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09.08.2009 Feature Article

Tandja and the Big Man syndrome

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Syndrome has become a buzzword in Africa's emerging progress world. The most popular being the pull him/her down syndrome, where Africans destroy each other as they attempt to progress in the fashion of crabs pulling each other down as they attempt to get out of a trap. Pull him/her down syndrome is so cancerous that runs from the micro to the macro in Africa's development process. The term, as George Ayittey will tell you, has become a mantra for theorists of Africa's development as they attempt to diagnose Africa's developmental ills.

It isn't one of the ills of the often beat-up European colonialism. As “African solution for Africa's problems” gathers heat in post-Barack Obama Accra therapy, new generation of African development thinkers are analyzing Africa's advancement from within Africans' cultural values and institutions in relation to the global prosperity ideals. The term syndrome derived from Greek roots means “run together.” Medicine aside, syndrome is culture-bound where a set of symptoms have no evidence of an underlying biological cause, and which is only acknowledged as a “disease” in a particular culture, such as Africa's pull him/her down syndrome.

People in African development, businesses, mass media, academia, think tanks, centres of power, use syndrome as some sort of reality thresher – a way of comparing positive and negative aspects of the African culture as it becomes increasingly used in Africa's progress. Syndrome is an implement of sorting out African development history at a moment of changing African progress scene, of Barack Obama era, where Africans are told to incorporate their traditional values and institutions into their development process.

Pull him/her down syndrome may be more discussed in Africa's development universe today but as Africa's development gradually opens up into its emerging democratic practices, Big Man syndrome, a neo-traditional paternalistic autocratic practices where African elites, intellectuals, elders, rulers, wealthy folks and traditional kingpins, mired in high volume egocentricism and megalomania, believe they are the only ones destined to rule or have monopoly over ideas. Big Man syndrome is anti-democracy, anti-freedoms, anti-human rights and anti-the rule of law. Big Man syndrome obstructs the popular will of the masses and lord it over Africans, sometimes invoking outdated traditions and divinity. It is anti-progress and an obstacle to Africa's superior progress.

Mamadou Tandja, 71, President of Niger, is current example of Big Man syndrome. Tandja is scheming to extend his constitutionally mandated two-term into infinity. Under the existing Nigerien law, Tandja should step down in December, 2009 when his second presidential mandate comes to an end. But Tandja can't let go the Big Man syndrome. Tandja believes he is the only man who can rule Niger, as the juju-marabout spiritual mediums might have told him. 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 will is oblivious to criticism from the regional body ECOWAS, the African Union, politically born-again democratic African leaders, African democrats, opposition parties, religious organizations, trade unions and human rights activists as well as the international community. Tandja is hell bent ruling Niger for life by scrapping such constitutional presidential term limits and stifling democratic voices.

In Niger, Tandja is overturning the country's infant democracy (since 1999) by appropriating its democratic tenets to create a domineering President-for-Life system a la Sekou Toure's Guinea. The psychology informing Tandja's thinking is no more than 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) when asked to democratize. Stevens prepared the grounds for Sierra Leone's eventual detonation. 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 up Liberia into pieces. Generally, Africa's long gone “President-for-Life” culture reveals that the Big Man rules forever against the democratic and development aspirations of the masses.

Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe today demonstrates that in the long run such thinking makes the citizens living corpses. But Tandja isn't positively tapping into African history, culture, wisdom, and current African development trends. “No Tandja, No Niger … Pass I die … To whom,” Tandja indirectly tells Nigeriens and Africans. Since independence from France rule in August 3, 1960, the 13 million poor Nigeriens have lived under five constitutions and three periods of military juntas against the backdrop of assassinations and Tuareg insurgency.

Africa's Big Man syndrome emanates from certain inhibiting parts of the African culture where juju-marabout medium, spiritualists and witch-doctors give stimulation to the Big Men in the form of high level traditional spiritual rituals (including human sacrifices) that can come in renditions such as God has destined the Big Man to rule for life against the realities on the ground. The superstitious Sierra Leonean will say “Na God make am.” As an irrational activity, most times it results in disaster – look at Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau.

The Central African Republic's Jean-Bedel Bokassa's famous juju cannibalism rituals and its eventual near-collapse of CAR is one. And so were Nigeria's Gen. Sani Abacha engaging in wide-ranging juju-marabout-driven practices in attempts to transform himself into civilian president. Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko reveals Africa's Big Man syndrome leaving in its wake extremely damaged country and the state becomes a cadaver of itself. The Big Man syndrome is incompatible with democracy and progress.

What is the antidote to the Big Man syndrome and in dealing with the likes of Tandja? Education. The rule of law. Human rights. Freedoms. Democracy. Continental, regional and civil society pressure. “Teachable moments” of African history, culture and wisdom.

Kofi Akosah-Sarpong
Kofi Akosah-Sarpong, © 2009

The author has 338 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: KofiAkosahSarpong

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