The rule of despotsThe last of the postcolonial strongmen—Robert Mugabe—is gone this week at the age of 93 and after 37 years of ruling Zimbabwe.
The last of the postcolonial strongmen—Robert Mugabe—is gone this week at the age of 93 and after 37 years of ruling Zimbabwe. By gone, I don’t mean that he is dead, but deposed, which is more important than dead for the purposes of my column today. Mugabe’s career was stellar before Zimbabwe’s independence and for many years after its independence from Britain and its support for white minority rule. Before independence, the white minority government imprisoned Mugabe between 1964 and 1974. After his release, he fled Southern Rhodesia to Mozambique and formed a resistance ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). He then led the resistance movement to achieve his country’s decolonisation, achieved a victory in the election in 1980, and became Zimbabwe’s prime minister from 1980 to 1987. Since then, he had ruled as the country’s president until this week, winning victory after victory in national elections, at times winning by over 85 percent.
But Mugabe has not been alone in the postcolonial world either in terms of winning electoral victories by ridiculous margins or ruling until death or deposition. A number of African countries—Ghana, Zaire, Uganda, Nigeria—have witnessed this political drama after decolonisation in the 1960s. Many other non-Western countries—Indonesia and Malaysia come to mind right away—went through this period as well. Part of this was attributed to the Cold War game played by the Soviet Union or the United States-led West. But Mugabe lasted 27 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even where the Cold War didn’t prop up military dictators, such as in India, the prime minister aspired to be a dictator. This was evident in the 21-month state of emergency declared across India by then PM Indira Gandhi in the period between 1975-1977, or in the way she ruled India’s electoral politics through either her party or her family. Even now, the rub-off of the underground-prison-exile complex of India’s freedom struggle hasn’t left India’s Congress party because nobody, home-grown or educated abroad, has been able to match or counter the Gandhi family’s aura stemming from India’s independence.
The case of Mugabe and other similar examples have time and again raised a question in my mind: Why is it that non-Western countries very often produce such strong men and their personality cult? Why isn’t there a transition from one leader to another within a party? Why is it that party workers tend to become clients of a particular leader rather than members with judgment and a capacity for choice and change?
Traditionally, a struggle against colonial rule produced liberating parties and their leaders. One can even say that the concept of a political leader to be chosen by popular vote emerged only during these countries’ freedom struggles and that the leaders were chosen from within the parties of resistance by party members and by the general public in the post-colonial state that came into existence after independence. A choice of leaders by popular consent hardly existed before that. Naturally, once sanctified by the stamp of the liberation struggle and long imprisonment, such a leader assumed an aura that nobody could match. And these men ruled as long as they wished, or as long as the military of the country let them.
At times, I think that the worship of a superhero in a particular culture, too, might have played a significant role. The belief in a strong prophet and a fearsome God or the cultural memory of legendary, hereditary chiefs may have played a psychological role. Is that why many African countries have had such a difficult time with democracy? Is that why the Arab Spring failed in one country after another? In the West, King and God both were present but Christ was meek and was crucified rather than becoming physically triumphant like Prophet Muhammad or Krishna or Rama. Even the monarchy and God were challenged by the emergence of the enlightenment ideals of secularism and male individual citizenship first in the 19th century.
But there was another stronger source. As I said above, freedom struggles sanctified leaders and parties and gave them legitimacy in the eyes of the suffering, adoring public because these leaders awakened patriotic feelings and pointed out subjugation. Once independence was achieved, there was hardly any obstacle that could rise to the level of colonisation by alien powers to give equal sanctity to the newer generation of political leaders who could challenge the postcolonial heroes. The long struggles of the postcolonial heroes, their underground life, long imprisonment and exile became, so to speak, their world class, unmatched university degrees, equal or even better than a Harvard, Yale or Oxbridge degree. And if such a postcolonial leader had both an elite Euro-American university degree (as in the case of Nehru or some African leaders) they became god-like.
In the non-Western world, the only thing that could match the street-prison-exile triplets of sanctification could be the branding by a world class university education. But that’s almost impossible because local universities where the majority go for education do not possess world class brand recognition nor the quality to train the young rigorously. And those who can afford to go to world class branded universities overseas hardly have the desire or ambition to breathe the dirt and soil the cloth and be constantly surrounded by the illiterate and semi-literate masses. But, more importantly, these overseas educated youth, after having been raised in their class, absorbing the idioms and ideology of their class at home and life of comfort both at home and abroad, no longer possess either the experience or the skills to speak in the idiom of the masses.
What has surprised me in Nepal’s case is that its Nepali-speaking foreign-educated generation, bilingual in speech if not in writing, have failed to produce leaders who could challenge the underground-prison-exile (UPE) generation of leaders. That is why Baburam Bhattarai becomes important here, because he belongs to both the categories. And the Bibeksheel-Sajha party of young, very often overseas professionals will become important if they are able to attract more like themselves.
The Madhesi-Janjati parties belong to the UPE group because their struggle hasn’t ended yet. But the problem is that the indigenous universities have failed to acquire international brand names and, more importantly, have failed to educate in the same way that good Western universities do to produce a generation of leaders intellectually capable and sure to take on the old guards of underground-prison-exile generation. That’s why, when I see Rabindra Mishra’s confidence, I immediately recognise in it his London education, BBC professional experience and Nepali-speaking Kathmandu upbringing. Just imagine if there were hundreds of people like him, men and women, then what would the Nepali political landscape look like? But, alas, in its absence common Nepali people are bound to remain clients of their leaders, and party bosses are happy to be patrons. One hopes that some miracle occurs that would transform the political scenario in the near future.
- Mishra is department Chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States