The weakness of a pan Africanist, anti-imperialist defence of repression

Jul 1, 2011

Politicians who come to power through elections must accept that they can lose power the same way, no matter how much they are convinced in their own minds that they are the best thing that ever happened to their country. The relfusal to adhere to this basic rule of a game they gave much lip service to is one of the greatest failings of pan-Africanist icons like Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, whatever their successes.

The Herald issue of June 30 had an interesting interview with the visiting editor of New African magazine, Baffour Ankomah, a staunch admirer and defender of president Robert Mugabe's.  


Q: ...on March 28, 2008 when President Mugabe held his last rally before the elections the following day, you made a remark that I will never forget - you said that Zimbabweans did not know and understand what they were doing. What was it that you had observed and why were you concerned knowing that people were going to the polls the following day?

A: I felt that most Zimbabweans had not yet understood the "war" their country was in...had not factored - for lack of a better term - "cold war" that the imperial powers had unleashed on their country. As a Ghanaian who had studied in depth how the imperial powers had overthrown our first president, Kwame Nkrumah, and succeeded in getting Ghana back in their sphere of influence, and also having then lived in Britain for 23 years and watched how Britain and its allies were so hung on bringing Zimbabwe down in the vain hope that it would spur the people to take to the streets and overthrow President Mugabe's government, my soul was grieving that most Zimbabweans in 2008 did not appreciate the enormity of the war confronting their country.

One of the requirements for accepting a competitive style of politics is that individuals and parties wishing to rule must sell their ideas more successfully than their opponents. Even of one's idea is 'better' according to you, if your job of selling that idea is poor and you lose, you accept defeat and prepare to sell harder the next time around.

 Ankomah is obviously pleased that Mugabe remains in power today. For many Zimbabweans, however, including some who may share Ankomah's admiration for Mugabe's pan-Africanism, the election of 2008 was soiled along with much of Mugabe's reputation. Those who did not buy Mugabe's explanation of the issues at stake and solutions proposed had their right to choose another version neutralised by extreme violence, obviating the whole reason for having an election in the first place.

The whole idea of having universal suffrage is so that people can vote as they see things, including partially the element of how successfully you the candidate have done your selling job to them. The right for people to vote does not include being able to say, "Since I have not been able to convince you to vote for me, I am going to beat you up for wanting to vote for my opponent."

Whatever great qualities Nkrumah/Mugabe had, this basic contempt for their people that made them reject the rules of a game they initially accepted when it was in their favour is one of their worst failings. What does it mean for an Ankomah or a Nkrumah/Mugabe to over-rule the sentiments of millions of people because in their minds they 'know better' what is good for them? If some kind of dictatorships are better than others, who makes that choice? Ankomah the wise? Nkrumah/Mugabe the once-popular candidate fearing an election loss, who then decides he 'loves' and is so concerned for his people that he will thwart their right to vote him out?

If foreign forces had their own reasons for wanting to see Nkrumah or Mugabe gone, their job was made much easier by these mens' neglect of the basic day to day issues that their people were most concerned with, which were not grand, sweeping ideological visions. Both Nkrumah and Mugabe are deservedly admired for having those big visions of a new kind of Africa, but they both also made the mistake of believing that they could be substitutes for dealing with day to day bread and butter issues.

Being a great pan Africanist on the continental or world stage cannot replace solving practical problems at home, a common failing of both Nkrumah's and Mugabe's. It is quite possible and easy for many Zimbabweans to admire Mugabe for his pan-Africanist, boldly anti-imperialist stance but then conclude that being a manager in the way required of a president of a country is not his main interest or strong point. That is the conclusion that many and probably most voters made in 2008, but which choice fell by the wayside because a group of people decided that the voters shouldn't be able to make that choice after all, if they were going to vote the 'wrong' way according to Ankomah or Mugabe!  

Ankomah may well be right to say that with the passage of time, both Nkrumah and Mugabe will be remembered more for the positives of their big, inspirational dreaming than for their being so poor at delivering a better life for their people, and their then resorting to repression when their failures turned those people against them.

Ghanaians can afford to look back at the long-dead Nkrumah more forgivingly now that the economic and political miseries of the end of his reign are a distant memory. Foreigners who are not subject to repression in Zimbabwe can afford to say of the 2008 election, "The whole thing was about land and who controlled it. The human rights issues and the alleged economic mismanagement, though important, were just a convenient digression."

Land was and is an important, basic issue, and there is no doubt that 'who controlled it' accounts for a lot of the western antipathy to Mugabe. Land reform was/is a popular issue in Zimbabwe even amidst many differences about its details, such as how to now get beyond much of the land just sitting there gathering weeds. But many Zimbabweans reject the Hobson's choice of 'you can have the land, but in exchange for it you must also accept the human rights abuses and economic mismanagement' that to Ankomah are 'just a digression.' Africans expect and increasingly demand the benefits of their resources, respect for their human rights as well as good economic management, with no one of those being considered a 'digression.' 

Ankomah volunteers an interesting anectode about the hypocrisy of many African leaders. He recounts how he swore never to own a Mercedes Benz because the German manufacturer withdrew advertising from his magazine for its support in 2002 for Mugabe's land expropriations.

But on a later visit to Zimbabwe for a national occasion, he was mortified to find that "every car that was used by the army officers and government officials that day - starting from "Zim 1" by the president to the lowliest military officer in that stadium was a Mercedes Benz! I still find the situation very funny: Our magazine was dying because of our support for Zimbabwe, and yet Zimbabwe was subsidising Mercedes Benz by buying a fleet of their cars! I will never ever give my hard-earned money to Mercedes Benz by buying one of their cars."

So much for the ideological purity and consistency of some of our self-declared anti-imperialists! The very bourgeois rulers in Harare will probably also find it 'funny' that Ankomah would expect them to forgo luxuries to which they have become accustomed simply to be consistent with their rhetoric.As with their lip service to respecting the will of the people, stirring rhetoric is one thing for the masses over there; reality is another thing right here.

A big challenge for African politicians is to try and balance the differing imperatives of selling big and grandly ideological visions with delivering short-term improvements on bread and butter issues. If Nkrumah and Mugabe had been better able to strike a good balance they would not have needed to end their reigns as the former did and the latter is doing; propped up in power no longer by their peoples' respect and affection, but by a repressive edifice that makes them subject to unflattering comparisons with the imperialists they helped overthrow.


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