clothes with his portrait emblazoned on them.  Then there was Teodoro Mbasogo who has been president of Equatorial Guinea for 34 years.  His specialty is not only rigging elections, but winning in some precincts 103 precent of the vote.

It is not enough to have African heads-of-state troop to South Africa in honour of Nelson Mandela.  It should be a time of sober reflection as to why so few of them are like him.  Most African leaders are power-hungry good-for-nothings.  During his memorial service, the South African government was embarrassed when the current president, Jacob Zuma, was booed.  The boos may have been impolitic, but they were telling.  Zuma was a hypocrite for eulogizing a man whose legacy he does not bear.  So were Mugabe and others.  Even Olusegun Obasanjo, the fourth-term aspirant as Nigeria’s president, had the audacity to praise Mandela for only serving one term.

 

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