Around this time in 2016, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda was asked why he was not stepping down for a younger person. His answer: “How can I go out of a banana plantation I have planted that has started bearing fruits?” Why would a leader so casually dress his country in banana leaves? I do not understand. American writer, O. Henry, in 1904 did a similar thing, coining ‘banana republic’ to describe his fictional Republic of Anchuria. Five years down the road of Museveni’s faux pas, commentators say the harvest is still on for the Monkey-owner of Uganda’s Banana Farm. The strongman has just won another term, using naked power and fire to defeat a man who was three years old when he came to power in 1986. But the dictator here is just a metaphor for all that ails Africa.
Museveni and his sit-tight tribe are everywhere. But why would any human being think he must win at all times and in all contests? Museveni has been in power for 35 years; he has just ‘won’ another term of five years. He is 76 years old. Donald Trump of the United States is a seventy-something-year-old man who is leaving power this week a very sad, bitter man. If Trump were a Nigerian, he would not need to struggle for votes; the armed forces would get votes for him in excess of abundance. But Trump is sad, angry and bitter because his people did not allow him subvert their system and remain forever in power. Trump and Museveni are not the first to think they can be relevant and live forever. They are mentees of sadder beings who played God and crashed.
Men who gaze forever at their own muscles believe they must win all contests no matter how weak their biceps are. That was why fringe candidate Muhammadu Buhari in 2003, 2007, 2011 believed he was rigged out of the presidency of Nigeria – and blood of the innocent flowed across the north. The same reason he would not commit, in 2019, to answering questions of whether he would concede that year’s polls if his opponent won. He said it would be impossible for him to lose. “I am going to win,” was his definite response. That wasn’t different from what Trump has done with American democracy. Museveni, last week, gave Christiane Amanpour of CNN a better crafted decoy: Would he accept the results if he lost the Ugandan presidential election? “Of course,” he told Amanpour, “because Uganda is not my house.” As the grand old ex-rebel gave the world that much to chew on, he made sure he put the military in every corner of the country; mounted road blocks after road blocks and shut down the internet. Then the election held and ‘they’ said he won! It is his sixth term.
Museveni’s tribesmen in politics are in the ascendancy and they always make jungles of every city of ideas. Trump’s presidency ends this week; you could see how he has fatally altered the course of politics in America. You could see that the US could not make a value pronouncement on the Ugandan election. America’s own commander-in-chief has stuffed its mouth with more troubles than it has ever chewed. Washington DC is now virtually a militarized war zone – like the streets of Museveni’s Kampala. A man was arrested in the capital of the US on Saturday with a loaded gun and a fake Inauguration Pass. Everything now sounds African – and third world. That is what you get when you promote wrong men with toilet-roll credentials into the right office. We have them in Nigeria and all over Africa. They stay put and sit tight, over-eat and defecate on the rug. They claim victory even when they lose; they kill their nation and shout that they are rescuing it.
We are used to having them in Nigeria – and defeating them. In 2008, I met two Ugandan ladies during a conference at the headquarters of UNESCO in Paris. They told me: “You Nigerians know how you sack your dictators.” They loved Nigeria for that. I asked about their own dictators. They reminded me of their difficult years of Idi Amin and the unending years of their current liberator. That was 13 years ago. They are still counting their woes. Any game in which the competitors are determined to win at any cost will lead to tragedy. What we suffer in Nigeria may not be a Museveni, but we have a deadly variant with desperate agenda. We have an opaque presidency with witchery succession agenda. Governors scheming to appropriate APC and PDP; ex-governors scheming to crash both and build a new Titanic. We are stuck with them -and we watch them as they undo us and our lives. They are never too old, or too weak for politics, its money and its women. They want to die holding the troubled wheel of the ship, the country and its resources. Those who can’t directly contest for power look for viceroy cripples to put on the throne. I am interested in, and I can’t wait to see, how Buhari will handle his end of tenure in 2023.
Trump and Museveni are not stand-alone power mongering clowns. They belong to a solid caste of strongmen who hold strong beliefs in their own permanence. Politicians like to sniff immortality. They enjoy being the sole definers of politics and its rules. They want to forever dictate who gets what forever. They enjoy playing God.
Once upon a time, in a Yoruba town, there was a very wealthy king who had everything a man prayed to have. But this king desired more than power and wealth and all else he had. He wanted to live forever; he craved immortality, wanted eternal life, exemption from death, unending existence.
Who could make that happen for him? The king summoned his Babalawo, told him his ambition and asked the medicine man to work on it urgently. Why would someone want to exist forever? Or maybe what the king wanted was just an extension of life. The medicine man asked himself and sought clarification from his lord. But the king said, no. He wanted to exist forever and as the king over his people.
“Kabiyesi, you want to become Olodumare?” the Babalawo cynically asked the king.
“No,” the king retorted. He didn’t want to become God. He merely wanted to share immortality with the creator. The Babalawo took another look at the king and smiled. In Yorubaland, you don’t become king and still complain, and remain ambitious – except you want to become God.
“It is difficult but it can be done.”
“Great. How much am I paying.?
“It is not money, Kabiyesi. There are consequences.”
“Consequences? For me or for you?”
“For the town and for you Kabiyesi.”
“Then, let the town take care of itself and the consequences. That shouldn’t be your headache.”
The Babalawo nodded.
In seven days, everything was done and the king commenced his journey to forever. He lived to be the oldest ever in town. As he grew older, peace and prosperity also receded from the community. He wasn’t bothered. What would have given him heartache would have been ugly death trailing him. He conquered that one long ago. Then, one by one, those the Oba knew as chiefs and friends died off; the king’s wives grew old and died also, so did his children too. With the king’s long years came the misery of loneliness – and sorrow. Even his wealth had left him – or had become useless to the frailty of his physical existence. No one living wanted to be in his presence. To the living, he was an evil spirit. The king did what no one had ever done, so his eyes must see that which no eye had ever seen. He thought immortality would give him eternal joy – and enjoyment. He was mistaken. Defeated and in utter sadness one day, he reached for the calabash of the ancestors. That day the king’s death was announced. ‘So, he could die’ was the gasp across the land.
No king or president is allowed to rule forever. Every empire must come to its ruin – no matter how long it takes. But what makes men of promise lose their heads in power? Museveni and Robert Mugabe had good education which transformed them to freedom fighters. The Ugandan president read Economics and Political Science at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. He was a Marxist, radical pan-Africanist who later led armed insurrections against his country’s serial abusers. Our own MKO Abiola was even strongly believed to have been the financier of the five-year armed campaign which took him to power. He has been in that power since 1986 and has done worse than Idi Amin and the successor-dictators he overthrew. But, like the king who wanted to live forever, how far can he and our own local variants go in their quest for permanence in political prominence?
How old will our Buhari be in 2023 and what are his post-2023 plans? We do not know. But we know that his Ugandan friend, Museveni will be 77 years old in September this year. He is starting another term of five years this year – his sixth term. Five years ago, he was stridently asked to step down. And he retorted that the country was his orchard. He owns the trees, the soil and the sweet fruits therefrom. So, after this new term, the strongman will contest and recontest – even if he dies. He has the well of history to draw from here: Four years ago, Robert Mugabe’s wife, Grace announced that if her husband died, his supporters should put his name on the ballot to show their love for him. “If God decides to take him, then we would rather field him as a corpse,” she told thousands of supporters at a rally in Buhera, eastern Zimbabwe. Well, as it turned out, Mugabe failed in his struggle to live in power forever. He was alive when he lost power – and then he died broken and sad. Everything that has a beginning must end.