Anguish of The Ancestors

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Anguish of The Ancestors
 

By

 

Pat Utomi

 

 

 

 

culled from GUARDIAN. March 15, 2006

 

 

One of my favourite jokes when libation is poured is an invitation to go easy because the earth seems to soak up so much alcohol the ancestors are too tipsy to watch out for Africa's children. When Youweri Museveni was declared elected to another term as President of Uganda, I was sure soporific effect of the alcohol had sent the ancestors off their guard into slumber deep enough that Africa could be re-colonised on their watch. Poor ancestors they must have much to agonise about as they observe Africa's travail.

 

More seriously, the continuation of Museveni in office after 20 years created for me a frightful sense of dj vu. I could not but remember Mugabe. When in the late 1970s and early 80s I lived in the United States as a graduate student, it was a season to be ashamed of to be African. Idi Amin was in charge in Uganda, several others of equally tarnished pedigree held sway elsewhere on the continent and Afropessimism was well under way. It was in such a season that a new leader from Zimbabwe appeared on the Sunday Morning news shows.

 

He was bright, monstrously articulate and focused. What redemption to the African reputation. Some of us walked around feeling 100 feet tall. Between 1983 and 1985, I visited Harare several times, enjoying how the blooming Jacarandas made the city seem like a peacock in full glow. Last November I stepped unto the soil of Zimbabwe again. After a quarter of a century in office this hero of yesterday had left his country in ruins, a ghost of the dream of yesteryears. I wondered if Uganda would not end up the same way.

 

Overstaying in office is a temptation for most mortals. It may come from genuine conviction that all of one's good work could be ruined by successors, from share egocentrism, or even for more devious reasons, including not knowing how to get off the back of a tiger without ending up in its belly. Whatever the motives, history suggests that such leaders as leave as victims wounded, under-performing countries and the anger of history's evaluation of their tenure. Even in mature democracies the tendency is high. Margaret Thatcher rescued Britain from itself and the self-destruction of the post-war collectivist tradition. Entering a third term she found her times tarred by an inglorious exit through the long knives of a palace coup. That has diminished her past Downing Street life. Tony Blair runs the same risk.

 

I have come to the view that when leaders stay around longer than their welcome the investment they have made over the years to sustain power, become obstacles, and hold progress hostage. Museveni was much celebrated for arresting the spread of HIV/AIDS in Uganda and for much economic reform. Like the Mugabe story he may yet be Uganda's ruin. It is worse when rules like the grand norm, the constitution, are fair game in the desire to extend tenure. Even with the best intentions these tinkering with rules affect the DNA of the social contract, with damaging consequences for institutions which ensure sustainable progress.

 

The trend is on around the continent. The pathetic excuse for it is the claim that East Asia's "miracle economies" had long serving leaders. That lame explanation is probably why Malaysian Economist K. S Jomo wrote a book titled East Asia's Misunderstood Miracle. How, for example, do you explain Thailand, with a coup every 18 months, in those days, growing just as well as next door Malaysia with long serving leader? It would seem that elite consensus, not tenure of a leader was more responsible for progress, alongside a variety of factors. No one single factor explains rapid economic growth, anyway. But we live in the times of Growth talk as apologetics of power.

 

Instructive for why long serving leaders ruin their legacy is a comment about Mugabe from 2003. It was Good Shepherd Sunday in the spring of that year. I was in London and had gone to the Westminster Cathedral for Mass. The surprise celebrant was an African bishop who was introduced with much gusto by the Administrator of the Cathedral. Archbishop Pius Mkpumbe of Bulawayo. Given his reputation as an opponent of Mugabe, I waited for a fire and brimstone homily but he did not mention Zimbabwe in his sermon, giving instead a very pius talk on the Good Shepherd that left the impression of being before a very holy man. When at the conclusion he was again toasted by the Administrator he said softly that he was a simple village boy that tries to do his duty and asked for prayers for his country.

 

Referring to Mugabe, he said that sometimes leaders start out well and maybe well intentioned but they stay around for so long they begin to make costly errors. I could only imagine the errors of those that do not start out well.

If this trend persists, Africa could be falling farther and farther behind in a globalised world with the little patience for laggards. Africa's re-colonisation cannot be ruled out, if Afro-pessimism comes back with great strength. This is why the fight for the soul of Africa by reforming its leadership ethos is an epic one from which all who shy away will receive history's contempt.

 

 

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Prof Utomi is of the Lagos Business School, Pan African University.

 

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