By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong The Afro News International
The February 18 overthrow of Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja, 71, reveals whether African leaders think deeply about their societies, especially if their thinking is solidly informed by their histories and the values that wheel them. You don’t need to be a guru or part of the breathless African commentary talks to observe that Tandja was heading Niger towards self-destruction.
Stop me if you’ve heard this in the last couple of days: Tandja held a referendum to abolish limits on presidential terms of office, disregarded the Supreme Court’s decision against extension of the two term presidential limits, abolished parliament, and concentrated immense powers on himself, in a near-totalitarian streak.
In all the rush to install himself as the monarch of all that survey, Tandja cleverly used Niger’s democratic tenets, as Kwame Nkrumah, Samuel Doe, among others, had done, putting Niger on perpetual edge. That Tandja has been suffering from the much dreaded African Big Man syndrome that made him blinded from the Nigerien and African reality is incontestable. What is instructive is that in Tandja, despite his advanced age, African leaders have not learned from their histories and cultures, and the emerging democratic order that pins progress on democracy, freedoms, human rights and the rule of law.
No doubt, while Africans, who have suffered under totalitarian rulers of the likes of Idi Amin and Jean-Bedel Bokassa, abhor military and one-party regimes, the new Niger military junta’s name of Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy and their initial promise to turn Niger into an example of “democracy and good governance” and save its people from “poverty, deception and corruption,” reveals how democracy as solution to Africa’s development challenges is gradually sinking in as a progress vehicle, thus making the Indian welfare economist Amartya Kumar Sen’s “development in freedom” an African mantra.
Against this background, Tandja’s muddled thinking reveals that contemporary African progress challenges isn’t one of the ills of the often beat-up European colonialism but African elites’ lack of comprehension of themselves and Africa’s progress challenges.
By nature prone to autocracy, Tandja couldn’t coherently evaluate Niger’s history as yardstick to enrich Niger’s progress informed by the growing African democracy and freedoms trends. Tandja was mired in the African traditional superstitious belief that he is the only one chosen by God to rule Niger in a country of immense poverty where 61 percent live on less than US$1 a day and stuck in disturbing record of coups, assassinations and on-and-off rebellion by its nomadic Tuareg group.
How does Africans fathom the fact that Tandja believes that he is the only one, out of the 14 million Nigeriens, that can “complete major investment projects” in Niger? His silly believes, floated by juju-marabout spiritual mediums who buzz around him, come from the African traditional superstitious belief that he is God sent. It is such ridiculous believes that make the African Big Man looks down on their citizenry no matter their material concerns that saw the likes of dictatorial Idi Amin blow their countries into pieces.
Prof. A.K.P. Kludze, former Justice of Ghana’s Supreme Court, talks of how though President Kwame Nkrumah was a freedom fighter and a committed Pan-Africanist, he later allowed the unrestrained Big Man syndrome to turn Ghana into a one-party state at his time, becoming the live chairman of his ruling Conventions People’s Party and the general secretary of the party’s Central Committee. “Nobody dared challenge him because it was considered treasonous to challenge him. He made a law that said that nobody could stand as a candidate unless his candidature was approved by the General Secretary of the party, that is he himself.”
Tandja was an example of Big Man syndrome, scheming to rule for life against the multi-ethnic make-up of Niger that will be enriched better with healthy democracy and freedoms. But Tandja can’t let go the Big Man syndrome. Tandja believes he is the only man destined by God to rule Niger. Tandja is a throwback to Africa’s period of paranoid one-party systems and military juntas that darkened most part of post-independent Africa.
Tandja had his first taste of power after a 1974 coup. As a symptom of the Big Man syndrome, Tandja’s geocentricisms became oblivious to criticism from Africa and the international community. Tandja overturned the country’s infant democracy (since 1999) by cleverly appropriating its democratic tenets to create a domineering President-for-Life system a la Kwame Nkrumah. The psychology informing Tandja’s thinking is a page from the unelected Jerry Rawlings telling Ghanaians “To whom,” when asked to hand over power in the 1980s and give way to democracy.
In Sierra Leone, President Siaka Stevens told Sierra Leoneans, “Pass I die” (Till I die I remain President no matter what) when asked to democratize against the realities on the ground. Stevens prepared the grounds for Sierra Leone’s eventual explosion. In Liberia, as Samuel Doe messed-up the democratic system in an atmosphere of extreme autocracy, he and his cronies shouted, “No Doe, No Liberia.” Doe ended up blowing Liberia into pieces. Generally, Africa’s long gone “President-for-Life” culture reveals that the Big Man looks down on the citizenry, believing they are God chosen against the democratic and development aspirations of the masses, damning the consequences.
But Tandja wasn’t positively tapping into current African development thinking. “No Tandja, No Niger,” Tandja indirectly tells Nigeriens and Africans. What is the antidote to Niger’s development challenges, the Big Man syndrome and in dealing with the likes of Tandja? Not military coups but education, the rule of law, human rights, freedoms, democracy and “teachable moments” of African current events. And what lawyers call an admission against interest: the best way to understand Niger is to get to the bottom of its painful events and that’s to start reading its history.