Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Wednesday, May 16

The Rebel-Turned-Leader and Imagination in Harpers

Harpers Magazine seems to be upping its Africa content recently. The June issue contains two-and-a-half pieces on Africa (the half being a mystifying parable taken from a UN AIDS Program document). The May issue also included two Africa features. Victoria Schleisinger wrote a cutting review of the repeated mistakes of foreign aid to Africa called, “The Continuation of Poverty”, and Yohannes Edemariam’s “From an Ancient Cloud: Getting by in Ethiopia's Slums” is full of poignant description.

But my favorite of the recent Harpers’ Africa articles is from South African author Breyten Breytenbach’s speech at the opening of the ARTerial Conference in Senegal in March 2007 ("Imagine Africa" not yet available online). Breytenbach’s remarks are beautifully written and offer a refreshing combination of conviction and realism. He encourages Africans to imagine a new Africa. He writes, “It is possible and very necessary to see the continent as clearly and therefore as imaginatively as we can.” According to Breytenbach, central to recognition of the relationship between the imaginary and the real is the honest identification of failures in leadership and identity.

Breytenbach quotes Tajudeen Abdul-Rahdeem, one of the last pan-Africanists and the Deputy Director for Africa of the United Nations Millennium Campaign. Looking at the present crop of African governors Rahdeem came to the following conclusions, which Breytenbach summarizes in his speech and are worth reproducing here:

1. They come as liberators, but the longer they stay in power the more they become oppressors, intolerant of dissension or even discussion within their own political and military formations.
2. The vanguard of the ruling party of the masses slowly becomes the vanguard of the ruling party or clique and soon degenerates into the vanguard of the leader.
3. They come with big dreams, but the paraphernalia of power, the glitz, the pomp and pageantry and all the trappings, take over. Add to that the institutionalized culture of sycophancy: jungle fatigues soon give way to the best of Savile row suits, Gucci shoes, Rolex watches, etc. The “comrade” has now “arrived” and will be in no hurry to vacate the statehouse he ridiculed not so long ago.
4. A ruling group that has been held together for many years by shared ideology and perspectives is more and more built around the personality of the leader, his family, in-laws, freelance opportunists and other cronies.
5. The interests of the party, the government and the people become indistinguishable from the whims and the caprices of the leader. To oppose him is to oppose the people.
6. The progressive changes that have brought about the country become “gifts” from the benevolent leader to his hapless citizens.
7. Most of them were revolutionaries who began their rebel lives as fire-brand anti-imperialists but soon became converts to the free market and are now best friends with the imperialist countries, especially the USA and other Western powers.
8. These former revolutionaries who espoused Pan-Africanism now resign themselves to “better managing” the neocolonial state and are soon engrossed in competition rather than cooperation with their former comrades. Liberators soon become looters and occupiers.
9 & 10 The twin evils of these leaders becoming victims of their militaristic means of getting and retaining power, and wallowing in external validation by the same Western powers who not that long ago praised our erstwhile dictators as “moderate”.

So what explanation for this crisis? What solution to this litany of despair? Breytenbach answers that, “This generation suffers a massive failure of moral imagination. Instead of responsible freedom we substituted self-enrichment and entitlement linked to bad faith and the corruption of dependence.”

He wishes that people be, “deeply disturbing in questioning all assumptions and platitudes of truth” and that, “we may from now on avoid the frustrating way-forward cemeteries where too many problems are laid to rest under the cold-earth of good intentions and nice-parrot resolutions.”