Africa Cannot Afford Regression to Big Man Leaders

Africa's despots are sabre rattling again. Last week Namibian President Sam Nujoma called white people "snakes", and then Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's disgraceful dictator, called the almost saintly Archbishop Desmond Tutu an "evil and embittered little bishop."

Zimbabwe under Mugabe has been a lost cause for years, and Tutu's complaints about Mugabe's disregard for the law were likely to fall on deaf ears.

But that the disease is spreading to Namibia is a rather worrying development. Collapsing or genocidal regimes, including that in the Sudan, are rife for providing cover for, if not directly encouraging, terrorism.

Africa has always been home to the "big man" phenomenon, with its roots in tribal leadership being tough and standing up to outside pressures has always been a vote winner. Mobuto Sese Seko, former head of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), once infamously said "democracy was not for Africa".

However, more African states are heading towards democracy in the 1970s there were no peaceful handovers from first black African rule to a democratically elected government. But by the 1990s there were several, notably Zambia and SA.

It is worrying, though, that some nation states are heading in the other direction, back to big man tribal leadership.

Nujoma has followed Mugabe's lead of late in several distasteful ways. He cryptically said he did not want a fourth term, but would stand "if it was requested by the people." Namibia's constitution was amended to allow Nujoma to serve a third term in 1999.

Nujoma, who has headed the South West African People's Organisation since 1962 and led its armed struggle against South African rule, was elected president at independence in 1990, and was re-elected in 1994 and 1999 with more than 75 percent of the vote.

Like its peaceful and democratic neighbour, Botswana, Namibia is reliant on diamonds and farming. But unlike Botswana, the poor do not see the real benefit of diamond sales. Allegations of illegal sales and Swiss bank accounts are rife. Some insiders even think Nujoma dislikes white westerners enough to tolerate terrorism in his country.

The mines continue to pump out the diamonds, but Nujoma's violent threats and obvious desire to emulate Mugabe's land grabs are more worrying as they would destabilise the country and prevent inward investment.

The threats deflect attention from his failed socialist policies to a racist battle few Europeans or Americans are comfortable debating. Nujoma, shouting from a Lutheran Church pulpit, announced last month he would expropriate land to punish white farm owners who "dumped" their workers by the roadside.

Speaking at May Day celebrations at Karibib, Nujoma issued an unequivocal declaration that expropriation of farms would not only target underused land but would serve as a punitive step.

"My government will not tolerate insults in that way," he said after singling out "some white farmers" who had legitimately dismissed some farm hands.

Nujoma later called these white farmers "snakes". He denied he was a racist, claiming the whites were the racists, and would be removed from the land.

And the process has begun. Two weeks ago Namibian Land Minister Hifikepunye Pohamba sent letters to about 10 white farm owners, who were urged to "make an offer to sell their property to the state and to enter further negotiations in that regard". They got 14 days to respond.

The farmers' representative I spoke with said they did not know what they would do. But do something they must as Nujoma will take silence as weakness. He says his "government will expropriate this land as an answer to the insult to my government. We want peace in this country."

Mugabe also claims he wants peace. But as Zimbabweans now realise, his brand of peace is not worth the price he expects. With the west largely impotent to act, it is time SA's leaders criticised Mugabe and Nujoma.

Without condemnation we could see a revival of the big man syndrome. That would be a disaster for Africa, now slowly escaping its debilitating influence, and would be a threat to those fighting terrorism by potentially providing a safe haven for evildoers.

Roger Bate is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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About the Author

 

Roger
Bate
  • Roger Bate is an economist who researches international health policy, with a particular focus on tropical disease and substandard and counterfeit medicines. He also writes on general development policy in Asia and Africa. He writes regularly for AEI's Health Policy Outlook.
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    Email: rbate@aei.org
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