Our Western narrative on African dictators is incomplete. By focusing on the well-documented atrocities of Africa’s ‘Big Man’ Leadership, we neglect the system which created and enabled them – a system that, in part, we continue to play a role in. We need to examine the origins of this system – not merely to apportion blame – to help us begin the work of uprooting it and making way for better systems of African governance to take form.
Disclaimer: The problem of African dictators needs an African perspective and voice more than any other. However, this is also a problem created and enabled by outsiders, I write from this angle and many of the sources that have informed it are also from foreigners. The ‘we’ is therefore for Westerners. This brings limitations to my understanding and nuance. For this and for any inaccuracies, emblematic of my amateurism, I apologise. I hope, however, the larger point still stands and I greatly welcome thoughts to the contrary in the comments below.
The image of African Dictators
During the 1960s, as African countries gained independence from colonialists, they also gained their fathers of the nation state. Optimism followed as Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s founding father, decried that ‘Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.’ African people liberated themselves and the advances made in the two decades after 1960 were remarkable. Universities turned out thousands of graduates each year. A World Bank study published in 1981 observed: ‘The African record is unique: nowhere else has a formal education system been created on so broad a scale in so short a time.’ Sadly, such optimism was short-lived. Theft, corruption and brutality became endemic in the hands of the ‘freedom fighters’, bringing their countries to their knees. Africa’s economic decline was so steep and fast during the very same decade that the 1980s became known as ‘the lost decade’. Living standards plummeted, and by the mid-1980s most Africans were as poor, or poorer, than they had been at the time of independence.
Nonetheless, these ‘Big Men’ continued with sham elections, smothering any opposition and tightening their grip on their people’s natural resources. By the end of the 1980s, not a single African head of state in three decades had allowed himself to be voted out of office. Uganda’s dictator, Idi Amin, showered himself with military medals and titles, including a claim that he was ‘the true heir to the throne of Scotland’. As part of his personality cult, Kwame Nkrumah assumed grand titles – Man of Destiny, Star of Africa, His High Dedication and, most famous of all, Osagyefo, loosely translated as ‘redeemer’. Similarly, the overall result of Nkrumah’s handling of the Ghanaian economy was calamitous. From being one of the most prosperous countries in the tropical world at the time of independence in 1957, by 1965 Ghana had become virtually bankrupt. This story would go on to repeat itself across a majority of African countries, as recounted in Paul Kenyon’s Dictatorland.
Today, the image remains of Africa’s Big Men sitting in their opulent palaces surrounded by destitute poverty. How could people be so greedy? So tyrannical? So unabashedly evil?
Blame the System
The insightful and sombre novel, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell, is set in a quiet impoverished town in England during the 1900s. It follows a group of painters who work brutal conditions under the eponymous ‘Rushton & Co.’ construction company. Living hand-to-mouth, they desperately chase work to survive and are woefully underpaid as Rushton profiteers at their expense. We live in this world through the eyes of the protagonist, Frank Owen, a politically conscious and socially motivated painter. As most rail against the injustice and greed of such a boss, Owen remarks the hypocrisy of the workers: “They all hated and blamed Rushton. Yet if they had been in Rushton’s place, they would have been compelled to do the same. Therefore no one who is an upholder of the present system can consistently blame any of these men.” But then who to blame? “Blame the system.”
We created the African Dictators
Africa is immensely diverse (54 countries, thousands of tribes, thousands of languages, varied climate and geography) and yet what is so striking is the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes. Chiefly, at the hands of dictators.
The frequency of such a reality, repeated across and within time, suggests there is something systemic driving it. So powerful that if we had been the lucky ‘elected’ dictator, we would have done the same. What could such a system look like? As most of the dictators arose as leaders post-independence, we should begin by examining the conditions out of which they originated.
Fast in, Fast out
The decolonisation of African countries in the 1960s had little to do with a moral awakening. Harold Macmillan did not believe that the remaining African colonies were ready for independence, most were economically weak and all were inadequately prepared. However, the Second World War had been devastating to the colonists and the colonies had become too expensive to maintain as independence struggles grew. Martin Meredith writes, ‘after 60 years or so – the shortest introduction to so-called civilisation that any so-called primitive people have ever had – the Europeans turned their authoritarian creation over to the Africans.’
Transitions were rushed. The speed of the change meant that colonies in east and central Africa advanced towards independence with a minimum of trained local manpower. In the DRC at the time of independence, there were no more than three Congolese amongst the top ranks of the civil service (out of an establishment of 1,400 held posts). Governments were bereft of any expertise. The colonisers, largely, left the continent in a hasty manner: creating a state, giving it the ultimate powers and then handing over the mechanics of a government without educating people about it.
You will be a democratic nation!
Democracy was imposed as the form of governance. Rushed into place, it did not have strong public endorsement. These countries were forced amalgamations of different groups that had no shared notion of destiny – no ethnic, class or ideological cement to hold them together; no strong historical and social identities upon which to build. African societies of the pre-colonial era – a mosaic of lineage groups, clans, villages, chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires – were formed often with shifting and indeterminate frontiers and loose allegiances.
Moreover, this was extenuated by virtue of Africa’s geography which had low population densities and inhospitable and varied topography. So much so that Europeans only colonized Africa in late 1800s despite being much closer than Latin America, which had been colonized hundreds of years before. They also never intended or managed to rule over the entirety of these countries.
In the UK, the progress towards a full-fledged democracy took 600 years of evolution from the Magna Carta to full enfranchisement in 1930s. In Tanzania, national elections followed only three years after independence. In this period, people were expected to annul their tribal loyalty built and reinforced over thousands of years and then pledge allegiance to an unseen and unheard identity created by the people that had oppressed you. You also had to submit to a form of governance called multi-party democracy which favoured the majoritarian tribe.
Shortly after independence, when people were forced to choose a leader, they relied on tribal loyalties rather than ideology, class or policies. For leaders, just like Trump, you had to demonstrate your commitment to your base and could not expect voters to cross tribal lines. Democratic rule required demonstrating loyalty to your tribe with state funds, public posts and better infrastructure. Private enrichment, where it involved stealing state wealth (i.e. money from other tribes) to your own family and tribe, was part of the game. Corruption was endemic because it was powerful, dictators had a deep understanding of this.
‘You know a balloon is a very small thing. But I can pump it up to such an extent that it will be big and all you need to make it small again is a needle prick’The dictator Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, 1978-2002
Furthermore, as independence arose from war, leaders also arose from war. These leaders became the first democratic leaders of African countries and became fathers of the nation. They knew how to organise violence, galvanise morale and spirit in the face of opposition: how to destroy. They knew less about how to build countries. Countries hadn’t existed before.
Designed for theft
For colonial powers like Great Britain and France, African states had been created to enable pillage on a grand scale – not to minister to the people or to grow organic self-governing communities. Their design reflected this. Europeans had built limited states without control over the whole country. The infrastructure was of roads, railways, hydro-electric schemes and a revenue system based on the production and exports of commodities to the empire. Europeans also created capitals that moved power away from the interior centres of power that Africans had slowly created to exert control over parts of their surrounding territories.
To make matters worse, traditions of autocratic governance, paternalism and dirigisme had been embedded in the institutions the colonisers created. When these were passed over rapidly, the institutions did not develop the strength to hold leaders accountable. Leaders inherited a government designed for oppression and extracting resources, set up to subjugate not serve people.
Accountable to who?
The points provided so far illustrate why the origins of African states meant that leaders were able to, and somewhat needed to, turn to plundering their country to maintain political legitimacy. One sees this cycling in Nairobi where we ride the smooth and empty roads in and around the President’s tribe homeland, Kikuyu.
This political legitimacy has been maintained through international recognition. As Pierre Englebert argues in his book ‘Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow’, one of the stark features of postcolonial Africa is the lack of state upheaval. There has been a lot of violence but there have been nearly no separatist movements despite the preconditions for many (young, heterogenous groups, resource rich, varied geography). Englebert explains that despite repeated failures to serve the public, the state power over legitimate force is maintained through the international legal sovereignty of nations. The global system of power, with agencies like the UN or World Bank, operate through nations. Sovereignty remains respected regardless of domestic politics and as a result, the African sovereign power is exogenous to African societies so those in positions of legal command (i.e. state officials) face few domestic constraints in their exercise of it.
Coupled with this lack of political accountability, these leaders were not financially accountable at home because they could find funders abroad. Big Man leadership could rely on extracting a natural resource, controlled through a state entity, purchasing domestic farming produce to resale externally at a mark-up or through kickbacks from contracts with foreign companies. Ex-colonisers were happy to buy these without qualms. Omar Ondimba, the president of Gabon, arranged for the French oil company Elf, which managed Gabon’s oil resources, to transfer 10 percent of all petroleum sales into a Provision pour Investissements Diversifiés, a thinly disguised slush fund for his own use.
Foreign aid also played a key role in enabling such leaders. This flowed in so long as the façade of democracy or capitalism was maintained by dictators. The aid business became a major employer, second only to the state in many African countries. Over the course of two decades, the 1980s and the 1990s, Africa obtained more than $200 billion in foreign aid. Governments used donor finance as much to delay reform as to implement it. In the case of Liberia, Samuel Doe was openly oppressive as he ruled the country from 1980 to 1990 but also volubly anti-communist. American military and economic aid totalled more than $500m, $100m more than in the previous 133 years of independence. American taxpayers subsidised one-third of Liberian government spending. They paid for Doe’s legitimacy: weapons to coerce loyalty, money to rent it. Dambisa Moyo’s book, Dead Aid, does a good job of highlighting how aid (alongside having done a lot of good) has also weakened governance.
Lastly, once this money had been stolen, it had to be hidden somewhere. Ex-colonisers and other ‘progressive’ countries were happy to provide places to launder this money. The World Bank has estimated that 40 percent of Africa’s private wealth is held offshore. These foreign bank accounts often find themselves in London or Switzerland. If not, they take up real estate. Hosni Mubarak’s fortune acquired during his thirty-year-long grip on power and estimated to be at least $2bn includes a property portfolio in London, New York and Los Angeles.
Why do this?
What is there to be gained in this discussion of the past? A lot. In two primary ways.
Firstly, the narrative of African dictators and their incessant abuses of power do more than just elicit pity and anger. As outsiders, we look at this farcical image after sixty years of independence and begin to wonder, much like with victims of abuse, why do Africans continue to put up with it? What made such abuse possible unlike anywhere else? And, in the hidden corners of our mind, we ask: why are Africans so bad at leadership?
Such questions perpetuate our biases and arise from a simplistic narrative. This narrative ignores the system created by colonisers which was conducive to leaders turning to dictators. In the rushed transitions, colonisers left a power vacuum without civil servants capable of steering government. Democracy was parachuted in without request and without the time to garner public buy-in. It was as foreign as the capitalistic greed introduced. Leaders that became Presidents arose out of conflict and military fame against colonisers, selected for leadership in war rather than in times of peace. Without the possibility of public legitimacy, leaders had to appeal to tribal loyalty and pay their way to it. Colonisers gave them dominion over all land and had designed an economy to facilitate such extraction. Worst of all, such leaders never had to be accountable to their own people as foreign actors queued up to bankroll them in exchange for ideological promises or natural resources and then hide their stolen wealth in offshore banks. It is in this context that we can better understand why leaders became dictators and ‘our’ complicity in it: the colonisers, as the ultimate dictators, had designed a system which enabled them.
Secondly, if we begin to notice the system that created dictators, we also notice our role in it today. The West has continued to weaken the political and financial accountability of leaders to their country. If we fear the role China is having in influencing modern day politics in Africa, note that China is only the 4th largest investor on the continent. They stand behind the (old and hidden) usual suspects: USA, UK and France. Aid money continues to flood in to be funnelled to corrupt politicians who can stash it away in European banks and be protected by top Western lawyers. Since independence, the revenue stream of governments has not been dependent on making promises with domestic populations as import/export taxes, private enterprise and aid form primary sources, enabling large amounts of revenue to be diverted. We need to fight for more financial transparency in the role our countries, aid and private companies have in Africa (and elsewhere).
Another idea, more novel and contentious, is to deflate the effect international sovereignty has on state dysfunctionality. In a system in which sovereignty is holy, the ‘elected’ leaders have the right to abuse as they wish without interference. To the problems laid out above, more work could be done on capacity building of the state actors and further devolution of the state could be a path to more local political accountability. Englebert and Herbst propose ideas like revoking unconditional international recognition in favour of domestic sovereignty or linking international recognition to the provision of services to citizens.
A Tentative Conclusion
Our narrative on African dictators is incomplete because it looks at the individual at the top rather than ‘blaming the system’. As Martin Meredith concludes, Africa was a pre-literate, tribal culture in brief, violent collision with the most self-righteous and best-equipped colonial juggernaut in World history. This self-righteousness continues as we pity the African dictatorships and fail to recognise that the dominance of African Dictators has much to do with how we, as Westerners, chose to dictate their rise.
The system that created them persists today in the form of foreign aid, private capital, financial services and international sovereignty. For African leaders to become more accountable to their people, we need to untangle our system which enables them not to be.
The problem is not so much that development has failed, as that it was never really on the agenda in the first place.Nigerian academic, Claude Ake, in his essay Democracy and Development in Africa
 See this digitized piece from the New York Times covering the reality of African living standards decline during the ‘lost decade’
 State of Africa, Martin Meredith
 States and Power in Africa, Jeffrey Herbst
 Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent, Blaine Harden
 Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow, Pierre Englebert