The Travails and Antics of Africa's "Big Men" - How Power Has Corrupted African Leaders

By Wafula Okumu

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 11, 2002

Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton is famous for cautioning that power has a tendency to corrupt the wielder, particularly one who aspires to be a great man. This precept propounded in the 19th Century has been obsequiously proven to be more than true in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries Africa. Some of the contemporary testimonies to Lord Acton's exposé are Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Charles Taylor of Liberia, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, and Robert Gueï of Cote d'Ivoire. These "Big Men" have shown that power is both sweet and addictive.

When he took power in 1986, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni said he considered the idea of a Head of State clinging to office for “15 or more” years ill-advised. Although it is now 16 years since Museveni made this statement he is still comfortably lolling in office and has just embarked on his 17th year as Uganda’s Head of State. In last year’s filthy elections that he won by 69 per cent of the votes cast, Museveni took a high moral ground by claiming that had his votes not been stolen he could have garnered more than 75 per cent. However, his supporters were contented with 69 per cent, which they interpreted as a resounding endorsement for Museveni to rule for life.

In his usual idiosyncratic meddling way and new role as Africa’s peacemaker, elder statesman and continental unifier, Col. Muammar Gadhafi, while attending Museveni’s inauguration, urged him to be a perpetual leader. While addressing a national conference of Museveni's ruling National Resistance Movement on May 11, 2001, he urged Ugandans to allow Museveni to rule for “as long as possible.” “Revolutionary leaders should not have expiry dates, like tinned drinks. My brother Museveni was born a revolutionary. He should continue for as long as he has the ability to do so,” Gadhafi said. Despite this enormous pressure to rule forever, Museveni had the gall to promise, yet again, that he would not contest again after his new mandate expires. Determining the truth of this statement might not need the services of a clairvoyant.

Museveni is a member of a club of African leaders inebriated with power. Other club members are Mugabe, Moi, Taylor, Chiluba (who has now lost membership), Nujoma, and Muluzi, to just name a few. A number of things distinguish these power-hungry African leaders - the first one is that they are hanging on to power after their “sell-by” date. Second, they are deft in manipulating the constitution and electoral laws to ensure that they continue being embarrassments and drags on their countries. Third, they refer to same “book of excuses” not to exit the political stage after the curtain has come down on their poorly scripted and performed political melodrama. Fourth, one of the flimsy excuses they are using is that “there is no one capable of taking over” the mismanagement of their country’s affairs - read this as a failure to groom their successors - and that they have not completed their tasks of building (or more aptly destroying) their nations - read this as being intoxicated with power. Fifth, they have systematically dismantled all institutions or sought to destroy all opposition that might interfere with their patrimonial system. And finally, they are all contemporary and perfect displays of Lord Acton’s dictum: that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

While Moi and Mugabe are relics of Africa’s “Big Men” who dominated the continent in the 1970s and 1980s there have also been Johnnies-come-lately. Such a Johnnie-come-lately to a club of African “Big Men” is Cote d’Ivoire’s General Robert Gueï who lasted in power for barely a year. When General Gueï took power after the country’s only coup d'etat on Christmas Eve of 1999, he promised to stay only long enough to “sweep the house clean” of corruption and organize fair elections. But after tasting the sweetness of power, Gueï reneged on his promises by using force and ethnically divisive politics to hold on to power, raising communal tensions to the most dangerous level in years and dividing the once-cohesive military. His resolve to hang on to power seems to have been made after two army revolts and an assassination attempt.

While in public he tried so hard to mimic Ivory Coast’s founder and national icon, Felix Houphouet-Boigny’s speech, dress and mannerisms to the point of being ridiculous, in private, he first gave the impression that whoever is talking to him is correct and has his say but seemed to be deaf to what he was being told as the conversation progressed. The responses he made at the end left those who just spent time talking to him with no doubt that he had not been paying attention to what was being said. A Yacouba from the west of the country, Gueï reinforced the stereotype about his ethnic group, which is said to never say “yes” or “no” when an important decision is to be made; by responding in crucial meetings with “we’ll see” after everyone else has spoken. This explains why despite warnings from other African countries such as Nigeria and South Africa, as well as the United States and France, that manipulation of electoral process to ensure his victory in the Oct. 22, 2000, presidential elections could lead to political violence and international isolation, Gueï went ahead and attempted to steal the elections in broad daylight.

A French-trained officer, Gueï was an undistinguished colonel until 1990, when Houphouet-Boigny promoted him to the army chief after a failed coup attempt in 1990. However, he was fired by Houphouet-Boigny’s successor, Henri Konan Bedie, in 1995 when he refused to send troops into the streets to suppress opposition protests. When in December 1999 the enlisted military men overthrow Bedie over unpaid wages they invited Gueï to take power and he agreed. While pretending that he had no personal ambitions, Gueï did not waste time in launching his quest for unbridled power by first assuming the defense docket and then declaring his candidacy for the presidency. But before making known his ambition to be the next Houphouet-Boigny (which was “civilized” from the African name “Hufa Bwanyi”), Gueï embarked on a diabolical plan to rig the elections and stay in power by taking a number of measures. He named loyalists to key posts in the military and his personal lawyer, Tia Kone, to head the Supreme Court, which later disqualified Alassane Dramane Ouattara and 13 other candidates from running for the presidency. He then unleashed soldiers on his opponents, raided newspapers, beat up and arrested journalists, and closed an independent radio station.

In the days leading to the elections, Gueï seemed not only paranoid but became more erratic in his rule. He seemed to be particularly weary of Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister and a Muslim from the northern part of the country who had been denied his right to run for the presidency on the pretext that he had Burkinabe parentage. When his residency was attacked on September 18, Gueï accused Ouattara of having manipulated members of the presidential guard into carrying out the attack, and warned him of dire consequences. Indeed on September 21, troops loyal to Gueï ransacked the home of the Security Minister and the No. 2 officer in the ruling junta, Gen. Lassana Palenfo. A day later, Gueï fired Palenfo; Gen. Abdoulaye Coulibaly, the third-ranking member of the junta; and Justice Minister Maitre N'gattta Essy - all known to be close to Ouattara.

Guei was too crude in the methods he used to hang on to power. When the preliminary results showed him trailing the main opposition leader, Laurent Gbagbo, by 11 points, he unleashed the soldiers on the offices of the National Electoral Commission and halted the vote-counting with a claim that “massive fraud organized by certain political parties” had been committed. Gbagbo reacted by calling on his supporters “to stand up against the impostor” who was stealing their democratic decision. Thousands of Ivorians took to the streets - marching, setting up roadblocks, burning tires and shouting “Gueï, thief!” amid sounds of gunfire.

General Gueï then dissolved the Electoral Commission on the ground that its incompetence had led to “confusion” in the counting of ballots - making its conclusions worthless. After firing the Commission Chairman, Honoré Guié, a mid-ranking electoral official, Daniel Bamba Cheik, released the “right” election results: 53 percent for General Gueï and 48 percent for Mr. Gbagbo! This announcement was later followed by General Gueï’s victory speech in which he declared himself the new president and thanked Ivoirians for their “maturity and solidarity,” and for fulfilling their “civic duty, the results of which have made this humble person the first president of the second Republic.” Almost a week later Gbagbo also declared himself "the first President of Ivory Coast's second republic" after the Ivorians had run Gueï out of power with burning barricades, sticks, stones, and bricks.

There are a number of reasons as to why African “Big Men” try to hang on to power needlessly. Among these is a theory that African leaders are hostages of their sycophants. In having patron-client relations with their followers the presidents act as dispensers of favors, mainly in form of public properties and offices which are in turn used to accumulate wealth or share the “national cake” with members of their ethnic groups. In what has developed into a symbiotic relationship, the “Big Man” becomes dependent on his sycophants to assure him that the mistakes he is making are in the national interest and the sycophants, on their part, come to heavily rely on their patron for their survival - which commonly involves looting public coffers and properties. This relationship in the short and long runs mature into a sycophantic system that makes it hard for the “Big Man” to extricate himself from his clients.

This is clearly illustrated in the case of Kenya where Moi has basically been begging his sycophants to let him retire. Speaking on arrival from South Africa in June 1999, Moi said: “I am ready to retire even now if I am assured somebody will take care of the interest of all Kenyans and unite the country.” He added: “I am a human being and I would like to retire.” He reiterated this in December the same year, when he said: “Three years from now, I will retire from active politics.” However one of his lackeys, Sharif Nassir, has openly warned him that: “It is not for him (Moi) to decide whether or not he will continue ruling.” It is people like Nassir, with a stake in Moi’s government, who “have the last word on the issue. If Moi remains adamant that he does not want to run, he will be upsetting many of his supporters who have stood by him throughout his political career.” With a deprecating sense of wisecracks Nassir has rationalized his coterie’s selfish interests by saying that Moi must stay in power until he dies: “How can one cook food, taking the trouble to make it delicious, only to leave to other people to eat?”

Another theory is that “Big Men” have a fear of being punished for the ills they have wrought on their countries and of losing the perquisites and prestige that the occupier of the highest office in the land enjoys at the expense of other citizens. There is no doubt that Africa’s “Big Men” are now shuddering on the thought of being out of power when they see what is happening to one of their former club member - former Zambian President Fredrick Chiluba. When Frederick JT Chiluba was swept to power by the anti-Kaunda euphoria in 1991, he was heard to remark to close aides: “Power is sweet.” After enjoying “sweet power” for 10 years, this former bus conductor and trade union leader decided that he wanted to keep it longer than what the Constitution stipulates and against the wishes of his countrymen. Indeed when Chiluba came to power he had not only pledged to abide by democratic principles in his rule but was also widely hailed as one of a new breed of democratically-elected leaders in a continent rife with autocratic rule. But as soon as he settled in his office, Chiluba reverted to the old bad habits that characterize African leaders: abuse and misuse of public office, cronyism and sycophancy, and vindictiveness. The much-touted “new-style African leader” was an instant disappointment.

The tell-tale signs of his bad rule were sent during his first year in power when he sacked independent-minded politicians from his cabinet and replaced them with “yes” men and women who gained instant distinctions for their corrupt practices. The perverse and unbridled corruption that was to become a hallmark of Chiluba’s presidency led one Zambian journalist to comment: “Kaunda's men were pickpockets, but Chiluba’s lot are thieves.” This observation was confirmed by a parliament probe carried in 2001 that found out that most of the assets of Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) and several other companies had simply vanished into thin air, while other valuable state properties had been sold for peanuts.

Chiluba was also renowned for his narcissistic tendencies and vindictiveness that bordered on a “Napoleonic Complex.” Overly conscious of his diminutive stature, Chiluba wore platform shoes and was a “natty” dresser, with a fondness for expensive and monogrammed clothes. His shirts, socks and ties with matching breast-pocket handkerchief are imprinted with the initials of his first names FTJ - Frederick Titus Jacob. While his suits spoke of affluence, millions of his fellow Zambians sloughed in abject poverty. In one of the many ironies that characterized his rule, Chiluba had his suits tailored by top class designers in France and Italy while Zambians could barely avoid second-hand clothes called Salaula. In discarding his original man-of-the-people look of open shirts, polo-necked sweaters and blue jeans, Chiluba must have filled all the closets in the presidential mansion as few people, even his closest aides, remember ever seeing him in the same suit, shirt, tie, shoes or socks twice. It is not quite clear whether the MMD women cadres who used to sing at state functions were glorifying or mocking Chiluba when they sang: “Iyi ni boma yama suti; ma safari suit yanaenda na Kaunda” (This is a government of western suits; Safari suits went with Kaunda).

Former President Kaunda has lived to regret his denigration of Chiluba, when he was spearheading the opposition to his rule, as a “midget.” Kaunda was not only accused but also imprisoned for conspiring to overthrow Chiluba in 1997. This was just one in a litany of politically-inspired court cases that Kaunda was subjected to, with the most infamous being the attempt to strip him of his citizenship. In a spiteful and malicious scheme to humiliate a man who was more popular and respected than him, Chiluba not only changed the Constitution to disqualify Kaunda from running for the presidency because his parents were born in Malawi but also enacted laws to strip him of his retirement package for remaining active in politics. It did not matter that Kaunda was Zambia's independence leader who had been president for 27 years! Although a perfervid born-again Christian, his treatment of his rivals and divorce in September 2001 of wife, Vera, to whom he had been married for 33 years, has left many questioning his religious devotion.

In a déjà vu ruling, a Zambian judge on March 4 this year ordered former President Frederick Chiluba to be stripped of all state benefits. Among the retirement benefits he had to part with were the Mercedes and a number of other vehicles, the keys to a government-owned house in the fashionable district of Kabulonga, security guards and his domestic staff. Judge Nyangulu also ordered that Chiluba’s salary be cut off, as well as his entitlement to free fuel and free phone calls. The ruling was based on one of the many laws Chiluba had enacted to specifically target Kaunda - that past presidents are not entitled to any state benefits if they stay involved in active politics. If this doesn’t sound like poetic justice then I don’t know what to call it!

But Chiluba’s troubles are far from being over. In retaliation, he is threatening that if Mwanawasa does not protect him from further humiliation he will tell the Zambians how the elections that brought him to power were rigged! Smelling blood, opposition politicians are now calling for his presidential immunity to be lifted by parliament so that he can be questioned about allegations of corruption relating to his 10 years in office and to be prosecuted for illegal use of state resources since he left office. This clamor to strip Chiluba of his immunity as an ex-President, in order to answer allegations of corruption, has been emboldened by his ex-wife’s claim of more than $2.5 billion - equivalent to more than three-quarters of the country's Gross Domestic Product - as part of a divorce settlement. Vera Chiluba is also seeking a share of the couple's concrete assets, which she says include six houses and a farm with over 400 cows, sheep and goats. She is adamant that she can prove the existence of all this wealth, which she says her husband accumulated in the 10 years he was in office. The country is waiting for June, when the case will come up for hearing, with bated breath.

Chiluba came very close to a three-peat on April 30, 2001, when Zambia's ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) amended its own constitution to give him a go-ahead to stand for an unconstitutional third term. This “victory” had been preceded by a campaign of intimidation in which the party branches in the provinces were forced to declare their intention to nominate Chiluba for another term that was unconstitutional. If this move had not been vehemently opposed by, among others, National Vice-President Christon Tembo, the party’s Vice-President Godfrey Miyanda and nine other Cabinet Ministers, Chiluba would have gone into history records as the OAU’s last chairman.

The gallant way in which the Zambians stood up in defense of their fledgling democracy, despite being on the receiving end of violence, is a key contribution to the future of democracy in Africa. This is not the first time the Zambians have led Africa on the path towards a democratic society. We all recall in 1991 when President Kenneth Kaunda, after 27 years in power, peacefully relinquished power after his defeat in country’s first multiparty elections since independence to become the first African head of state to do so. Indeed Liberians, Kenyans, Malawians, Ugandans and other Africans should learn from the Ivorians and Zambians that it is possible to stand up against power hungry leaders who have no respect for the Constitutions they have sworn to uphold.

Unfortunately, as Professor Samwiri Karugire once remarked, Africans only “read history to pass exams, not to learn from it.” Take the case of Kenyans, who after almost a quarter a Century of untold misery wrought on them by Moi’s erratic rule appear numbed by their suffering that they seem not to have learned from the Zambian experience of check-mating Moi’s monarchical tendencies. Exactly one week after Mugabe was re-elected in the controversial and internationally condemned polls, Moi skillfully presided over a merger of the ruling party, KANU, and one of the opposition parties, National Development Party, in which he was “elected” the powerful chairman of the “New KANU.” Moi, who is constitutionally disbarred from running for another term, has now more or less crowned himself a monarch. Under the new arrangement, he will be able to call party elections, determine who runs on the party ticket, and fire whoever is elected the country’s president on the party ticket. This means if the next president is elected on a KANU ticket he (the party is openly anti-women) will answer to Moi. Although this poses a serious constitutional problem it is most unlikely that the courts can rule against Moi since the judges are his appointees and, going by precedent, are known to always rule in his favor.

Indeed Zambia has offered a number of useful lessons for Africa. One of them is that the multiparty euphoria that griped the continent in 1990s has not cured one-party dictatorships that have simply reinvented themselves in different forms. Another lesson is that democracy cannot take root in a situation where democratic institutions are either infirm or easy to dismantle. Unless Africans strengthen democratic institutions and instill a democratic culture there will always be dangers from those deft enough to take advantage of the weak institutions and popular political ignorance to usurp democracy.

Africa must find a way of checking the insatiable appetite for power by its leaders. Leaders like Kenya’s Moi are learning wrong lessons from the travails facing Chiluba in Zambia by changing tact instead of seeing sense and honorably retiring from politics. Others like Malawi’s Muluzi seem to be bending ears to those urging them to go for unconstitutional terms. However the chances are high that Muluzi might go the Chiluba way. None of Africa’s “Big Men,” save for Museveni to some extent, has done wonders for his country since coming to power. It is a great pity that they want, through a ruse, to thwart the aspirations of the vast majority of their people for change. It will be interesting to see what method each will use to remain in power indefinitely.

Probably the best and biggest lesson from Zambia is for Africa’s “Big Men” - that whoever goes up comes down and while he is up there he should not spit on those below him.

© The Perspective
P.O. Box 450493
Atlanta, GA 31145