By Baba Galleh Jallow
It is a tragic irony of African history that governments fail to develop their countries simply because they fail to develop their most abundant and most precious resources – their people. Following independence, most African governments physically stifled the development potentials of their countries by failing or refusing to appreciate what was obvious to enlightened minds – that the people must always come first. In order to achieve their personal ambitions, be these relevant to the nation or not, African leaders quickly transformed themselves into all-powerful rulers. They demanded perhaps not total personal obeisance so much as total obeisance to what for them was an image of their greatness, their metaphorical relevance to the national project, and their prestige on the global scene or specific parts of it. Some claimed non-alignment even while knowing that to be a chimera in the context of global politics, especially in the context of global cold war politics after independence. In all cases, they acted like all-powerful infallible rulers, not as sincere servant leaders of their people.
Some of these leaders-turned-rulers were erudite ideologues; some were distinguished medical doctors and men of letters. Yet, almost without exception, they did nothing to change the colonial character of the local state or the social culture of colonial subjecthood. Rather than encourage the flowering of the national mind, the growth of an independent mentality and the installment of human dignity as an inviolable cultural treasure, African leaders succumbed and continue to succumb to an inexplicable taste for power. Some clung on to power in the name of some vaguely defined and often illusory ideal; others clung on for fear of what might be unearthed after they leave office. And some clung on for all of the above, in addition to lucrative enticements from abroad to keep enemy ideologies out and pursue the ideological interests of foreign countries and not their own countries. Today, certain African rulers parrot the political lyrics of oriental absolutism under the cloak of self-righteous and parochial pseudo-religious humanism. Others ceaselessly utter confused noises about non-existent neo-colonial intrigues and conspiracies merely for their oppressive justificatory potentials.
In either case, the people’s intellectual energies are stifled, worse than they were under colonial rule. One notices a diminishing pattern of Africa’s brilliant human resources in the decades following independence. Under colonial rule, nationalist leaders of all ideological persuasions could criticize and challenge the government; newspapers could loudly protest and condemn the policies of the colonial state. Those so inclined could freely form and register political parties for the express purpose of opposing the colonial state. The colonial state did not want to lose power and did not want to be opposed. But it allowed itself to kneel before the power of public opinion and grant independence. Of course, there were external extenuating circumstances, such as for instance America’s insistence on decolonization after World War Two. What is clear today is that the level of political tolerance in colonial Africa was much higher than the level of political tolerance in some independent African countries. The dreams of independence could never be realized because the African people have no time to dream. Hyper-colonial obeisance to the State is loudly insisted upon and those who dare to suggest any possible alternatives to State opinion are neutralized, one way or the other. For some of these voices of reason, exile becomes their theater of physical existence, though their spirit never leaves home. Others continue to have their say anyway, regardless of what anyone under God does. These people are never out to destroy their country as alleged by oppressive African governments. In fact, they are entirely motivated by a passionate love of country; a love so strong they could never quit the search for political beauty for their country, regardless of potential personal dangers to themselves.
That the voice of the people is the voice of God is a popular mantra in the mouths of many African leaders. Sadly, it is often just that – a popular mantra that makes it much easier to justify anything and everything you do or want to do. In colonial Africa, it was the mantra the imperial state had to listen to, in spite of itself. In post-colonial Africa, it is the mantra the independent state uses to justify its brutal oppression of critical public opinion. The independent African state fails to realize that unlike the colonial state, it is not there to rule the people but to effectively empower the people so the people can rule themselves. The African state fails to realize that the idea of building up Africa from above and as an entity separate from its builders was among the major defining protestations of imperialism, until at least, the onset of so-called developmental colonialism after 1945. Under pressure to leave Africa, European imperial powers like Britain set in motion processes designed to turn their colonies into self-governing entities. African nationalist agitation flourished in the late forties and fifties and independence bequeathed to Africa a rich crop of intellectual giants, highly motivated and nationalistic professionals, and a vibrant population ready to rise up to the challenges of independent nation-hood.
Sadly, the governments and leaders that took over from the colonial state literally laid to waste this rich indigenous intellectual potential waiting to be put to good use. Newspapers, politicians and scholars who dared to suggest that there might have been an error on a government policy or action were systematically and deliberately silenced. The political divide that characterized the colonial body politic is physically reproduced as the state now insists upon identifying, naming, shaming, and silencing political critics and opponents. Society is divided into friends of the state and enemies of the state. It did not matter whether the opinions and ideas of these brilliant minds were essential to the very survival of the nation-state. What mattered was that they were not in line with what the government, read the leader, is saying or doing at the material time. The ideas of brilliant men like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o landed him in prison and eventually exile. In Ghana, an erudite sage in the person of Dr. J. B. Danquah was allowed to languish in jail and die of heart failure under preventive detention, despite repeated personal pleas to be released on the grounds that he was being unjustly held, but also on medical, humanitarian, even religious grounds. In Guinea, Diallo Telli was imprisoned and deliberately starved to death under Sekou Toure’s “Black Diet” treatment. In Gambia, Baboucarr Gaye’s Citizen FM was silenced and confiscated because he translated the local newspapers for the national edification of the non-English reading Gambian people; and they loved it! Deyda Hydara was gunned down for advising caution in the conduct of human affairs. His voice never rose beyond a calm and emphatic iteration that it is in the supreme interest of all human beings – especially those in power – to always act justly. Much more than the colonial state, independent African governments fear the power (which is to say the nourishing beauty) of ideas and suppress their countries’ intellectual resources in the name of ever failing “development plans” and fantastic vision end the hungers.
It is no wonder that in many African countries, vision years quietly pass while the vision still hangs on the wall. The good thing is that it is never mentioned in public again as if it never existed at all. Not to worry, there is always room on the wall for more vision abundant foods. The hungry people are asked to just be loyal; the government is coming to solve all their problems if they are seen to be loyal. They must not be impatient and must not worry too much about the hunger. The government has just issued vision end the hunger and the government will make sure that they do not remain hungry beyond vision year. Vision year comes and goes, and the people are still asked to be loyal and not to worry; there are still more visions on the way. And as for that well-fed one-percent who wants to destroy the country, they will be shown that the voice of the people is the voice of God.
A study of African governments is a study in mind-boggling political circuses that often make absolutely no sense, not even to the actors themselves, not to say their circus animals – the unquestioningly loyal crowds. In these circuses, the leader is the most powerful, in some cases the only really powerful actor. A colossal giant and whip master of the political sort, he looms large over everybody else, deadly whip in hand, smashing down anyone miles around who dares to get out of step with established state practice, even if such practice is destroying the country. The giant circus master cracks his whip left, right and center, anyhow he wishes, striking down anyone who pricks his fancy, regardless of their location within the ring or whether they are in fact the prop holders of the circus tent. Even the audience is not spared frequent lashes for its natural attention to what is going on.
It is high time, to parody Dr. J. B. Danquah, that African governments submit to the selectively unpleasant reality that development is about people, not things. Development as people is unpleasant only to a state more concerned with its personal interests, than with the wider historical and cultural interests of the people. Yes, the voice of the people is the Voice of God. But what use is the voice of the people if it is never heard or never listened to? What use loud and frequent references to the Voice of God when it is never heeded by the proclaimers themselves? Suffice it to say that all Power belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds.