John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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The Evolution from Heroes to Big Men

by John Campbell
March 11, 2013

Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (R) speaks to Finance Minister Tendai Biti before President Robert Mugabe opened the country's Parliament in Harare, October 30, 2012. (Philimon Bulawayo/Courtesy Reuters) Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (R) speaks to Finance Minister Tendai Biti before President Robert Mugabe opened the country's Parliament in Harare, October 30, 2012. (Philimon Bulawayo/Courtesy Reuters)

Friends of Africa often anoint “for the moment” selected leaders from that continent as heroes. Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, Congo’s Mobutu Sese-Seko, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame have all enjoyed that status at one time or another. Often the “hero” immediately follows a tyrant–or chaos. Obasanjo followed a generation of military rulers, and his immediate predecessor was the “tyrant” Sani Abacha who resorted to judicial murder; Mobutu emerged from Congo’s domestic chaos and civil war and promised inoculation against the Communists; Mugabe followed the racist regime of Ian Smith and promised racial reconciliation; and Paul Kagame “ended” the genocide in Rwanda.

The pattern is that these “heroes” fall from grace as they wrestle with monumental problems of governance or with their personal devils or both. Hence, Obasanjo tried for an unconstitutional presidential third term with the suspicion that he intended to become president for life; Mobutu established a kleptocracy; Mugabe resorted to racism and destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy for a time, and Kagame has been implicated in the Rwandan looting of the Eastern Congo.

Reluctance to relinquish power is a widespread problem among African chiefs of state. The Mo Ibrahim Prize for an African chief of state who pursues good governance and voluntarily steps down from office when his term ends has been awarded only three times in the past six years. Nelson Mandela is an exception to this pattern. Anointed a “hero,” his policies of reconciliation, political skills, and genuine devotion to democracy and human rights preclude a fall from international grace. History shows that genuine heroes are few, and there is often ambiguity. In our own history, George Washington was a land speculator, Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, and Abraham Lincoln was slow to embrace abolition. As for Africa, too often, exaggerated international hopes and expectations for the African “man of the hour” are disappointed and the “hero” evolves into a “big man” in the eyes of Africa’s foreign friends.

Simukai Tinhu, in a thoughtful article, argues that this process of heroic designation followed almost inevitably by disappointment, is at present underway with respect to Morgan Tsvangirai, the major opposition leader to the fallen hero Robert Mugabe. Tinhu posits that Tsvangirai is likely to be the next president of Zimbabwe if the elections later this year are genuinely free and fair. But, Tinhu discusses episodes in Tsvangirai’s past that cloud his democratic and human rights protestations. Tinhu sees the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) under Tsvangirai’s leadership as increasingly intolerant of criticism and not democratic in its inner workings. And his private life has been marred by scandals that raise questions about his personal judgment. In short, Tsvangirai is no Nelson Mandela.

As Tinhu observers, Zimbabwe under Tsvangirai might not be so different from Mugabe’s rule. Tsvangirai’s election does not guarantee a fundamental change in Zimbabwe’s political system. Outsiders, especially, underestimate Mugabe’s popularity with the poor and hitherto landless; Mugabe might well win a genuinely free and fair election. However, he is unlikely to take any risks.

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