By Prof. Morris Ogenga-Latigo
Lessons from the trees: even the jungle has rules
Although I could have spoken on the very first day when I first entered Uganda’s Parliament in 2001, I did not make my maiden speech until after two months. Instead, being an ecologist, I spent time marvelling at the presumptiveness of ordinary mortals who, after acquisition of power, suddenly imagined that they were super beings beyond the reproach of nature.
I saw many uninformed MPs make lofty but meaningless declarations of what their voters, who knew little about what Parliament was all about when voting, sent them to do. Later I was to witness them fizzle out as Parliament progressed. Over the years, we in Uganda have also seen rulers come and heard supporters declare how their regimes and their leaders were “different”, only for the revered leaders to act true to type and end up in the same dung-heap of history where they had consigned those before them. Underlying the above is the tragedy of power which, in its intoxicating effect, leads many African leaders to delude themselves that they are demigods who are the alpha and omega of their countries. They imagine they can defy gravity and remain afloat forever even against the march of time and the accumulated weight of their omissions, failures, and misdeeds.
In that delusion, they forget or fail to appreciate the minuteness of their time in power against the huge span of history; the insignificance of who they really are in the greatness of humanity and of their own countries and people; and in the infiniteness of the universe that makes our individual illusions so absurd!
To them, and to their false believers, they are the chosen ones, the anointed ones, the different ones. When a Somalia happens under Siad Barre, a Central African Republic under Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a Uganda under Idi Amin, a Zaire (DR Congo) under Mobutu Sese Seko, an Ivory Coast under Felix Houphouet-Boigny, an Iraq under Saddam Hussein, a Tunisia under Ben Ali, a Libya under Muammar Gadhafi, a Syria under the Hassads, an Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, and now a Burkina Faso under Blaise Compaore, these African dictators and strongmen spite those who “have failed” or blame Western powers for “meddling” in their affairs.
Tragically, they remain steadfast in the false self-belief of their uniqueness, capacity, and blessings from some god. They believe they are different from the rest and in their absurd conviction that “it will never happen to me”. But this last only until it is their turn to be bewildered when finally rejected by the people they thought loved them; to be fished out of foxholes, to be sodomised before execution, or, if they are lucky, to flee with their dear lives.
For the people and countries these rulers lorded over, the end has always been the same: chaos and suffering, national disintegration along poorly glossed over ethnic, religious, political and other sectarian seams, prolonged periods of instability, wastage of human life and vast amounts of material resources, reversal of gains made, and loss of opportunity to progress and develop with the rest of the peaceful world.
Yet, if these rulers had accepted their humanness, frailness, and inequities; if they had humbled themselves in power and had recognised their time when it had come and, other than clingingly on purposelessly, thanked the fate that gave them the unique opportunity to serve at the helm of society and quit peacefully, Africa’s political stability and succession would have been a completely different story.
Most importantly, if only we all could recognise and accept that, as humans, we are merely a tiny part of nature’s organic entity and subject to all its basic laws, we would certainly avoid the tragedy of dictatorship and strongman delusions.
Unbelievably, as it may be, we can actually draw lessons from life histories of the immobile, non-conscious trees. The most basic lesson is that despite illusions and delusions, all organic beings and systems, upon coming into being, may grow, blossom and prosper but, ultimately, must faithfully and without exception, age, decline and die. The other is that only those that play by the rules of nature will be historically (and not just transitorily) successful. In these lie the inevitability of the tragic end that awaits all Africa’s dictatorial leaders and strongmen.
Political Organisation and succession
In spite common invocation of “democracy” as a key form of political organisation, the world’s governance systems and succession processes are as diverse as there are countries and administrative units and past regimes stacked in the continuum of history. Yet we must objectively categorise these systems in order to understand them and draw valid inferences and offer accurate predictions of outcomes from them.
Even in the USA, a country touted as the world’s greatest democracy, no single state or national election, not single presidency or governorship, and no governments over time are the same. Just consider how George Bush Jr. and Lyndon Johnson ascended to the Presidency of the USA, and how the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy ended in democratic USA. Yet, in spite of the variations, because of clear configuration and adherence to set rules, we can make valid generalisations about American democracy and safely predict its political trajectory over a fairly long period.
In our Africa, however, without any valid premise or historic framework, we continue to dismissively compare a government or leader with previous ones, or with those of other entities. We do this to then recklessly declare how “ours is different” and will never suffer the fate of its equals in history.
This emotive judgment against historic evidence is our common folly and greatest exercise in futility. What are the objective bases of our African assertions? How will we ever move forward when we do not accept and respect the realities of history, the march of time, and the brutality of logic, and use them to genuinely guide us?
In the spectrum of world governance and succession systems, there probably currently stand out three distinct and contrasting cases that; in analogy with trees, we can use to help us appreciate the continued chaos of African political succession, and hopefully draw lessons from. These are: (i) coniferous forests and Scandinavian democracy; (ii) equatorial forests and USA/Indian Democracy; and (iii) the flat-topped acacia tree and African dictators and strongmen.
Coniferous forests and Scandinavian democracy
Temperate coniferous forests are remarkable for their location, uniformity, sereneness and predictability. They thrive in harsh environments and have very short summer periods to grow. A typical forest is a large expanse of basically one tree type (conifers). So regularly spaced as if deliberately planted, it looks the same year-in and year-out. The forest seems devoid of any struggle amongst the trees. Yet a closer look reveals trees of different ages, all striving to grow and flourish; trees that are dead and rotting; and seedlings that are germinating or growing to occupy space vacated by fallen ones and ensuring succession and continuity without fanfare. Scandinavian summers are very short, 3-5 months of useful sunlight, while the winters are very cold, with heavy snowfalls and little food for animals (deer, yak etc.) that have to eat virtually any organic matter to survive. To flourish in this harsh and limiting environment, therefore, the conifers found strength in obedience to nature, and in life as a collective, with the basic principle being maximizing the limited opportunities and minimizing competition, wastage, and risks. Firstly, the cone-shaped, highly trimmed canopy of the conifers ensures that upper branches and leaves do not compete for space with, and shade, the lower ones. The limited sunlight is therefore captured maximally with little intra-plant competition. This canopy construct also enables conifers to deflect falling snow, preventing snow from otherwise accumulating on and break the branches; a wastage that it can ill-afford. To survive, a tree must uphold these attributes.
Secondly, because of the tight canopy configuration that allows for judicious use of space, conifers preferentially survive as a tree type in this harsh environment, with the sharing of space allowing it to fan out in highly regular but closely knit formation. This large collective coexistence further minimizes risk of individuals being eaten up by animals thus enhancing the survival and spread of their kind. Hence, in spite the limits of its environment, and its unassuming form, the coniferous forest is one of nature’s greatest success stories.
The same attributes of coniferous forests and the same rules that govern their survival and success are the same attributes and rules that govern the social organisation and political construct of the Scandinavian countries where these forests are found. In Norway, Demark, Sweden, Finland etc., the social construct and political processes are virtually the same. People are unassuming, work in complementarity, and with self-restraint. They maximize resource use and minimize wastage. They share, are prudent, and non-predatory, with no corruption, cronyism, sectarianism etc. Children of the rich and poor share schools and ride bicycles to and from schools, and all have equal opportunity in life. Politicians, technocrats, workers, housewives etc. too ride bicycles without any clash of egos.
At the political level, parties are not built around brutal ideological contestations and cutthroat competition, but rather as alternatives to serve and contribute. There is also no pomp and grandeur in leadership. Prime Ministers share train rides with citizens, and leaders remain who they really are in life, even upon being elevated to high elective offices.
When time comes, people are given the opportunity to freely and truly make their choices. Because the choices are theirs, made genuinely and purposefully and for a common good, outcomes are accepted and embraced by all. Those chosen take over from previous leaders, who are no vanquished, and continue the tradition of leadership for country, people and posterity. In that apparent monotony and drabness of Scandinavian politics, the people stand unassuming like their coniferous forests, sharing, and stability. Successions are non-issues. Even with transitory disturbances, such as the assassination of Prime Minister Olaf Palme of Sweden, politics and succession remain uneventful and far different from the chaos and genocide of African politics.