“Power resides only where men believe it resides”: The evolution of political power in Africa

Political power is an interesting phenomenon, the comprehension of which by competing agents in a society determines how it is used or misused; the consequences of which are felt by every individual in that society. African societies are on a journey, an evolution in the understanding of the role of the individual that holds power and the role of those that it is subjected to. Two responses (from those that hold power) have emerged in reaction to this evolution. There are some that have embraced this change and have managed this change in a framework that is transforming societies into free and democratic ones, the realization of these ideals differing from State to State in accordance to history and culture. Nations such as Ghana, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa are good examples of this evolution. There are others such as Kenya where it has looked like steps have been taken forward and then some backwards, however one may argue that this is the nature of societal evolution, and that the bigger picture shows a positive change, even in dissent and consequently – violence.

There are others that are responding by an attempt to subjugate this African evolution. The recently forcefully ousted Hosni Mubarak, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Muammar Gaddafi and Blaise Compaoré are examples on the African continent of individuals that have held power during this evolution and failed to embrace and manage this change. As I see it, proper management of this political evolution that is taking place in Africa, requires political elites to realize and accept a number of realities:

1. One cannot hold onto power for protracted periods of time. It is no longer acceptable to the African people. Continuity in a Pan-Africanist struggle against colonialism and imperialism was the justification given for 20, 30, 40 year presidential terms. That threat is no longer looming and its remnants can be fought against by empowering the individual and building strong institutions.

2. Coercion can no longer guarantee adherence to authoritarian rule. This approach characterized much of European colonial rule and carried through in much of the post-colonial governance. The majority of Africans today did not live under this system and cannot indefinitely adhere to a post-colonial form of it.

3. Past and continued support from foreign patrons does not guarantee their devotion to your regime, when your domestic situation changes. Mubarak for many years enjoyed support from the US and Britain, seen as a pacifying influence and practical mediator in the Israeli-Arab conflict. When his domestic revolt began, despite initial unenthusiastic support from Washington, he was abandoned and then vilified by the West who adopted support for a popular uprising.

4. Communication technologies and twenty-four hour news cycles means that knowledge of repression and use of force can no longer be confined within borders. Where as armies and militias has been used to terrorize parts of populations and thereafter the tale is spun to tell a revised history, the nature of news media today has meant that events are broadcast far and wide and elements of truth manage to escape editorial lines and media biases. Furthermore, the emergence of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, has to a large extent meant that editorial controls and corporate media biases no longer dictate ‘what truth’ is told to the world.

5. African people, through information technology, have become more aware of power balances in other societies, where power-holders are servants of, and accountable to, their people.  Similar to point 4, the reverse is happening. Information is now to a greater extent reaching African people without regimes having the chance to sensor it. Unlike more powerful States such as China where it has been reported that information is successfully censored, African States do not have the capacity or resources to carry out these censorship to the same degree. This has meant that African people have become aware of events in the Arab spring, the ousting of the Burkina president at the attempt of a constitutional change, and many other revolutionary incidents.

In his book ‘A clash of kings, G.R.R.Martin writes: “Power resides only where men believe it resides.  No more no less. A shadow on the wall, yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man cast a very large shadow.” The shadow casts by African dictators as they endeavor to project their power is dwindling. In the Great Lakes region of African there is an authoritarian regime in Kigali that for more that 20 years has banked upon the size of its shadow, and that of the dictator Paul Kagame. As a result of not realizing the 5 points I have outlined, the Rwandan regime is now finding itself in a situation where they have to worker harder than ever to convince the Rwandan people, the people of the region, and the international community as a whole that indeed the shadow they cast is very large. This however is increasingly failing to be convincing as a number of examples have recently shown:

  • The attempt to intimidate the BBC, an internationally respected media organization, has failed. The Kigali regime, perhaps not realizing that the British government does not control the BBC, tried to put pressure on the UK government for the BBC to be ‘dealt with’ after it broadcast a documentary that deeply angered and perhaps exposed the Kigali regime’s hand in the dark history of Rwanda. The British Ambassador to Rwanda made it clear to the Rwandan government that this is not possible. Meanwhile, the BBC continues unscathed.
  • The purchase of TL-50 Air Defence Missiles is meant to send a message to SADC in response to Tanzania and South Africa’s thwarting of the Rwandan Army commandos (M23) in Eastern Congo. It is usual practise in international relations that arms escalation by a neighbouring State triggers public condemnation or an arms race. No country has reacted to these purchases, which maybe interpreted as – they do not care and are not threatened.
  • What most believe to be the murder of thousands of Rwandans by recent prisons burning to the ground and tortured bodies of Rwandan men being found in Lake Rweru is meant to send a warning message to dissenting voices in Rwanda and abroad. Other assassinations and disappearances are designed to do the same. However, opposition voices are increasing and gaining momentum and platforms for expression.

Like the image above powerfully shows, power is an abstract notion. It is only real if people believe that it exists. It is like a shadow, it can be minimizes or enlarged depending on where one stands. It does not always reflect the reality. It depends on adherence, and like Mubarak, Compaoré, Gaddafi and Ben Ali found out, when adherence to the idea of their power vanishes, so does the effect that it has the potential to have. African leaders must take note and realize that they can no longer use power to oppress African people, but should aim to use political office and the power it supposes to advance the wellbeing of African people, otherwise, their fait will not be far from what recent history has shown.

Peter Mutabaruka

By Peter Mutabaruka