Former Zairean President Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga once told a Western journalist that they should never expect their kind of democracy to apply to Africa. In his words, ‘We are Bantu, we are not Europeans.’ Like his neighbour to the north, Jean-Bédel Bokassa who crowned himself emperor (ruler of kings), Mobutu was also emperor too. He never officially crowned himself, but was all that but in name.
To the East, the lovable Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere abolished chiefdoms altogether and banished his royal friend who won British support for Nyerere and helped bring fellow chiefs into TANU party. In Zambia, Dr Kenneth Kaunda was quick to emasculate the 1964 Barotseland Agreement within 4 years of independence. Granted he maintained chiefdoms as they were before independence but, the Presidency took pre-eminence. It is probable that KK would have gone the Nyerere way had he not had roots in the land of the Maravi.
Colonialism fractured the institutions of governance in Africa. We were loyal to royalty until the Colonisers came. We became subjects of other powers across the oceans. After independence, our ‘elected’ leaders were simply substituted into the royal rulers they replaced. It is now more than 50 years after independence and most Africans treat their Presidents as kings or chiefs. It is unheard of for people in older republics to prostrate themselves before an elected representative as we do in Africa.
Mobutu in Zaire did exactly what king Leopold had done. He acquired Zaire as his personal property and treated its central bank as his own private bank. Mobutu’s plunder of his country’s wealth was unprecedented. He got away with it for years because of his friendship with the United States and the CIA. The western media were culled into a paralysed silence.
In Zambia, Frederick Chiluba in his own small way, imitated his relative by using a State account to deposit his money, money which was also dubiously acquired. When insulted by citizens, Chiluba replied, ‘A king doesn’t insult his subjects.’ With this, he put himself into the shoes of a king. This is where we are. We have not mastered the art of democracy. We are Bantu, as Mobutu said. We bow in servile fearfulness before the Excellency. To us Africans, he is the same as His Majesty. It is said that kings have a divine right to rule and so we have applied this to our elected representatives. It is not the ballot box that decides who rules, it is God. If there is rigging, we blasphemously attribute the result to God.
I have made generalisations here, but I will end with two examples that do not fit the mould- South Africa and Botswana. South Africa had a long transition from colonialism to majority rule. Can you imagine if we had a man as gigantic as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as our President. We would never have allowed him to step down after only one term. We would flay our backs and offer our skins for him to walk on where there is no tarmac. But, that did not happen in South Africa. Revered, yes he was, but they treated him as a mere man, and upon his insistence too, notwithstanding.
In Botswana, the first President abdicated the throne and refused to be king nor be treated as one. Sir Seretse Goitsebeng Maphiri Khama was just President and nothing more. In free and fair elections, he was re elected three times as he led his desert country to prosperity year on year. At one time, even feeding Zambia with beef! The onus to prevent CULT STATUS lies heavily on the man who is in charge. Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s tragedy by the same title says, ‘These couchings and these lowly courtesies might fire the blood of ordinary men and turn preordinance and first decree into the law of children.’ Indeed, ordinary men get excited by the flatteries and kneeling of people before them so that they abrogate the laws of democracy as a result. Let every man never forget that he is a mere mortal. The apostle Paul asks, ‘Who then is Paul… but a servant’ (1 Corinthians 3:5).