When dictator Mobutu succumbed to prostate cancer, it was the first time anyone would have anything good to say about the dreaded disease – and also the first time the cancer showed any revolutionary potential
In “Democracy Is Dying Or Dead In Africa; The Continent Is Being Torn Apart – Yet That’s One Of The Best Things To Happen To It”, we ended by remarking that the fact that there is still an Africa left to save and democratise, is due to many complex forces that have not fully been explored.
We have to thank many things; from what Argentinian football great Diego Maradona euphemistically called “the hand of God”, the mysterious forces of history, disease, to the greed and silliness of the men and women of power.
Consider this. Even by Nigeria’s horrible standards, Gen Sani Abacha who came to power in 1993 was easily the cruelest and thieving military dictator to rule that great nation. However, he was on the throne for only five years. When he died in 1998, he is alleged to have embezzled a mind-boggling $5 Billion. For a man who was in power for five years, Abacha would have had to steal $2.8 Million a day to make $5Bn!
Abacha died in debauchery in June 1998. The popular version of the story is that, as was his wont, he imported two Russian prostitutes. He needed help when he took them to bed, so he swallowed more Viagra pills than his doctor would have recommended. His heart popped when a wave of passion swept through his super-charged veins.
It was necessary for Abacha to be greedy and foolish, at the age of 55, to swallow an overdose of Viagra and to seek to floor two prostitutes, for him to make the decisions that ended his life abruptly. His greed and foolishness thus became the agents of change.
He was succeeded by Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar who organised an election almost immediately, and returned Nigeria to elective government and civilian rule in 1999 (when [retired general] Olusegun Obasanjo won and returned to power).
I met Gen. Abubakar at the [Southern Africa] World Economic Forum in Durban, in 2000. He was spotting a fabulously white beard. Everyone seemed surprised by how well-spoken he was. I was puzzled that in the morass that the Nigerian military was managed to produce someone like him to replace Abacha. The mysterious hand of history saved Nigeria.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), on the other hand, was saved by a mixture of rebellion and disease. Mobutu Sese Seko was a dictator in the country he renamed Zaire, for much longer than Abacha in Nigeria. He seized power in 1965 and lost it in 1997 at the hands of Rwanda-backed rebels.
Abacha and Mobutu had a lot in common. For starters, their love for exotic prostitutes. Then, surprise, surprise, they stole almost exactly the same amounts of money from their countries – $5Bn. Since it took Mobutu 32 years and Abacha five, perhaps we can concede that the Sese Seko Ngbendu Kuku wa Zabanga was less long-fingered. (Mobutu’s title Ngbendu Kuku wa Zabanga translated into something like “the all-powerful head rooster that goes from henhouse to henhouse conquering all the hens and leaving their fire quenched”!).
Mobutu too murdered and imprisoned opponents and critics the way Abacha did, but to a far lesser degree. Where he truly differed from Abacha was how cynically he enfeebled his country. Afraid that the country might unite against his corrupt rule, Mobutu didn’t build roads, or any other infrastructure that would unite the vast country that is larger than western Europe. In addition, he kept the people poor.
Mobutu was a shrewd political operator; otherwise he wouldn’t have survived as long as he did. When the rebellion against him broke out in 1996 in eastern DRC, and Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, all joined in varying degrees to help the rebels oust him, it would have been hard for Mobutu to survive.
However, he might have negotiated a power-sharing deal that was on offer at one point, or held out longer, thus forcing the rebels and their backers to sue for peace. He didn’t, mostly because he was being ravaged by that disease that terrifies us all men – prostate cancer.
In the end, it was his and his regime’s weaknesses, as much as prostate cancer that led to Mobutu’s fall. It was the first time anyone would have anything good to say about prostate cancer, and also the first case where the disease showed any revolutionary potential. In the surreal world that is DRC, because Mobutu’s wealth was much talked about, the Congolese at that time nicknamed money “maProstate”.
Disease, and the clock, again intervened to save a long-suffering country in 2005 when another abominable dictator, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had ruled Togo since 1967 (he was the longest serving African leader then) died reportedly of heart attack. A sickness achieved what many brave Togo patriots had failed to do for over three decades – and many were killed and imprisoned for their efforts.
Greed and arrogance were also to come to the service of two tormented nations. At the start of last year, the remarkable “Arab Spring” swept Tunisia’s Zine Ben Ali (he’d been in power since 1987) and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak (in power since 1981) out of power. If the two men had not been so power-hungry and presided over greedy and predatory families, they might have left power much earlier and done more to democratise their countries. They overstayed their welcome.
Today, there is disillusionment among the revolutionaries in Tunisia, and especially Egypt, where it sometimes seems the country is worse off than under Mubarak. These conditions are very ripe for a counter-revolution by the old regime. However, again, disease has plotted to ensure that Ben Ali and Mubarak will not cause trouble. Both became bedridden by various illness after they lost power, and are unable to summon the energy or mind to for a comeback.
Even much earlier, in 1994 in Malawi, we saw the same forces at work. The vicious ridiculously Anglophile Kamuzu Banda had ruled the country for 31 years. The elections were coming. At that point, he was anything between 90 and 94 years old – although anyone suspected to be even thinking about his age would be jailed. At that age, the body is extremely vulnerable.
There was an election coming up, and Banda was on the ticket as the ruling Malawi Congress Party’s (MCP) president. Banda instilled incredible fear (SEE ARTICLE ON THANDINKA MKANDAWIRE). A story I never tire of telling is the one of the foreign journalist who got a rare break to interview Banda. He was led into Banda’s office by the minister of Information. From the door to Banda’s desk was nearly 50 minutes. As the journalist approached, he noticed that the minister was no longer with him. He noticed some movement on the floor, and when he looked he was horrified that the minister was approaching Banda crawling on the carpet on all-fours like a baby baboon!
I was in Malawi to cover the election, but I could not go in as a journalist (independent journalists were eaten for breakfast then). I went in as a guest of a Catholic mission in Lilongwe—and actually stayed in their guest house.
The country came to a standstill on the day Banda (the Ngwanzi or the Mighty Lion) returned from treatment in the UK where he had been for months. He was helped off the plane, wobbled briefly, and had to take a wheelchair. That sight of a mortal Ngwanzi shocked Malawians, but at the same time many realised that the clock was ticking, and that he could not harm them anymore. Kamuzu and the MCP lost the election. Three years later, he died of respiratory failure. Malawi was saved by the clock.
Then, as the old saying goes, “those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad”. There is perhaps no better example than Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. In power since 1969, by last year when the rebellion broke out against his rule, a wise man or woman would have said; “42 are years enough, let me give it up or negotiate with the rebels”.
Even when NATO entered with its mighty airpower against him, Gaddafi continued to rant like a mad man, threatening to slaughter his opponents and send them to hell. He unleashed warship, tanks, and fighter aircrafts against street demonstrators. He railed against his foes, calling them “dogs” and “rats”.
As he lost city after city, he upped his crazy antics, and forced angry Libyans into rebel ranks. He only made a last minute desperate attempt to flee when his hometown of Sitre was besieged and rebels were crawling all over, and NATO planes hovering in the skies. He was captured hiding in a trench, and as someone put it, “slaughtered like a dog”. The gods first made Gaddafi mad.
Because history, the “gods”, greed, vanity, and stupidity, and of course the heroism of many brave Africans have played and continue to play a complex combined role in shaping the destiny of the continent, no ruler has the power to stop change. By the same token, though, no one can be sure how it will all end. Most times though, it opened new possibilities.
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