“The natives are restless” — I used to get indignant when I heard that paternalistic, sometimes cynical phrase. Now I try to smile. For one, I hear it a lot in my line of work, and it gets tiresome to always think ill of someone whose diction deceives her intentions. But mostly I smile because I want the cliché to mean something else, a portent for positive change, the end of calamitous rule, a new era for the meek. So when the meek turn restless, it should mean that justice is around the corner.
With last week's passing of Guinea's senile dictator, Lansana Conté, and the military coup that followed, the country is marking no deviation from a well-rehearsed choreography, enacted repeatedly since independence from the French in 1958. The dance moves are economical, simple for new generations of political elites to learn.
A leader emerges, accedes power bolstered by populist rhetoric, buys off the military, installs single-party rule. Cronyism flourishes, rule of law evaporates, the military shores up the trappings of statehood. Decades pass; the population languishes. Leader then dies, military resumes control until a new leader-puppet is found. For nine million Guineans, the spectacle and squalor continue.
Conté down for the count
Conté belonged to a dwindling species of wizened and paranoid leaders-for-life, whose ranks include Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Omar Bongo of Gabon. Once hailed as liberators and visionaries, they became pathetic parables of 'absolute power corrupting absolutely'. The psychological path from flamboyant liberator to murderous despot is dramatic stuff, and was ably fictionalized in The Last King of Scotland. An excellent non-fiction account of Mobutu Sese Seko’s rise and fall is Mobutu, Roi du Zaire, by Thierry Michel.
Not so for Conté. A diabetic chain-smoker who rarely appeared in public, Conté was a garden-variety despot whose life and career will be quickly forgotten, even by Guineans. In the murky hours after Conté’s death, a military junta declared power. Western powers demanded an immediate return to civilian rule; a rote bit of finger wagging that has surely never produced a single result.
Alluding to the high propensity for carnage in this West African neighborhood, Senegalese President Wade recently appealed for acceptance of Guinea’s new military junta. Although highly predatory and wholly opportunistic, the Guinean national military arguably prevented the country from sliding into the chaos of its neighbors, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, for whom Guinea served for years as a place of refuge.
The intent of Wade’s appeal is ambiguous. Another leader-for-life in the making and no friend of opposition parties or the free press, Wade's point may be that civilian rule and democracy are over-rated, and that in such places security is primordial. He may also be a proponent of 'negative solidarity', as my Burundian friends call it, between African leaders who defend one another till the bitter end. Witness the deafening silence from African leaders regarding Mugabe.
Amazonian propaganda and guided missiles
Still, it is all deeply disappointing and predictable. Decades of syphilitic, jack-booted rule finally falls flat in the dust, and a unified populace stares blankly while an army faction takes control. Is it that foreign occupiers are enough to mobilize popular resistance (e.g., anti-colonialism) but when the oppressor is your brother you sit on your hands?
Compared to the colonial era, today’s absence of constructive, popular political agency in the world’s poorest countries is mystifying and exasperating. Back then, Sekou Toure led Guinea to independence and stood proud on the world stage, with adulation from Kennedy and visits from Castro.
[ST’s political compass is clear in these photos: star worship for Castro and distraction with Kennedy.]
Like Mugabe and other liberators, it didn’t take long for Sekou Toure to relish the pleasures of despotism. Conté took him down in 1984 and lived to repeat the tale. Sekou Toure did leave one legacy of note, a massive musical propaganda machine, similar to that created and cultivated by Mobutu in Zaire. Of the dozens of propaganda bands still playing in Guinea, most notable are the Amazones de Guinée, an all female troupe pictured here.
A tidy description of all these different bands, with audio/video footage, can be found here.
Today, any damn idiot can fill a political vacuum in a place like Guinea, and there are dozens of Guineas in Africa. Coups flourish, generally over control of resources, led by marginalized power bases organized along ethnic lines. Mr. Bottom Billion, Paul Collier, wrote an op-ed earlier this year “in praise of coups,” suggesting that the West get back to its once successful business of engineering political putsches where it needed an ally. Only this time, Collier argued, we should do it in favor of better governance by capable partners, and put an end to kleptocracies run by mandarins-cum-raving despots.
Responses to the article were predictable: a fantastical notion; there are no such ‘guided missiles’ in politics. As a dream, though, I understand the appeal of Collier’s idea. Social engineering doesn’t sound so evil when the outcome is a guaranteed net gain. And most people grasp that freedom without structure is a desert, so they might welcome the trade-off. For the meek who get nothing and have nothing, I wonder what they might say to Collier, or anyone who just wants Africa to work.
Like me, Joe Plumbers in Africa want little to do with politics; they just want politicians to do their jobs. Their government’s failings are not their own. So when the ship starts sinking, no one’s interested in going down with it. Who would be? That’s when the jack-boots and ammo cartridges are at their most frenzied.