On African Dictators

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(from my archive. First published in The African Journal in 1999)


“A more subtle defense of imperialism that omission is coming to the fore now. It finds bald exposition in the work of the very influential Reinhold Niebuhr. Mr. Niebuhr finds it more illuminating to refer to the colonial world as the ‘non-industrial’ or the ‘non-technical’ world. He finds that nations of that world ‘held in tutelage’ [!] by the industrial or technical nations become ‘obsessed with the idea that all of their ills flow from the imperial occupation.’ This is quite absurd, we learn. The ills in the ‘non-industrial’ world flow from – non-industrialization! It is ‘the low efficiency’ of such an economy which produces the people’s poverty.

You tear out a man’s tongue and then explain that his dumbness is his own fault – the man is tongueless! Imperialists conquer peoples; turn their lands into dungeons; prevent industrialization; shore up all the feudal and native reactionary elements; distort the whole economy by forcing concentration on particular cash crops or strategic minerals; super-exploit the colonial working population; grow sleek and fat on the wealth robbed from the colonies, and then – shame on you non-technical and non-industrial peoples for your ‘backwardness!'” Herbert Aptheker,‘Laureates of imperialism,’ Masses and Mainstream, p.67.

I have been asked why I constantly criticized the West for Africa’s woes. African dictators, we are told, are as responsible, as western institutions for the general malaise of the continent. I totally agree that the brain-dead dictators ruling Africa are guilty. But we should be cognizant of the fact that these tin-pots gods are the creation of colonialism. Please let me explain.

As a student of history, I am irked each time I read or hear a Western commentator or politician making preachment about Africa. Modern Africa is a creation of Western intrusion on our continent. We are still suffering the effects of the political, economic, social and cultural dislocations caused by Western incursions. The colonial structures bequeathed to us by the colonialists are not working, and THEY are the chief causes of our present misfortunes. When a Westerner denounces Africa, it gets my goat. It’s like a doctor who administered tainted blood on a patient, and yet castigates him for developing a crippling disease.

What I am saying is that while some people see the Bokassa, Idi Amins, the Eyademas, the Mobutus, the Babangida as OUR PROBLEM. I see them as SYMPTOMS of our problems. Of course, these despots are a nuisance. But the system that produced these cretins is what, I believed, should engage our attention. Yesterday, it was Acheampong, Idi Amin, Bokassa, Babangida, today, we are cursed with Eyadema, Abacha and Mobutu. If through some magic, these miscreants were to depart the political scene, others in their mold will simply take their place, as long as the system they represent exist. We should be attacking the causes (in this case the system that produced these tyrants), and not the symptoms of the diseases afflicting our continent.

In all my writings, I have attacked colonialism and neo-colonialism which I believed are the principal evils bedeviling our continent. The West, through its agencies, are wrecking more havoc on our continent than any of these dictators. I have also asked in several of my posts: ‘Who imposed and maintained these dictators in power?’ And to those who blame ‘dictatorship’ for our woes, are the countries ‘enjoying’ the benefits of ‘western-style’ democracies better off? Are Nigerians suffering ailments from which the Zambians are immune. Are the poor Ghanaians in better shape than their Togolese counterpart? The problems of all the neo-colonial states in Africa [practically all the ‘countries’] are the same.

The misgovernance of Babangida in Nigeria was well known, yet he had a cozy relationship with both Britain and Uncle Sam. Why? It shouldn’t take a genius to figure out it was because he turned Nigeria into a classical neo-colonial state. Same goes for the Arap Mois and the Mobutus. The latter was until a few years ago a frequent visitor to Western capitals – he met with George Bush about a dozen times. Now we are told that Britain and Uncle Sam are suspending military aid to Nigeria! How many people knew that they were arming the dictator. Did the dictatorship of Babangida start with his nullification of the election result? It was not well reported, but the British government sold some tanks to Nigeria recently.

I believe that wasting time and efforts denouncing dictators like Abacha, Mobutu, or Arap Moi in Europe is crediting them with more intelligence than they actually possess – not that they shouldn’t be-be made to realize their follies. But, IMO, so doing is suggesting that they are independent actors, rather than the puppets on the string of the neo-colonial world order that they really are. Why waste time on the puppet, when one can talk to the puppet-master? Idi Amin was helped to power by British Intelligence. Bokassa was a puppet of the French for whom he had fought in Africa, Europe, Indochina, and Algeria. Mobutu was brought into power to thwart Lumumba and safeguard the neo-colonial interests of the US, France, and Belgium. Kotoka was helped by the CIA to overthrow Nkrumah. Nigeria has been misgoverned by Military dictators, all-trained at Military academies in Britain and the US. They all have pursued neo-colonial interests to the detriment of their country. Their misgovernment and corruption are well-known, yet, they all, without exception enjoyed a cozy relationship with Britain and the US. We cannot analyse the problems of Africa, especially the failure of leadership, without looking into this neo-colonial relationship.

The chief curse of Africa was to adopt the western model when our nations achieved independence from their colonial masters. This was our lost opportunity – to chart our future properly, taken into consideration our socio-political history and our peculiarity. This was the biggest difference between us and the Asians. The Asians nations that charted an original path for themselves – Malaysia, Indonesia, and China are making progress, while those who, like us, want to remain under the tutelage of the ‘masters” are wallowing in an economic quagmire – take the Philippines for instance.

I have consistently advocated that Africans should strive to promote an Africa that can look towards the best in itself to develop her resources. An Africa that’s neither apologetic nor groveling. An Africa that is proud and upright. I believe that African intellectuals, writers and artists should let Africa become the center of their universe.

Our education (or is it mis-education?) have taught us to look at the world from the prisms of Euro-centrism. That’s why we continue to believe that we are worse than the rest of the world. We have been taught to think of ourselves as a people without any values, as a people who have no contribution to human civilization. Ideas developed by our ancestors have been turned around and used to keep us in perpetual bondage – Christianity is among these ideas. We continue to believe every lily-white lie the historic oppressors tell us. Today, we lay prostrated, lacking confidence not only in ourselves but also in our abilities to change ourselves.

The greatest destruction colonialism wrought in our land was the destruction of our self-esteem. Colonialism robbed us of our dignity and our self- confidence. So demoralized have we become that we no longer believe in our own abilities. We keep looking up to other people for the ideas we need to live our ordinary lives. Every religious, political, economic and social theory and ideas developed by other people always find a sympathetic hearing in our land – including moronic ones that are rejected outright in their societies of origin. What the neo-colonialists are doing is to continue this historic assault on our psyches – to make us more dependent on them! Why do we remain the only people Euro-Americans are rushing ‘help’ to whenever they like – without our asking for it?

No country, we are being told, can progress without multi-partyism, or ‘Free-Enterprise.’ These are lies! These are cultural bombs thrown to dull our minds. I ask, which part of the world is registering the fastest economic growth today? It is not the West, it’s Asia. There is, indeed, an alternative to Western capitalism and Western-styled democracy, if only Africans would care to look. And while the inventors of these ideas recognized them for what they are – mere rhetoric, they want us to actualise them and, like obedient children, we keep lapping them up, so much so that we become better [actually worse] communists than those who invented it – witness Mengistu’s genocide in Ethiopia; we become better [actually worse] capitalists than the capitalist – witness the sickening opulence of our misrulers; we are better Christians than those that brought it to our shores!

Some Asian countries were also colonized, yet Asia is making steady progress in all fields of human endeavor. The reason is that the Asians did not allow themselves to be hoodwinked into believing that they must abandon their cultural heritage in order to make progress. They took the Western economic model, fuse it with their indigenous values, and adapt it to suit their unique social and cultural imperatives. They succeeded in producing a synthesis best suited to their peculiar environment. Judging by any standard, they have made giant strides. These countries are now at the forefront of technologies, industry, and commerce. Whither thou Africa? Why can’t Africans take the useful things from the West and blend it to suit their own environment? For how long are we going to continue to be imitators?

This is what I have advocated throughout my writings. Africa is not valueless. We should not strive, as Fanon warned, to catch up with Europe. Let’s use our efforts to produce a new African -one who doesn’t believe the worst in himself while looking at Europe with awe.

In traditional Yoruba society, a dictatorship is simply impossible. A ruler rules at the pleasure of the people. He’s not alienated from the people. Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, is involved in the system. The idea of a organized police or army is non-existent – every member of the society of a certain age is called upon to perform military duties when the needs arose – a truly People’s Army. Traditional Yoruba system has no organized parliament or organized religion.

These are possible simply because society has evolved ways of solving basic problems without resorting to state violence. In a society like traditional Yoruba, the idea that a police or an army chief can seize political power is ridiculous. I know this because my father was the defense minister of my village. No one would have accepted him as the king, because it’s not our family business to run the village’s affairs. And although Yoruba kings are referred to in High-Sounding platitudes, the sanctions against any king that got too big for his crown is grave, indeed. Such rulers are given only two options: Abdicate or commit suicide. Those who know the story of Sango will know what I am talking about. I believed the same check and balances existed in most traditional African societies. The Igbos are another glaring example of Africans who developed a political system that guaranteed against dictatorship – in Igboland, every family is an autonomous unit, unanswerable to any higher authority.

In these traditional systems, harmony and cooperation were the order of the day. Now we are told that competition is the healthiest of all human values! It is not that there are no conflicts or wars, but since your future is intricately linked to your neighbor’s, you’ll think twice before eliminating them. The masks and masquerades are among the things invented to make wars as humane as possible.

This age-long political structure which had stood the people in good stead over the centuries was banished by colonialism. Both missionary and military forces were marshaled to destroy the best of our cultural patrimony. In their stead was imposed an alien, elitist political system, in which only few could participate. These elites are those the colonialists deemed to have imbibed their values so as to continue the political cheating game. They represent a minute percentage of the population.

I have always been consistent in my railings against this colonial and neo-colonial structures. I believed that until our intellectuals put their heads together and fashion out for us an appropriate economic and political system, suited to our societies, so long shall we be in political and economic doldrums. I am not an admirer of the Western-styled democracy, which was aptly defined by Nkrumah as, ‘The competition between oligarchies.’ I just find it incongruous that some wealthy men are going to sit in some assembly (parliament) and make the decision to improve the lot of the downtrodden.

I will not pretend that mine was an entirely original thinking. I was greatly influenced by writers like Ngugi and Fanon. These gentlemen were consistent in attacking neo-colonialism in all its ramifications. I believed, as they do, that we should stop using the standards defined by the West to define ourselves.

I do not pretend to know how Africa would have developed before the colonialists disrupt our societies, what I do know and is glaring to all is that the models imposed by Europeans have failed us thoroughly. We are moving from one crisis to the other. Our politics is a joke; our economies are in shambles; our social life has been disrupted; our culture is being eroded. Should we continue to look for salvation in this crises-ridden model, or put our heads together and devise new models to solve our peculiar problems?

Those who know the history of the army in Africa will know why they continue to behave like an army of occupation all over the continent. Let me illustrate with that of the Nigerian army:

The history of the Nigerian Army began with a British Captain, Glover. Traveling to the Northern part of what was to became Nigeria, Glover got shipwrecked around Lokoja [the town where the rivers Niger and Benue confluence]. He found some escaped slaves who guided him back to Lagos. He decided to keep them and they were called, derisively, ‘Glover’s Hausas’. These formed the core of the army that was used to ‘pacify’ the other groups that were to be grouped into what became Nigeria.

The army was, of course, intensely hated because of its especial brutality, and few people, especially in the South allowed their family to join it.

The training and orientation of the armed forces geared them to be loyal to the colonial authority, and to regard their own people with suspicion and to treat them contemptuously. Their uniforms and customs are copy-cats of the British army. To insulate them further from the people, they are housed in barracks, which are often built outside populated areas. We should contrast this with traditional societies, whereby there were no standing armies, and where every able-bodied man, of a certain age-group, was, in case of war, a serving member of the army.

It is unfortunate that Nigerian political leaders on attaining independence made no effort to re-structure this colonial entity to reflect their society. The whole apparatus was left largely intact, with no modification whatsoever. Perhaps this is understandable since the political elites are bent on maintaining the alien rule, which invariably requires the forces of coercion. Independent Nigerian armed forces still continue to operate as they did during the colonial period – alienated from the people and called out only to restore ‘law-and-order.’ They continue to wear their colonial uniforms, maintain their British ranks and continue the traditions of a colonial army.

We should not lose sight of the fact that another British captain, Lugard, was the man the British sent to forge the resemblance of a nation from the area called Nigeria.

Aside from his notorious ‘pacification’ of natives in the service of the British Imperial army, Lugard had no other experience to recommend him. He was a captain in the British Imperial army when he swindled his way into the Royal Niger Company and ended up becoming Nigeria’s first Governor-General. Captaincy is not even a superior officer’s rank in any army. Before then Lugard was in the employment of Cecil Rhodes, the man who stole a country and named it after himself. His experience before then was his infamous exterminating of Indians in India. He was so ‘successful’ that when Cecil Rhodes and Dr. Leander Starr Jamesson and others decided to ‘pacify’ the people of Monomotapa (South Africa), they brought Lugard to do the dirty job. It was on the neck dripping with Africans and Indians blood that the job of administering Nigeria was entrusted.

I doubt if the history of the armies in other African lands is different.

About the Author  

Femi Akomolafe is a passionate Pan-Africanist. A columnist for the Accra-based Daily Dispatch newspaper and ModernGhana, and Correspondent for the New African magazine, Femi lives in both Europe and Africa and writes regularly on Africa-related issues for various newspapers and magazines.

Femi was the producer of the FOCUS ON AFRICANS TV Interview programme for the MultiTV Station.

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