A photo of a long-serving African president once appeared in the papers showing the big man touring a hospital. Sprawled on the floor of an overcrowded ward were desperate female cancer patients looking up to the big man who looked unperturbed while addressing them. On a continent where mere cartoons of a big man may put a newspaper in trouble, it was strange that the media handlers of the president did not find fault with distributing this picture which attracted comments to the effect that he had failed to provide healthcare - the cost of maintaining his large convoy alone could buy beds and provide more hospital space. Or that the corruption prevailing in his government was the cause of the women’s plight.
In Africa, cases of insensitivity by leaders are very common. At a time when teachers are striking for better pay, a president may donate money to a school in a foreign land and instead send the riot police to disperse the teachers in his own country. Why most African leaders are so detached from the people they lead is a matter we often ascribe to ‘dictatorship’ and other demeaning terms and satisfy ourselves with that.
But the problem is much deeper than that. If we looked at the psychological side of our leaders, we would get to understand them better and may be know how to approach them. Psychologists tell us of the importance of the earlier years of ones upbringing to the formation of character and attitudes that will last a life time. If one studies the history and background of most of the people who have led African nations right from independence, you will appreciate this point. From Mobutu, Mugabe, and Moi to Gaddafi, it is not by accident that they grew up to become dictators who ruled for so long and lorded it over their charges.
Most of our leaders either grew up as prisoners, refugees in camps, on the run in despicable war situations of fear, anxiety and great need as unfortunate orphans under the care of relatives, step-children in cruel crowded environments or as poor kids who were at the mercy of philanthropists. The lack of parental love, attention and guidance left many of what today are called strongmen with a void and a terrible weakness. They grew up with a feeling of insecurity and that they were never appreciated. Or that they were not good enough and no one seemed to notice their worth and that the world was wired against them. They had to fight for attention and viewed everything else in life as a ‘struggle’ - to be fought for.In their adulthood, most of the big men made a decision to prove themselves and show the world that they were worthier than what many perceived them to be. Thus was the beginning of their dictatorial tendencies. They had to capture power by force of arms or rig elections if need be because ‘people did not understand them well enough’ to vote for them yet they felt they were actually good.
They had to forcefully acquire wealth as an entitlement because they had made contributions to the nation which ‘as usual’, ungrateful people did not take note of. The ‘abnormal’ wealth was also to erase the memories of the plight of want that they suffered as children and fill the void of poverty forever. That is how most African leaders are associated with several huge houses and have acquired huge fleets of cars and large head of animals plus wives and concubines as ‘compensation’ for the days when these things were in short supply.
They killed, jailed or exiled competitors in order to gain more visibility and attention and made themselves more prominent by presiding over the collapse of institutions. They thus became the institutions that would provide for people who came crawling to them and left honouring and glorifying them, which nursed their egos. They found all these moments very pleasurable and fulfilling and thus the need for a third and fourth term that would lead to life presidency.
So, the next time you hear of the shenanigans and idiosyncrasies of an African strongman, just look into his past, you will witness for yourself an unbelievable horde of inadequacies. It is these shortfalls that their strong arm tactics try (in vain) to address.
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