What became of Africa’s new generation of leaders?

Abdul-Raheem Tajudeen

WHERE did the ‘New Leaders’ go wrong? This is my first column in the new year but excuse me if I do not begin with the customary seasonal platitudes.
Ethiopia’s christmas present to Africa was bombs in Mogadishu. American Cretins, otherwise called Iraqi government, presented Saddam’s head to their Patron-Saint in Washington on Eid Day. With these how can i honestly wish us a happy new year?
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia is one of the most intellectually sharp and engaging leaders on the African continent. He is one of the small groups of younger and dynamic leaders that burst on to the political scene in the 1990s. They were generally referred to as ‘New generation of African leaders’.
They spoke with confidence and inspired many Africans and friends of Africa that indeed ‘African Solution to African problems’ was indeed a reality. But did we celebrate too early? Were our hopes and enthusiasm misplaced?
By the mid-1990s many of these leaders began to show personal, political and ideological strands that make people wonder whether these are not ‘old wine in new bottles’.
I am not one of these perpetual pessimists who always seem to see unending bad news that imprisons the present and shackles it to our inglorious past. Whatever anyone will say, Museveni is not an Idi Amin, Meles is no Mengistu. Whatever may have happened in the DRC, we did well to remove Mobutu.
We can explain what has happened to these leaders without forcing the parallels. I am still asking why but can initially identify 10 reasons why the ‘New Leaders’ seem to have extinguished the hopes they had inspired. It may not wholly apply to all of them but the pattern is very generic.
One, they come as liberators but the longer they stay in power the more they become oppressors, intolerant of dissent or even discussions within their own political and military formations and in the wider society.
Two, the vanguard of the masses slowly become vanguard of the ruling party/clique and soon degenerates into vanguard of the leader. Take the example of Eritrea’s Issias Afewerki, who has managed to turn a country we all thought was going to be a shining example of a ‘future that works’ into a large garrison. They wrote a beautiful constitution that was ‘people-driven’ but became ‘leader-jammed’ and remains gathering dust. The people had their say but the leader had his way!
Three, they usually come in with big dreams and enormous commitment to the masses but the paraphernalia of power, the glitz, pomp and pageantry and all the trappings begin to take over.
Four, a ruling group that had been held together for many years from rebel grouping to power by shared ideology and perspectives become more and more built around the personality of the leader, his family and other cronies recruited for ‘loyalty’ rather than any commitment to the country or people.
Five, the interest of the party, the government and the people become indistinguishable from the whims and caprices of the leader. To oppose him was to oppose the people!
Six, the progressive changes they have brought about in the country. Again here we should not throw away the baby with the bath water. Generally these leaders did turn around the economy and political arrangements in their countries. Things did improve even if in most of the cases, they were growth without development anchored on neo-liberal policies beloved and imposed by the IMF/World Bank.
Seven, the one failing that many people, especially former comrades find unpardonable in these leaders, are their ideological somersaults. Most of them were revolutionaries who began their political careers and rebel lives as firebrand anti-imperialists but soon became converts to the free market and new best friends with the imperialist countries especially the USA and other Western powers!
Eight, these former revolutionaries who exposed Pan-Africanism before but resigned themselves to ‘better managing’ the neo-colonial state soon become engrossed in competition rather than cooperation with their former comrades.
The consequence of this is a tragedy like the DRC where we built a Pan-Africanist alliance to get rid of Mobutu but could not sustain it after victory because every state wanted to have a pliant regime in Kinshasa instead of Pan-Afrianist regime in the interests of the people of the DRC and those of the region. Liberators become looters and occupiers!
I have saved the last two reasons deliberately to the end because they help explain the folly of Zenawi in Somalia. This is twin evil of these leaders becoming both victims of their militaristic means of getting and retaining power and external validation by the same Western powers that not too long ago were praising our dictators as ‘moderate’.
Most of these leaders do not know how to negotiate without their AK47s corked. They expect their peoples to be forever grateful and to accept incremental changes as decreed by the leader. The only institution they trust is the armed forces. That is why Ethiopia could fight Eritrea and Uganda and Rwanda can do the same in a third country despite assumptions of solidarity and affinity between the leaders. My last reason and probably more decisive is the flattery and endorsement by the west. It makes these leaders feel that they are doing their peoples a favour.

But more than that it gives them illusions of becoming global players and they instinctively ally themselves behind geo-political and economic strategic interests of the West but in these days lining up behind the USA and bush for all kinds of bush wars. Zenawi’s Ethiopia is the current worst practice of this.
I don’t think Zenawi is just doing what Washington wants. What he has done is to use George Bush’s doctrine to affirm his alliance but also justify his narrow national and sub-regional security concerns.
But as intelligent as he is, why can’t he learn from his Washington friends whether in Afghanistan or Iraq that it is easier to occupy a country than govern it in peace?

posted by Ethiounited Moderator at8:39 PM

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