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Goodbye to the Big Men of African Politics

 5 min read / 

Departments of African Studies love to talk about the ‘Big Man’ theory. They love to explain how charismatic nationalist leaders of postcolonial African states garnered widespread support from their followers, and how, through the accumulation of resources and personal patronage of people and communities, these leaders were able to capture and consolidate power, often creating a potent mythology around themselves as a supreme leader. Some theorists have gone as far as to argue that this neopatrimonial Big Man state is “the core feature of politics in Africa”.

Deified Heroes

This is characterised, in Bratton and Van der Walle’s 1997 book Democratic Experiments in Africa, by networks of:

“personal relationships that constitute the foundation and superstructure of political institutions…the interaction between the ‘big man’ and his extended retinue [arguably] defines African politics, from the highest reaches of the presidential palace to the humblest village assembly.”

Through this form of personalised authority, postcolonial African leaders from Sankara to Mugabe used their immense power in various ways, from establishing widespread social reform to enriching off-shore bank accounts, embedding loyalties and entrenching varying levels of authoritarianism in regimes from the East to the West of the newly ‘liberated’ continent.

Yet, even more important than the economic and political landscape forming Africa in this period, was the psychological landscape of the ‘Big Man’ state, and the backs upon which it was built. Presidents and political leaders transformed themselves from heroes into gods, untouchable deities towering over the people in helicopters and 4x4s, who inscribed their names on national institutions and monuments, constructing mythologised images that were both sanctified and praised.

Benevolence of the Leader

The Big Man is actually not a man at all, not in the same way that his subjects are. The Big Man and his family appoint themselves as royalty, feeding off the state and easing the psyche of the society with the assertion that they have a God-given right to rule, and rule indefinitely. Monuments stand as an apt reminder of the leader’s bravery, yet more and more often from the shadows of the monument emerges the idea that freedom and wellbeing are not due to the toil of the everyday citizen, but to the benevolence of the leader. That the people would not, and could not, survive without them.

The Big Man’s myth is perpetuated through pomp, ceremony and parade. It works by making every action seem like a personal gift, rather than a job that the taxpayers pay him to do. He works by stealing the loaf and offering up the crumbs, by conducting menial “charitable” acts with the pocket change that fell out of his engorged wallet. He is so successful because he convinces society that he is bigger and that he is better than every other citizen, that his money gives him wisdom and his charisma gives him strength.

A National Persona

Recently, Kenyan public intellectual Dr Wandia Njoya posed some powerful questions about the insidious psychology of the Kenyatta family, Kenya’s dominant post-independence political family. Jomo Kenyatta, who was born Johnstone Kamau, would become independent Kenya’s first president, and proceed to establish a family dynasty that is the most powerful in Kenya today, with his son, Uhuru Kenyatta, as the current president, in his second term. But why did Mr Johnstone Kamau change his name to Jomo Kenyatta? Was it simply about dropping the chain of a colonial name, or was it something that was more premeditated?

What does it mean when, as Dr Wandia puts it, “we cannot speak of freedom, sing our national anthem, talk of our country, without an obvious or subtle reference to one family”? What does it say about power, ownership and patronage when the name of a country, its tallest mountain, and countless institutions, will forever be adjoined to a particular Big Man and his family?

To be immortalised and to be omnipresent is the ultimate goal of the Big Man, and even if the dialogue around the Kenyatta name is pure speculation, it is a powerful metaphor for how a persona can become attached to a state, how the ubiquitous leader establishes himself through his constant presence. How the Big Man constructs a society in which his nobility becomes unquestionable and his power divine.

But no Big Man is truly immortal, and sooner or later the spell always brakes, creating an emancipation which is a powerful force for change. What remains is not the individual, but the ideology, and the instrumentalisation of the logic of the Big Man. Society and the electorate must appreciate that ‘honorouble’ presidents, ministers and members of parliament are not honourable by right, they only stand tall in minds because people allow them to.

A Good Servant

Politicians are servants of the people, and every single iota of their worth comes from being good servants. They cannot continue to use their wealth to avoid accountability, and just because they wave at the masses from the sunroofs of their air-conditioned vehicles does not mean that the people standing in the dust need to wave back. It must not be that they enjoy continued simply because of their name. The chokehold of dynasties must be released. Big Men only stand tall because they stand on the people’s backs.

And so, recently democratic nations continue to learn and unlearn the subtle ways through which monuments and ceremonies condition the political experiences in ways that do not serve the citizen body, draw a line between appreciation and subjugation, and then pull the dangerous facades down, once and for all, from the ballots to the streets.

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