TCS Daily

Big Men Are Back

By Roger Bate - June 25, 2004 12:00 AM

Africa's despots are saber rattling again. Last week Sam Nujoma, the Namibian President, called white people 'snakes', and then Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's disgraceful dictator, called the almost saintly Archbishop Desmond Tutu an 'evil and embittered little bishop'. Zimbabwe under Mugabe has been a lost cause for years, and the Archbishop's complaints about Mugabe's disregard for the law were likely to fall on deaf ears. But that the disease is spreading to Nujoma's Namibia is a rather worrying development. Collapsing or genocidal regimes, including Sudan's, are rife for providing cover for, if not directly encouraging, terrorism. Remember that Osama bin Laden lived and 'worked' in Sudan for years.

Africa has always been home to the 'big man' phenomenon, with its roots in tribal leadership -- being tough, and standing up to outside pressures (especially white ex-colonialists) has always been a vote winner. Mobuto Sese Seko, the former head of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), once infamously said that 'democracy was not for Africa'. But more African states are heading towards democracy -- in the 1970s there were no peaceful handovers from first black African rule to a democratically-elected government. But by the 1990s there were several, notably Zambia and South Africa. It is worrying, however, that some nation states are heading in the other direction, back to big man tribal leadership.

Nujoma has followed Mugabe's lead of late in several distasteful ways. He cryptically said that he did not want a fourth term in office, something no one really believes, but that he would stand "if it was requested by the people". Namibia's constitution was amended to allow Nujoma to serve a third term in 1999.

Nujoma, who has headed the South West African People's Organisation (Swapo) since 1962 and led its armed struggle against South African rule, was elected president at independence in 1990, and was re-elected in 1994 and 1999 with more than 75 percent of the vote.

Like its peaceful and democratic neighbor, Botswana, Namibia is reliant on diamonds and farming. But unlike Botswana, the poor do not see the real benefit of diamond sales. Allegations of illegal sales and Swiss bank accounts are rife. Some insiders even think Nujoma dislikes white westerners enough to tolerate terrorism in his country.

The mines at least continue to pump out the diamonds, but Nujoma's violent threats and his obvious desire to emulate Mugabe's land grabs are more worrying, because they would destabilize the country and prevent inward investment. The threats and action deflect attention from his failed socialist policies onto a racist battle few Europeans and Americans feel comfortable debating.

Nujoma, shouting from a Lutheran Church pulpit, announced last month that he would expropriate land to punish white farm owners who "dumped" their workers by the roadside. Speaking at May Day celebrations at Karibib, Nujoma issued an unequivocal declaration that expropriation of farms would not only target underused land but would serve as a punitive measure. "My Government will not, tolerate insults in that way," he said after singling out "some white farmers" who had legitimately dismissed some of their farm hands. Nujoma later called these white farmers 'snakes'. But he denied he was a racist, claiming the whites were the racists, and would be removed from the land.

And the process has begun. Two weeks ago Namibian Land Minister Hifikepunye Pohamba sent letters to about 10 white farm owners urging them to "make an offer to sell their property to the state and to enter into further negotiations in that regard".

The farmers were given 14 days to respond. The commercial farmer's representative I spoke with said they did not know what they were going to do. But do something they must. Since Nujoma will take silence as weakness. He says his "Government will expropriate this land as an answer to the insult to my Government. We want peace in this country."

Robert Mugabe also claims he wants peace. But as the people of Zimbabwe have come to realize, his brand of peace is not worth the price Mugabe expects them to pay. With the west largely impotent to act, or even denounce the despots, it is time South Africa's leaders criticized both Mugabe and Nujoma. Without condemnation it's possible we will see the revival of the big man syndrome. That would be a disaster for the rest of Africa slowly escaping its debilitating influence, and it will be a threat to those fighting terrorism, by potentially providing another safe haven for evil-doers.

Roger Bate is a visiting fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and director of health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria


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