Tradition and the syndrome of the African ‘big man’

Nov 25, 2011

Chido Makunike

The details of the recent traditional marriages of two prominent men of power in Zimbabwe may provide some interesting clues to why so much of Africa has failed to rid itself of the ‘big man syndrome.’ Even if a leader is initially elected, all too often he has become powerful beyond what is constitutionally allowed, and has stayed on long after his people are tired of him. While the character of many who have become leaders in modern Africa may be questionable, there are also considerable cultural and social pressures that encourage the emergence of the ‘big man’ mentality once a person gets into a position of power.   

Despite formally embracing political governance structures based on those of the Western world, many African countries have struggled to adhere to some important aspects of them, which has then prevented the full, successful application of many others. The result is that while on the surface today’s African governments look very similar to those of the former colonial powers from which they inherited them, in fact they don’t much function the same.
‘Poor governance and poor leadership’ are the sweeping, non-specific reasons usually given for Africa’s many problems in the application of government systems which are responsive and subordinate to the wishes and interests of the people. But are there perhaps also intrinsic aspects of the societies that so often produce these ‘bad leaders’ that may contribute to the problem of the frequent emergence of the African ‘big man,’ and all the consequential problems his style of ruling then brings?    
One of the most problematic ideals to apply is that the leader of the country is not an all-powerful chief or king, but is supposed to be a servant of the people and to serve or go at their pleasure.
Many African leaders who started off with the affection and good will of their people then became stereotypical ‘big men’ over time. Among the characteristics of the ‘syndrome’ are increasing contempt for and repression of their people, dubious elections, helping themselves to the country’s resources and so forth. Where a ‘big man’ rules, the checks and balances that are supposed to make the modern system of government work optimally cannot be applied. The results of this are all too familiar to many Africans.
Recently Zimbabweans have had a welcome break from the constant barrage of mostly negative political news. Two prominent men of power in their middle ages have recently each married for the second time. As is the norm, they married according to African custom, and will then have civil marriages. This is one of countless ways that Africans have found an accommodation between their traditional ways of doing things and those introduced since European colonization. While there are many areas in which such attempted accommodations produce clashes between the two cultural worlds in which many Africans now live, in this case it generally, mostly works out smoothly.  
Chief of the Zimbabwe defense forces, Constatine Chiwenga, reportedly got traditionally married in October 2011. In mid-November Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai reportedly did the same, although there then followed baffling confusion over whether what he is said to have participated in was a marriage or something less than that.
While there is increasing discussion about the ‘modern’ appropriateness of lobola/roora/bride price, it is a deeply embedded cultural practice. The nature of what may be demanded as bride price may be constantly changing (e.g. from cows to cell phones, cash, cars, etc) but the idea of it remains firmly rooted.
There are increasing accusations that the idea of bride price being a cultural, symbolic token of the joining together of two families has become corrupted. Some argue that it has become ‘commercialized;’ a chance for some families to ‘profiteer’ by almost seeming to be ‘selling’ their daughters.
Most of the discussion is good-natured and accepts that while abuses do occur and that many concessions to ‘modernity’ must be constantly made, roora/lobola is a deep part of most African societies, and indeed of most others in one form or other.  
Who is to define what is an abuse of roora/lobola, after all? As long as an amicable compromise is reached between the two families in bride price negotiations, it is in theory of no concern to anyone else whether the idea of it as merely a token or a symbol has been abused.
Except that what the prominent in society do may be seen by many as setting the standard, which others may then try to emulate, for better or for worse.
According to media reports, Chiwenga paid US$47,000 in bride price, Tsvangirai US$36,000. In a country where the average civil servant, among the few classes of people with formal employment, earns less than US$500 per month, these sums are small fortunes.
In these two cases it could easily be said that all that matters is the willingness and ability of the men concerned to pay what is asked. Both men are accomplished in their respective careers and are of middle age, in their 50s. In these and many other ways their circumstances are quite different from those of most men who would be getting married.
But part of the online discussion about these reported huge sums of money for bride price is whether the examples of these two men will not give unrealistic ideas to families marrying their daughters to men of far more modest means. Will there not now be a sort of bride price inflation?
Interesting as that is, that is not the focus here. Rather, it is how, contrary to any feeling of being vaguely extorted, the men may view their payment of these staggering amounts of money in bride price as part of showing their ‘bigness.’ In terms of showing off means and social status, it is one way of separating the ‘men’ from the ‘boys.’
Yet despite their social and political importance, neither of these two men have known sources of wealth. In terms of their ability to pay big sums in bride price this may not be terribly relevant, since for one thing, being powerful men, they would have no shortage of well-wishers willing, even eager to help them in this and many other respects. And of course they could have lucrative, legitimate businesses and investments no one knows about.
Yet there is no escaping the discomforting point that the men making these fantastic splashes of wealth, for all their prominence, are basically lowly paid public servants. As far as the public knows, they are not successful, rich businesspeople.
These two public servants may have their own private sources of wealth. But could others wanting to marry without access to large private piggy banks be tempted to abuse their positions in order to keep up the appearance of being ‘big’ in society?
There is a mysterious but inescapable link in much of Africa (and many places elsewhere) between holding high political office and access to wealth. Many Africans grumble at this obvious link, but many almost accept it as a given. People may be suspicious of how after just a few years in office a lowly-paid but high-ranking official may be able to splash money around like a business mogul. On the other hand, if the high official does not act and live ‘big,’ he is seen as a disappointment to at least his clan and immediate circle, who expect to somehow materially benefit from their patron’s high office, regardless of how poorly paid it is.
In other words, the person faces considerable social pressure within his immediate circle (which may have a big social and cultural diameter) to act/look/live ‘big.’
It is not far-fetched to imagine how a ‘big’-but-lowly-paid official may succumb to these pressures by finding innovative ways to use his position to augment his income, in order to meet the material expectations of ‘bigness’ expected of him. Once that sets in, there is no easy retreat for him. There are risks of being suspected and exposed, but they are minimized by many others of his rank being in a similar game.
If his position is elected, the many ‘extra’ benefits of the job, which may vastly exceed his humble salary, are simply too lucrative to give up. Ways to thwart the electoral process become very tempting. The voters complain bitterly against corruption in high places, but they also expect regular ‘gifts’ from the ‘big man’ at election time, never asking where he could possibly get the money to fund those electioneering alms.
For the big man, the electoral corruption may involve the dubious sourcing of the money for his expensive campaign, ‘gifts’ for the voters included; the employment of dirty tricks against the opposition and if the big man is big enough, to outright fix the election results. He is no longer just fighting for his continued personal access to the many ‘extra’ benefits of his high office, but also on behalf of the many hangers-on who depend for their well-being on his bigness, which is directly linked to his position.
For him and those supporters, his hanging on to the position by any means necessary becomes almost a matter of life and death. Methods that are seen as excessive and anti-democratic by people at a distance, are seen by the big man’s inner circle and supporter-beneficiaries as being quite justified given what is at stake for them. For him and his supporters, there may be no even remotely similar opportunities available than those afforded by his position and his access to the many associated perks, official and unofficial, which are what make him ‘Mr. Big.’
The ‘big man’ syndrome is at least partly a remnant of traditional relations between office holders and ‘ordinary’ people that in many cases clash with modern expectations of those relations. In modern theory the office holder, especially if elected, is the servant of the people. Yet in the traditional setting the ‘office holder,’ usually by inheritance, is often the unquestioned master of the people. Humbleness in living or manner may be taken as a weakness, whereas in an idealistic democratic setting that may be considered as a positive.
All African societies are to varying extents on some continuum between old indigenous ways of doing things and the new ways brought with European colonization. The constitution of a country may be 99% European-derived, but how it can be applied will be very different in a society that is socially and culturally perhaps 30% Euro-influenced and 70% indigenous-traditional.
It is actually quite astonishing how quickly and well most African societies make a successful accommodation between the traditional and the imported, whether on issues of governance or anything else. This is particularly so when it is taken into account how quick and overwhelming colonization was, how ‘different’ much of what it brought was, and how ardently it often tried to ridicule and destroy what existed.
However, it is perhaps also not surprising that there still many areas, systems of governance included, where there are often harsh clashes between imported and traditional values and practices.
Africa has had its share of cynical, self-serving individuals who worked themselves to positions of power, with calamitous results for their countries. But in at least some cases, the ‘big man’ who goes from just being egotistical and self-serving, to then being repressive and destructive may not have been born that way, but may be molded into it by the often conflicting, confusing expectations of societies in rapid transition.



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