THE LAST WORD: By Andrew M. Mwenda
Accusations based on Jammeh’s personality shouldn’t obscure the politics
On December 01 the President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, lost an election and went on television and conceded defeat. He also called the victor, Adama Barrow, and congratulated him saying he has no ill will and will be pleased to help him in any way. Having taken power by a military coup and ruled that tiny West African nation for 22 years, no one expected Jammeh to concede gracefully.
However, the leader of the opposition coalition – who is not the president-elect, announced they were going to prosecute Jammeh for crimes he committed while in office. A week after conceding Jammeh reversed his position, said elections had been rigged called for a fresh vote. This turnaround has been widely condemned and may push that country into violent conflict.
We are likely not going to hear the inside story of what happened. Across the board, the argument will likely be personal to Jammeh: that he is a weird character and that he is a power hungry megalomaniac. But over the years I have learnt that these accusations that are entirely based on the personalities of our leaders often tend to obscure rather than illuminate our understanding of our politics.
With the sole exception of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, the Western media and its cheer leaders in Africa (including old ole me) have accused almost every president in Africa of being power hungry. But why is it the 54 nations of Africa that produce power hungry leaders? Why doesn’t Norway, or Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, UK, France or Germany – also produce a power hungry leader once in a while who amends the constitution to remove term limits or stages a military coup?
There is something all the nations I have mentioned in Western Europe, North America and Australia share – they have all been industrialised and institutionalised over centuries, and are urbanised with a high per capita income and standards of living. There is also something the nations of Africa share. They are largely agrarian societies, with low levels of institutionalisation of power, limited urbanisation, low per capita income, and low standards of living.
Therefore, I suspect that our nations’ politics is not dysfunctional. It is a reflection of poverty and low levels of institutionalisation of power. Indeed, all too often power has changed hands by military coups, elections, armed struggle, popular insurrections, death or retirement of an incumbent president. Yet with the sole exception of post genocide Rwanda, there has not been any fundamental change in governance in spite of many changes in government.
Over the years, I have developed a suspicion that Africa is going through a phase of development and what we are seeing as governance dysfunctions are inevitable aspects of political development. It does make sense to blame a child for behaving like an infant. This argument does not sit well with missionary politics that hold that leaders should just behave themselves regardless of the circumstances.