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Mugabe And The Crisis of African Leadership
George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D.

Africa is a mess -- economically, politically and socially. To be sure, there have been signs of progress but they are excruciatingly slow. Despite Africa's vast natural resources, its people remain mired in the deadly grip of poverty, squalor, and destitution while buffeted by environmental degradation and brutal tyranny. Most Africans are worse off today than they were at independence in 1960s. African leaders have failed Africa. African politicians have failed. African intellectuals have failed Africa, too. The failure is monumental and the international community is fed up with incessant African begging.

Within a mere four decades after independence from colonial rule, Africa has been reduced to a broken, dysfunctional continent by wretched institutions and execrable leadership. Distinctions must always be made between leaders and the people, as well as modern and traditional leaders. The leadership has been the problem, not the people.

Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, for example, is a failure. To be sure, there is basic inequity in the distribution of land in Zimbabwe. Whites account for only about 1 percent of Zimbabwe's population of 12.5 million, yet 4,500 white farmers continue to own nearly a third of the country's most fertile farmland. Thus, inequitable distribution of land is a legitimate problem in Zimbabwe. But, after 27 years in office, he has failed to solve the problem. Worse, the method by which he tried to resolve the land issue – violent seizures of white commercial farmland – has been economically disastrous when there are better ways of resolving the problem. Among them are:

1. Buyer willing, seller willing – the original proposal.
2. Convert the white commercial farmlands into 20, 30-year leases, place the rent in a “Black Development Fund” to use in developing the black areas,
3. Place a perpetual “ownership tax” on white commercial farmers with tax proceeds put in a “Black Development Fund” to use in developing the black areas.

Any one of these will achieve the same goal: change of ownership and benefits of ownership accruing to blacks without all the economic disruption. In its 27 years of existence, Zimbabwe has had only one president, Robert Mugabe and the land issue has become a political tool, ruthlessly exploited by Mugabe at election time to fan racial hatred, solidify his vote among landless rural voters, to maintain his grip on power and to divert attention from his disastrous Marxist-Leninist policies and ill-fated misadventures in the Congo.

As part of the deal negotiated at Lancaster House in London in 1979, a land-reform program was established, under which land was to be purchased from white farmers for redistribution to landless peasants on a "buyer-willing, selling-willing" basis. Australia, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the U.S. and the World Bank signed on to provide funds for this program, as well as funds for development. Total funds pledged for both amounted to $1.9 billion. But the land redistribution program was so grotesquely mismanaged that Britain decided to withdrew financial support in 1992, after contributing more than $64 million. The current crisis has prompted the donors to suspend about $10 million in land reform aid.

In March 28, 2000, Mugabe’s own parliament, in a written answer on the land issue to Margaret Dondo, leader of the opposition Zimbabwe Union of Democrats, acknowledged that the government has distributed more than 1 million acres bought from white farmers under legal compulsion to 400 wealthy Zimbabweans, most of whom were Mugabe cronies. In fact, back in 1994, 20 such farms seized from white farmers were immediately grabbed by high-ranking government officials. According to New African (Sept 1994), "The local press revealed that the Secretary to the President and Cabinet, Dr. Charles Utete, the Deputy Secretary for Commerce and Industry, James Chininga and Harare's first black mayor, Dr. Tizirai Gwata, are among those involved” (p.32).


Again in 1998, additional 24 farms of the Marula Estate in Matabeleland were acquired, ostensibly for resettlement. But the land, totaling 300 square miles, was divided among 47 government officials while 40,000 impoverished Zimbabweans remained crammed in the neighboring Semukwe Communal Area. Army chief, General Solomon Majuru, is now known as the country’s largest landholder.

Like other African leaders, Robert Mugabe never took responsibility for the mismanagement of the economy and the land redistribution problem. Instead, he preferred blaming the British colonialists. Fed up with his rhetoric, over 4 million Zimbabweans voted with their feet to leave their country. It is the height of supreme arrogance for anyone, who has never stepped foot in Zimbabwe, to pretend that he or she knows better than over 4 million Zimbabwean refugees. Their action is a centuries-old African response to tyranny, government failure, and misrule. Desertion was the African peasant's final weapon against autocracy.

Africa's traditional rulers were well aware that if they ruled cruelly, their people would rebel against them or desert them. Aggrieved or oppressed subjects could always "vote with their feet," as there was no shortage of land in Africa's wide frontiers. According to Amoah (1988):

“If a ruler was tyrannical his people might want to go away and settle somewhere else or put themselves under the protection of another ruler. That was not difficult in the pre-colonial days when there was plenty of land. In 1827, and again in 1875, the people of Juaben (in Ashanti,
Ghana) for example, rebelled against the king of Ashanti, fought him and a large number of them moved into the sphere of influence of another paramount ruler, where they later founded a new independent chiefdom of New Juaben with its capital at Koforidua in the Eastern Region. In those days when chiefship was of people and not of land, rulers tried to have populous chiefdoms. Movement of people away from the chiefdom – or threats of it -- was, therefore, a strong sanction against misrule (p.178). [Amoah, G.Y. (1988). Groundwork of Government For West Africa. Illorin (Nigeria): Gbenle Press, Ltd.]

Among the Sukuma of Tanzania, "control of the abuse of power by a chief existed through the practice of emigration to another chiefdom, together with the respect for tradition imposed upon him by his elders" (Carlston, 1968: 438). [Carlston, Kenneth S. (1968). Social Theory and African Tribal Organization. Urbana: University of Chicago Press.]

In southern Africa, there were many migrations of communities to escape Zulu subjugation or "puppet" Zulu chiefdoms. Thus Mzilikazi, from 1821 to 1823, created an empire in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), making an entirely new nation around his capital, Bulawayo, out of people of very varied ethnic origins. These were the Ndebele (or Matabele), who first fought the Shona and then, at the end of the century, fiercely opposed European intrusion. Another example was Shoshangane, who, before crossing the Zambezi in 1835 to found the Ngoni kingdom on the western bank of Lake Malawi, created the kingdom of Gaza in southern Mozambique, which was destroyed only at the very end of the century, by the Portuguese. Finally, Zwangendaba -- who in 1821 to 1825 took flight in the direction of Lake Victoria -- completed the destruction of the old Shona civilization of Monomotapa (Zimbabwe) and, continuing as far as Nyasaland, Zulufied Burundi and Rwanda. Migrant groups in turn left these Zulufied kingdoms, spreading out, in a single generation, over more than 3,000 kilometers and effecting profound internal changes (Coquery-Vidrovitch, 1988; p.74). [Coquery Vidrovitch, C. (1988). Africa: Endurance and Change South of the Sahara. Berkeley: University of California Press.]

The oppressive African chief soon found himself abandoned by his people. This tactic is still very much evident in modern Africa:

1. Over 1 million Ghanaians voted with their feet to Nigeria to flee the tyrannical regime of Jerry Rawlings in 1982-1983.
2. Over 3 million Sudanese have left their country to settle in Chad and neighboring countries.

Africa is crawling with refugees. Mass migrations of Africans mean one thing: Government failure. People can praise Mugabe all they want but 4 million Zimbabweans have spoken. They voted with their feet out of the country. The Western media or imperialists did not ask them to leave. But Mugabe is no different from Africa’s post colonial leadership.

It is true African nationalist leaders waged an arduous liberation struggle against the colonialists to win independence for their respective peoples. The annals of postcolonial Africa is full of their sacrifices and gallantry. Historical accounts include such indefatigable efforts of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Dr Apollo Milton Obote of Uganda, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Samora Machel of Mozambique, to name a few. These leaders were purpose-driven individuals, selfless in their determination to liberate their people and improve their lot. Upon the attainment of independence, they were hailed as heroes. In the beginning, they all meant well for their people but good intentions were not enough. Lacking experience in government, these leaders were bound to make mistakes. Indeed, they did — aplenty. But they never learned from them or put in place mechanisms to correct them. The vast majority set the wrong priorities for their countries and took the wrong approach to their countries' development. And when problems emerged, they performed the wrong diagnosis and sought wrong solutions from the wrong places. Simple and honest errors that were initially made were compounded by stubborn refusal to admit mistakes. As heroes and semi-gods, they were infallible. They continued to bask in the glory of the liberation era and lost touch with their people. As Kenyan columnist Henry Ochieng, pointed out:

“After the attainment of independence, many of these "heroes" grew into quarrelsome old men. They could not understand why their rabble-rousing speeches no longer elicited the same awe, or never had the selfsame electrifying effect on the masses. They also refused to understand why the people could not identify with their desire to die in power (and many actually did realize that desire). They were caught in a time warp. Most of these old politicians failed to move with the people. The people, after independence quickly wanted to get to the next stage from liberation that the independence struggle was all about, while the leaders continued to bask in the euphoria of kicking out the colonial master. For them, it was a continuous party that could only end with their death. So, when talk of popular revolt against them begun to waft through the air, their only response was to become repressive - hoping they could suppress the clamor for change. They failed”. (The Monitor [Kampala], Jan 22, 2003; p.4).

In an unusual editorial, The Independent newspaper in Ghana wrote: "Africa today is politically independent and can be said to have come of age but apart from Thabo Mbeki and Yoweri Museveni, we are sorry to openly admit that most of our leaders have nothing to offer except to be effective managers for the IMF and serve as footnotes to neocolonialism. Most of the leaders in Africa are power-loving politicians, who in or out of uniform, represent no good for the welfare of our people. These are harsh words to use for men and women who may mean well but lack the necessary vision and direction to uplift the status of their people (The Independent, Ghana, July 20, 2000; p.2).

Humanitarian crises were brewing in the Congo, Sudan, and southern Africa. In Sudan, Arab militiamen called janjaweed, backed by an Arab government were exterminating people with black skin, creating a massive humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region. The militias’ systematic destruction of wells, agriculture, and villages had left more than 2 million people in need of food aid. When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called upon the Sudanese government to stop the genocide, Sudan’s foreign minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail accused the U.S. of “meddling in Sudanese affairs” (The New York Times, July 23, 2004; p.A3). The AU delegates, partying at Addis Ababa in late June, decided to send monitors to Sudan, and, then later, troops to protect the monitors, not the people being slaughtered.

Southern Africa faces what U.N. Special envoy James T. Morris described as “the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world today" (The Washington Post, June 23, 2004; p.A17). Nearly five million Zimbabweans were starving but President Mugabe told Britain's Sky News that the nation no longer needed food aid. "We are not hungry. It should go to hungrier people, hungrier countries than ourselves”, he said. "Why foist this food upon us? We don't want to be choked. We have enough" (The Washington Post, June 23, 2004; p.A17).

Charles Taylor, for six years the warlord president of Liberia, stole nearly $100 million of his country's wealth, leaving it the poorest nation on earth, according to a close review of government records, an investigation by United Nations experts and interviews with senior Liberian officials (The New York Times, Sept 18, 2003; p.A3). Taylor stole government money to buy houses, cars and sexual partners, senior members of his government said.

These leaders never care about their people. They starve them, butcher them, loot their wealth, and destroy their countries. These leaders have become a big embarrassment to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, himself an African. He ripped into them at the Organization of African Unity Summit in Lome, Togo, in July 2000. According to Ghana’s state-owned newspaper, The Daily Graphic (July 12, 2000),

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told African leaders that they are to blame for most of the continent's problems. Mr. Annan said Africans were suffering because the leaders are not doing enough to invest in policies that promote development and preserve peace. He told the OAU Summit that Africa was the only region where the number of conflicts was increasing and pointed out that 33 of the world's 48 least developed countries were African.

Mr. Annan said African leaders bear much of the responsibility for the deterioration of the continent's security and the withdrawal of foreign aid. "This is not something others have done to us. It is something we have done to ourselves. If Africa is being bypassed, it is because not enough of us are investing in policies, which would promote development and preserve peace. We have mismanaged our affairs for decades and we are suffering the accumulated effects. (p.5)

There was a reason why Kofi Annan lashed out at African leaders. During a brief stop-over in Accra after the Summit, he disclosed in a Joy FM radio station interview that "Africa is the region giving him the biggest headache as the U. N. Security Council spends 60 to 70 percent its time on Africa. He admitted sadly that the conflicts on the continent embarrass and pain him as an African" (The Guide, July 18-24, 2000; p.8). The U.N boss said that as an African Secretary General, he gets a lot of support from the region. However, the conflicts in the region impede the full development of the continent. “When you mention Africa today to investors outside, they think of a continent in crisis, and no one wants to invest in a bad neighborhood” he noted (The Guide, July 18-24, 2000; p.8). Earlier in the year at a press conference in London in April, 2000, Kofi Annan, “lambasted African leaders who he says have subverted democracy and lined their pockets with public funds, although he stopped short of naming names” (The African-American Observer, April 25 – May 1, 2000; p.10).

The leadership in Africa is a despicable disgrace to black people. I won’t back down from these “harsh words” because I am angry -– very angry — and I am not alone in feeling this way. Truth be told. Said Nigerian student Akira Suni, "Almost without exception, they (African leaders) are a big disgrace to humankind. Apart from indulging in their usual foolish rhetoric, what have they done to satisfy even the most basic needs of our people" (BBC News Talking Point, April 16, 2001, Said Guinea's opposition leader Mamadou Ba of his country's head of state General Lansana Conte rather laconically: "He wouldn't hurt a fly, but he has nothing upstairs" (The News & Observer, 4 January 1998, 18A).

Few of the modern African leaders took responsibility for the mess the plunged Africa. They blamed everybody else except themselves.





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