Oct 28, 2011 13:03 PDT
‘Nothing has changed in African politics’
By Trudy Stevenson
Sunday, 23 October 2011 15:44
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*HARARE -*Two thousand years ago, Pliny the Elder enthused: “Ex Africa,
semper a liquid nova.”
One wonders how it came to be that the ancient Romans were excited about
their discoveries in Africa, and found so many new ideas on our
continent, whereas now people have even been moved to say, as the
Economist did about 10 years ago on an unforgettable cover: “No hope for
What has changed? Can we reverse the situation and reclaim our status of
2000 years ago, when we were full of innovation and promise?
How tragic that, 50 years after independence, the “African election”
syndrome has set in.
African politics stinks. The very phrase implies it is corrupt and
opaque and will lead only to a continuation of the status quo.
And the status quo in Africa is not encouraging.
The status quo is that, at the next election, the incumbent, who has
been in office for up to 30 years or so, is most likely to win.
On a continent where the winning party generally has enormous power over
allowing people to do anything, especially to run a business and keep or
grow their wealth, the wise have learned to support the status quo.
The heart of the problem of “African politics” lies in preconceived
ideas of what politics is all about, and what a politician is:
expectations and perceptions, if you will.
These ideas were inherited from both the traditional systems in our
cultures and from our colonisers — Greek, Roman, Arab, European — so
when our “independence” came in the 1960s and later, those were the
models we adopted.
That, after all, was our experience. Little wonder, then, that 50 years
later, the vast majority of our African leaders and politicians still
see themselves as great warrior chiefs or Roman emperors, roaring about
the place ostentatiously, barking commands and grabbing whatever they
can as their entitlement for their lofty position.
The idea of the “servant-leader”, the enunciated ideal of modern Western
democracy, is alien to most.
Now that we are independent, after all, we have ceased being servants,
and it is our turn to lord it over others!
Of course, I can and will say all those politically correct things, and
I might even mean them at the time.
I will be a truly democratic leader, I will be accountable and I will
consult our electorate before making any decision, and I will not try to
amass wealth, and I will step down when I am no longer popular or when I
have been in power too long.
Meanwhile, however, it is important that my own voters are proud of me,
since they put me here, so I need to shine in public.
I must have a sparkling new Mercedes-Benz with a driver, a big 4x4, an
expensive suit and a gold watch.
I need to stay in the most expensive hotels, fly first class, drink
imported whisky and socialise with the rich and famous.
I can’t trust anyone but my own family members, so they had better come
and assist me and be funded by my secret backers.
That’s what my opponents do, after all — except that, since they have
been in power, the people’s taxes have paid for all that, while I, a
member of the opposition, have no taxes to draw on — yet.\
When I go to a meeting , I want everyone to know I am the most important
person there. So I must not arrive early, or even on time: a grand
entrance fulfils my voters’ expectations, and delay allows the audience
to build up their frenzy.
When the next election is near, I realise I cannot expect my campaign
team to campaign for me free, because they have no other means of income.
In our efforts to be proper politicians, we did not find time to deal
with the economy and unemployment.
So I will have to pay them and give them T-shirts: and then other people
will want money and T-shirts to support me, and I will have to give to
them, otherwise I might lose the election!
This is a caricature of the “African politician”, but it is not very far
off the mark in most cases.
This, then, is how it is that our African politics seems to be in a
self-perpetuating downward spiral.
The contradiction between opulence and poverty is taken as the norm, and
most politicians would be deeply offended if anyone were to point out
Therein lies another flaw: we Africans prefer not to tell people the truth.
We avoid difficult issues, at least when we are face to face.
The trouble with politicians is that they prefer to keep those difficult
issues for their “grandstanding”.
Those are the ones they will use at their rallies and on the floor of
parliament, to attack the other party viciously.
Meanwhile, back in the parliament bar, opposing party members will laugh
and joke together, with never a cross word spoken.
So criticism becomes perceived as something for theatrical purposes — to
bring applause, excite spectators and followers, to win votes, to make
Criticism is not considered seriously. Nor are politicians under
pressure to address such criticism , as long
as they remain in their protected world.
Linked to this is the relatively minor role of ideology and policy in
politics in most of Africa, as opposed to the major role of personality
When we think of politics here, we tend to think of people: currently
Jacob Zuma, Joseph Kabila, Robert Mugabe, Abdulaye Wade, Morgan
Tsvangirai, Paul Kagame, Omar al-Bashir, Muammar Gaddafi.
It would be hard to differentiate any particular government as being, in
the classic parlance, left-wing or socialist as opposed to right-wing
Nearly every African government would probably tell you it is
essentially socialist, because of our history, but the reality is different.
Liberals, for example, believe in small government — but Senegal has
more than 50 ministers, its president explaining that “ministers are
very cheap in Senegal”.
One of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change policies in opposition
was “12 ministries, 15 at the outside”, but in its inclusive government,
it has accepted more than double that number and is a willing
participant in that bloated and costly government — in order to
accommodate as many of its supporters as possible.
It is heartbreaking to see the effort that goes into developing a
party’s policies and then to realise how few voters have any idea of
This is partly because of the enormous difficulties of disseminating
information in Africa, especially for those not in the ruling party.
It would help if school children could start to learn about political
ideas in senior classes.
Many governments are trying to initiate a “civics” syllabus, but many
are prevented or afraid.
Much effort needs to be made to overcome this reluctance as a way of
moving our countries forward.
The benefits will be great — but “information is power”, so it is easy
to understand why governments are reluctant to provide access to
Another real challenge in trying to move our African politics forward is
the reluctance of most well-educated and well-resourced citizens to
involve themselves in politics, except possibly to vote: and most do not
believe their vote is secret, so they end up propping up the very status
quo they will rail against in private.
The old adages apply: politics is a dirty game; politicians are liars;
you only go into politics when you can’t find anything else to do.
Unfortunately this is a chicken-and-egg situation: only when good,
decent people involve themselves in running their country will our
politics change for the better.
African politicians appear to be ignorant agents in the persistent
downward spiral of their countries, for they are simply following the
pattern set before, their role models being their swashbuckling
colonisers through the millennia, and they believe they have perceptions
and expectations to meet.
**Trudy Stevenson is Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Senegal/