Fear and loathing on the frontline


A man unloads meat as tyres, which were set alight during service delivery protests, burn behind him on June 2, 2010, in Monwabisi Park, Khayelitsha, about 30Km from the centre of Cape Town. South African police on June 1, 2010 arrested 26 protestors who burned tyres, threw stones and blocked roads over the removal of open-air toilets which have caused a stink for Cape Town officials. Police reacted to three separate uprisings in Khayelitsha, a poor shack-filled area in the east of the city, firing rubber bullets at two of the crowds. AFP PHOTO/ RODGER BOSCH (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP)


South Africa: dying for change


In early 2012, Ayanda Kota, leader of the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) in the Eastern Cape, made his way to the Grahamstown police station. As an activist, he’d had an eventful year – to the extent that he had won some local fame, featuring in reports in Grocotts Mail, a community newspaper.

His visit to the station that day, however, had nothing to do with his public life; he was there to attend to a personal matter. Kota had misplaced some books he’d borrowed from Rhodes University sociology lecturer Dr Claudia Martinez-Mullen, who had laid a charge of theft against him in August 2011.

But the fact that he was now a media figure would have nasty consequences. He was about to experience violence that would shock the Grahamstown community. Arriving at the station, accompanied by Rhodes sociology lecturer Dr Richard Pithouse, Kota was recognised by six police officers who proceeded to assault him.

“A whole group of them just assaulted him,” Pithouse, who said he had witnessed the incident, told GroundUp in an October 2016 article. Forced to the ground, he was held down and kicked and punched. To humiliate him further, the police officers pulled down his pants and dragged him down a corridor while the abuse continued. “Look who is the newsmaker of the year now,” one of the policemen reportedly said.

The theft charge for not returning borrowed books was later withdrawn, but Kota’s treatment at the hands of the police outraged fellow activists across South Africa, who offered solidarity and support. With the help of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, Kota sued the South African Police Service (SAPS), which resulted in a R120,000 settlement. “What I experienced was hard and painful but the struggle must go on,” he said.

This was not the first time that Kota’s activism had resulted in violence and intimidation. Prior to founding the UPM, Kota was national secretary for political education for the Azanian Students Convention (AZASCO), a youth wing of the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO). He left the organisation in 2001 after he received death threats and was assaulted by fellow members angered by his opposition to AZAPO leader Aaron Mosibudi Mangena’s appointment as deputy minister of education, which Kota believed was an ANC attempt to neutralise AZAPO.

Kota is unapologetic about his activism. As leader of the UPM, which he founded in 2009, he has consistently opposed the Makana Municipality of which Grahamstown is part. The UPM campaigns for better housing, water, sanitation and municipal services for Grahamstown residents. They also demand that South Africans are allowed more involvement in political decision-making processes that affect the country. Kota’s activism has given him a media profile on radio, in newspapers and online. As a form of protest, he has also been known to take faecal material to the premises of Makana Municipality as an expression of his contempt for the local authority’s failure to provide residents with clean water.

Both he and other UPM members have been subjected to telephonic death threats from anonymous callers, and the police have responded to UPM protest action with rubber bullets, baton charges, pepper spray and arrests.  “What intimidation has taught us as activists for change,” Kota says, “is we must always be ready to take off the coat of fear.”

The UPM is not the only South African grassroots organisation whose members have been assaulted and intimidated, even killed, for challenging the status quo. Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) is a shack dweller’s movement, which campaigns against evictions and for public housing. Founded in 2005 and based largely in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) – although it also has branches in various parts of South Africa – the organisation has about 50,000 members. Its general secretary, Thapelo Mohapi, claims that under the auspices of the ANC, activists are regularly assaulted and their homes raided.  He gave the example of one incident in Cato Manor, Durban on 16 November last year, when the doors of people’s homes were reportedly kicked in and the properties raided. The home invaders assaulted people, five of whom were badly injured.

Abahlali baseMjondolo says its members have been tortured in police custody, while at least one activist has been murdered; two ANC councillors are currently serving life imprisonment for the 2014 assassination of Abahlali baseMjondolo member Thuli Ndlovu. And last year, Durban police confirmed there had been an attempt on the life of Abahlali BaseMjondolo member S’bu Zikode. His car was tampered with on two occasions and he was forced to go into hiding. Last year, too, armed men interrupted an Abahlali baseMjondolo meeting on the East Rand in Gauteng and threatened to fire shots in the air if the meeting was not stopped.

“Our members have faced torture and death threats from the police and members of the executive committee of the ruling party at branch level,” Mohapi said, speaking from Durban.

In 2014, Sello Mokhalipi, a former provincial chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which campaigns for the treatment of HIV/AIDS was the target of intimidation. Mokhalipi, who split from the TAC and started a rival organisation, was part of a fierce battle the TAC waged against the Free State province health department over deteriorating health services. In an article on the Daily Maverick website in January 2016, Mokhalipi described receiving a threatening anonymous phone call demanding he stop his campaigning. “My activities were going to have a negative impact on the ANC and that it [sic] cannot be tolerated, especially while elections are around the corner,” he said. Mokhalipi was told he would be harmed if he disobeyed the caller.

A June 2018 article in South African weekly newspaper the Mail and Guardian reported there were 284 political killings across South Africa between 2000 and 2017, the majority of them in KZN. An earlier report, in 2013, noted there had been 447 political killings in KZN since 1994.

So why have South Africa’s independent civic activists and organisations found themselves on the wrong side of the police and members of the ruling party? In 2014, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa released a report, which claimed that police and local government were criminalising protest action. According to the report, local authorities were manipulating legislation to enable them use force against people who were exercising their right to protest publicly.

One example given in the report was a 2014 incident in Philippi East, Cape Town, in which police used live ammunition to fire on protestors. Another Cape Town incident in 2014, which aroused public attention was a police raid on Siqualo, an informal settlement in Mitchell’s Plain. Police reportedly assaulted and arrested several people, including community leaders suspected of leading local protests against voter registration. A Siqualo resident, Lungiswa Bashe, whose shack was damaged in the raid, claimed that the police involved told residents they were acting on President Zuma’s instruction.

Clearly, members of community organisations who protest against poor state health care, lack of public housing and other government service delivery failures are being intimidated and harassed. The question is: why? According to Rhodes University sociology professor Lucien van der Walt, one reason is that politicians have a lot to lose in an environment where officials stand to corruptly benefit from private-sector tenders. “Politicians have a material stake in political intimidation and have a great deal to lose in leaving office,” he told Africa in Fact.

Proceedings before the South African Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA), which oversees the management of state funds, have exposed numerous examples of dodgy tender processes. Private-sector tender submissions to government are riddled with irregularities. Bidding processes that are supposed to be competitive have been nothing of the sort, with kickbacks to politicians and other state officials. Van der Walt suggests that state officials benefit financially from tendering processes to such an extent that they are afraid of losing these benefits, giving them a material stake in the intimidation of activists who threaten the status quo.

Dr Johan Burger, of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), concurs that government members feel threatened by their opponents because they don’t wish to lose power. Government members, he says, feel so threatened by their opponents that intimidation is now a feature of South African politics. If government members feel threatened by their opposition, it is reasonable to assume that the likes of Kota instil significant fear in them. “And as there is an election pending,” Burger says, “acts of intimidation in some instances are likely, as they are part and parcel of our politics.”

Hugo van der Merwe, director of research at the Cape Town branch of the Centre for Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), says the right to protest is regularly violated and met with violence. “The issue of the right to protest is not sufficiently recognised and is often met with excessive violence,” he says. “This is an issue of great concern.” Both Burger and van der Walt suggest that the fear of losing power is a driving factor in the way government officials and their proxies respond to community-based protest action and service delivery activism. Kota’s assault at the Grahamstown police station and the intimidation and violence experienced by other community activists is illustrative of this fear.

These examples all amount to an abuse of critical human rights, including the right to protest, and clearly reveal an unmanaged fear of grassroots opposition that is defensive and suggests psychological inadequacies. Indeed, one is compelled to assume that some people in government, driven by fear of grassroots opposition, demonstrate poor psychological health in their intimidation of people who seek to bring change to South Africa.


Anthony de Villiers is a freelance journalist with a special interest in advocacy.

How governments influence mental health

Sub-Saharan Africa: mental health

This paper sets out to investigate mental health disorders in sub-Saharan Africa, and the extent to which they are influenced by various aspects of the government or state. Mental health disorders, in this context, are classed the mainstream way: depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder; drug and alcohol use are included for purposes of comparison. The aim is to identify the extent to which government/state related variables predict mental health in sub-Saharan Africa. In other words, the aim is to obtain some indication of the extent to which government policies might help to “create” mental ill health in the population.

One might, from this perspective, understand mental health as consisting of two factors. The first of these is an innate predisposition to mental ill health that individuals might “carry with them”. These are theorised to be either genetic or socialised into individuals at a very young age. Factors such as a family history of mental ill health, as well as early adversity such as domestic abuse, bad parenting and bullying, among others, might play a role here.

The second major component consists of precipitating factors, which are external influences, or stressors. When paired alongside the predisposition, these can cause mental ill health to become manifest. This predisposition-threshold model is widely accepted within the discipline of psychology. The analysis seeks to identify some of the precipitating factors, rather than the prevalence of the innate aspects. If government policies or state bureaucracies have an impact on mental ill health, it is most obviously at this external point that they come to do so.

First, the prevalence of various categories of mental ill health is described. Secondly, those afflictions with the greatest prevalence were selected. Thirdly, these were correlated with contextual variables, to identify any government or state-related variables that influence mental ill health in the region.

The mental health data was obtained from various sources, including the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), a research institute focusing on global health statistics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The extent of mental ill health was measured in Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs). One DALY can be thought of as one lost year of healthy life. The sum of DALYs throughout the population can be thought of as the disease burden or the gap between actual disease situation and the ideal, where the population lives to an advanced age free of ill health. This is adapted from the WHO’s definition.

The external, government related variables were obtained from World Bank indicators and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The IHME provides an indication of disease burden globally. Using their data, Richie and Roser (2019) created a series of visualisations of mental health and substance abuse disease burden. Their mappings are used in figures 1, 3 and 4. Considering figure 1, which maps global mental disorders and substance abuse, it appears that Africa is relatively devoid of these phenomena, and that these appear to be afflictions of the more advanced economies. Note, however, that the identification of psychological disorders is to an extent a western practice, and a number of arguments can be made about the validity of measuring western notions of mental health in an African context.

[Figure 1]

Figure 1.png

Figure 1: Global mental disorders and substance abuse (from Richie and Roser, 2019)

If we break mental ill health in sub-Saharan Africa down into its constituent afflictions, the prevalence of mental health issues in that region shows a high degree of variation.

[Figure 2]

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Figure 2: Various classes of mental disorder in sub-Saharan Africa

It is evident that depressive and anxiety disorders are the major mental health challenges in this region. The IHME displays this graphically:

[Figure 3]

Figure 3.png

Figure 3: Global depressive disorders (from Richie and Roser, 2019)

The prevalence of depressive disorders in Africa is heterogeneous, and is closer to the severe end of the spectrum, globally. The heterogeneity suggests some complexity to the aetiology of depression throughout the region. Anxiety is far less prevalent across the region.

[Figure 4]

Figure 4.png

Figure 4: Global anxiety disorders (from Richie and Roser, 2019)

The question is: to what extent these patterns can be explained by factors at least partially under government control or as related to states’ service provision?

The following graph illustrates the risk factors associated with depressive and anxiety disorders. It is evident that problems in family dynamics account for a large portion of depressive aetiology – a pattern seen uniformly across the world. Of course, these family dynamics are very likely caused by contextual factors themselves. In the following sections, the analysis will move beyond these immediate family/household–related factors. As mentioned, we want to focus on the factors that push people over the threshold into mental ill health. This puts the focus onto the contextual stressors rather than on innate and biological factors or early life socialisation (such as bullying and childhood maltreatment).

[Figure 5]

Figure 5.png

Figure 5: Risk factors associated with depressive disorders in sub-Saharan Africa (from IHME data)

There is some indication in the literature of the broader contextual factors that might predispose individuals to depressive episodes. The most obvious of these are income and education. Both of these variables have been shown to have some relevance to depression globally. These are therefore included in the analysis.

But this analysis goes further by investigating additional variables obtained from World Bank data. These include air pollution, access to basic services, migration and refugees, rural-to-urban shifts, gender equality and government expenditure on health. The choice of which variables to include in the analysis was constrained, to a large degree, by the available data. It was hypothesised, however, that all of these contextual factors would have some impact on the prevalence of depression and/ or anxiety disorders in the country.

In order to do so, a correlation matrix was created for the variables in question. Ideally, a multiple regression would have been used, but the available data precluded this. From this, the most influential external factors were selected. In our analysis, only the rural urban shift proved to have a measurable impact on depression, alongside income and education.

The government/state factor was included in the analysis in the way that the measures were constructed. While services were not found to be clearly related to depression, investment in education was found to be related. The significant outcomes were plotted on a graph, which also reflected gender differences.

[Figure 6]

Figure 6.png

Figure 6: Education, income and rural-to-urban migration as related to depressive disorders in sub-Saharan Africa.

Figure 6 presents data for three stressors: education, income and rural-to-urban migration when related to depressive disorders, measured in number of DALYs lost. Each dot represents a sub-Saharan country, broken down by gender (DALYs lost by females and DALYs lost by males in that country). The position of the dot is then determined by the coordinates of the female and male score. The vertical line indicates the switch from female to male bias in the impact of depression.

The graph, therefore, allows one to see gender bias in depression burden by noting whether the dot falls above or below the vertical line. It also allows for an understanding of the severity of the burden. Dots further towards the top right represent higher burdens. Not all sub-Saharan countries are plotted – only those in which depression could be reliably linked to the stressors in the analysis were included. Also, the names of the countries were not included. Although this would be an interesting addition, it was felt that this might detract from the overall message/pattern in the data. For a similar reason, a broad indication of the severity of the burden was included on the x and y axes, rather than the exact DALY burden.

It is evident from the graph that there is some variation in the influence of gender, depending on the predisposing factor. Education is seen to be more of a factor for females than for males. This effect was found to be of moderate strength. Income, on the other hand, was found to be more influential for male depression. The third factor – rural-to-urban migration – did not display a noticeable effect between gender, and was less influential overall

These findings suggest that government investment in education has an unintended consequence of boosting mental health within the population.

The same methodology was applied to anxiety disorders. As with the depressive disorders, a correlation matrix was constructed for the variables in question. Once again, from this, the most influential external factors were selected and included in the analysis. Only one variable emerged, alongside education and income. This was access to services. To preserve some comparability, the rural-urban shift was also included in the plot.

[Figure 7]

Figure 7.png

Figure 7: Traditional, family and household factors as related to anxiety disorders in sub-Saharan Africa.

From this graph it is evident that there is no single overarching causal factor regarding anxiety disorders. Is it possible, however, that broader socio-political issues also have an impact on the high anxiety disorder burden in sub-Saharan Africa? To gain some idea of this, a number of contextual factors were investigated; air pollution, access to basic services, migration and refugees, rural-to-urban shifts, gender equality and government expenditure on health.

[Figure 8]

Figure 8.png

Figure 8: Education, income, rural-to-urban migration and services as related to anxiety disorders in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the case of anxiety disorders, investment in education was clearly more influential than the other factors. In addition, there seemed to be less of a gender bias in this effect, with no noticeable difference being exhibited between females and males. Income showed no clear correlation with anxiety, and neither did rural-to-urban migration. Services, however, showed a noticeable effect on anxiety disorders. The services scale included factors such as access to sanitation and the provision of safe drinking water. It is worth noting, however, that the services included in the analysis were not exhaustive; rather, they were constrained by the available data. Anxiety related to access to services showed a noticeable bias towards females.

Figure 9

Figure 9: Education, income, rural-to-urban migration and services as related to depressive and anxiety disorders in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is possible, merely by superimposing the depressive and anxiety graphs, to observe the combined effect of the four variables that came out as significant. When combined, the gender biases are less obvious, except in the case of services – which is unsurprising, since services appeared as significant in anxiety disorders only. The other variables show very little bias.

The analysis suggests that Africa is not as badly affected by mental health issues as more westernised/industrialised countries. Although the terminology is difficult, it might be said that this state of affairs may be expected to change as Africa moves more in line with globalisation. Depression and anxiety are, currently, the major disorders regarding mental ill health. These disorders have a large social component – as opposed to a condition like schizophrenia, which appears to be more biologically/genetically based.

The IHME data indicated that the risk factors associated with these two classes of disorder are largely family/household related, and include factors such as having an abusive partner or being bullied, among others. Beyond these factors – which are typical of global mental ill health aetiology – the broader context was found to have some impact on the expression of these disorders. Income and education – the latter was measured via government-related variables, such as investment in education, among others – were found to be related to both depression and anxiety, although in different ways. This suggests that mental health is affected by the environment in which individuals find themselves.

More importantly, these mental disorders are to a significant part affected by the diligence of government. The state’s underinvestment in education and services, and the failure to protect a basic level of income has a noticeable impact on their citizens’ levels of depression and anxiety.

This is a bold claim, and it opens up some questions for future research and clarification. Most obvious is the suitability of the data collected. Critics of mainstream psychology have noted that these disorders emerged from a western, industrialised context. Some powerful critiques have questioned the extent to which these are valid concepts in an African context. One might suggest that the more industrialised/westernised/globalised Africa becomes, the less the importance that should be attached to this question. The problem of whether these are appropriate constructs, however, remains. Future research might be directed toward this issue.

Another area for further investigation relates to the issue of how these issues should be addressed. A strong critique of psychology has been that it offers no effective cure for the ills that it describes. Typically, psychotherapy has been seen as the remedy to psychological problems. The effectiveness of psychotherapy has been questioned, but the real problem with psychotherapy probably has more to do with the fact that it is slow and typically expensive.

It seems unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future, that Africa’s mental health challenges will be addressed by armies of psychotherapists working at affordable rates. How, then, should these issues be tackled? One way is by conducting this kind of investigation into the uniquely African predisposing factors, and then addressing these factors via activism or some other means. Considered from this perspective, the most important message of this brief exploration is that a much more thorough investigation of the contextual and state-related predisposing factors to mental ill health needs to be carried out.

Vaughan Dutton is a chartered research psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, with 18 years’ social research experience gained at senior levels in commercial, government and academic contexts. He has taught social research methods, social theory and psychological theory at a number of universities in South Africa and the UK. Currently a consultant, he is also completing a doctorate in psychotherapy. He studied research psychology (applied social research) in South Africa, and holds a research doctorate from the University of Oxford.

Waiting for their day in court

The president of Togo, Faure Gnassingbé Photo: Blamé Ekoue

Togo: fear and favour

The Gnasssingbé clan has been ruling Togo for more than 50 years.The late Eyadema Gnassingbé to power in January 1967, following what was described as the first coup d’état in black Africa, during which Sylvanus Olympio, the country’s first head of state, was assassinated. With strong military backing, the regime continues to dominate and maintain control over all levels of the country’s highly centralised government.

President Faure Gnassingbé, the son of the late Eyadema, says he is trying to modernise the country’s public institutions, including the judiciary. But a 2017 Afrobarometer survey conducted by the Center for Research and Opinion Polls (CROP) of more than 35 countries in Africa revealed that over 63% of Togolese do not have confidence in their judicial system.

The reasons cited included long delays in judicial processes, the complexity of the judicial system, the lack of advice or legal assistance, the inattention of judges, and high costs. Only 37% of Togolese citizens believe the country’s courts represent a credible justice system as against an average of 48% in the West African sub-region, according to the report.

Togolese citizens fear the justice system, seeing it either as not offering any sort of justice or as offering unfair justice. And a fear of public institutions leads citizens to mistrust them, Mathieu Agada, a Togolese psychologist told Africa in Fact. “Mistrust arises from fear. Fear is linked to anxiety about something. This means that something scares you. This would partly explain the feeling of mistrust towards our institutions, particularly the judiciary,” he said.

Others attribute widespread perceptions of public mistrust in the country’s judiciary to other sources, including pervasive corruption and a culture of impunity. According to Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index 2017, Togo scores 32 on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean), which places it in 117th position out of 180 countries. Civil rights organisations have been arguing for decades that the justice system needs to be more efficient and transparent, but have consistently encountered an administration that lacks the will to do anything about it.

As a result, members of the population often prefer to settle accounts on the streets with people they presume guilty of an offence. Mob justice is common, and presumed culprits are often assaulted. Mob justice is thought to be more common in rural areas, where mobs target people suspected of practising black magic and witchcraft. In urban areas, lynchings occur mainly when a person is suspected of theft or in cases of road rage.

In August 2015, Kwamé N’Dri, an Ivorian national accused of theft, was lynched to death by a mob in a suburb of the Togolese capital. A group of young people started beating him up without giving him time to explain himself, according to an eye witness. “They sprayed him with gasoline and burnt him alive on the national highway leading to Burkina Faso. Upon seeing a police car, they fled,” Alain Bamaze told Africa in Fact. He added that members of the group had said there was “no point” in going to the police.

Unusually, the authorities expressed concern. The ministers of justice and of security and civil protection issued a joint communiqué calling on people “to have confidence in the judiciary as well as the security forces whenever they find themselves in a situation of crime and offence”. Damehane Yark, the minister of security and civilian protection, warned that “any act or behaviour inciting mob justice is highly reprehensible and the authors or accomplices will expose themselves to the rigour of the law”.

Yet the lynchings continue. In August last year, a man accused of robbing a shop was assaulted and burnt alive in the town of Kara, some 400 km from the capital. “Discouraged by incompetent justice, people today prefer to do justice themselves,” says Paul da Silveira, a Togolese sociologist working for a local NGO, Programme International de Volontariat et d’Échange Culturel (PIVEC), which promotes human rights in detention centres.

No official figures are available for the number of incidents of mob justice. Emmanuel Vivien Tomi, a Togolese researcher and filmmaker, puts it at an average of 15 cases every year. In a recent film, Crime at the Drugstore, he seeks to raise awareness about the phenomenon that has become so recurrent in Togo. “My new film is part of a fight against the tragic scenes often seen in the streets of Togo, with people indulging in mob justice without restraint,” he told Africa in Fact.

Others point to social inequality as a cause of mob justice in Togo. “It’s not only lack of confidence in the system that leads to mob justice,” argues Mathieu Agada , a psychologist at Lomé-based BIASA International Hospital. “Other frustrations accumulate, and sometimes people look for a scapegoat.”

According to civil rights organisation Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-Togo), “popular justice” has its roots both in a real survival instinct and the frustration felt by citizens who for many years have suffered poverty, endemic corruption, state aggression, and theft of their property and savings. The organisiation says this frustration is exacerbated by perceptions that the police do not play a protective role in society and that the justice system is inherently corrupt – both symptoms of a failed state.

In 2015, the Togolese government launched a plan to modernise the justice system, with the financial and technical support of the EU, as part of an action plan for 2016-2020 aimed at attaining UN Sustainable Development Goal 16, access to justice for all. But sceptical human rights activists argue that the state’s centralisation of power is in itself an obstacle to achieving this aim.

“The psychology of the regime is based on maintaining a grip on all institutions,” says lawyer Raphael Kpande Adjare, who defended a Togolese student leader sentenced with other student activists in January this year to three year’s imprisonment for defying a ban on holding a press conference. Adjare argues that it is difficult to see how the state can introduce a transparent and impartial justice system, when the state uses that institution to repress political opponents and to stay in power.

In his address to the nation in 2018, President Gnassingbé promised to take action in the coming years to improve the justice system. This, he said, would help to promote the rule of law. “We will continue to support the functioning of strong democratic institutions that work effectively to promote the rule of law and individual and collective freedoms,” he said. “To achieve a more efficient and less expensive justice system, we will consider the establishment of courts throughout the country.”

But critics say state officials must first seek an improvement in their own ethical practices if they are to build confidence in the justice system. Any reforms will not only face the problem of centralisation, but also of the pervasive corruption of the system.

“We must first address corruption if we are to bring about confidence in our criminal justice system,” says a Togolese who was convicted of setting fire to the country’s two central markets in 2012 but pardoned last year by the president after six years in jail (he insisted on anonymity). After being released on bail and placed under judicial supervision, he continues to proclaim his innocence regarding the incident, which also saw many opposition leaders arrested for their alleged involvement. “Popular dissatisfaction undermines confidence in public institutions, also undermining government legitimacy,” he told Africa in Fact. “Personally, I have lost trust in our justice system.”

However, Justice Minister Puis Agbetomey says he is confident that the plan to modernise Togo’s judicial system will turn the wheel of justice in the right direction. “The law is the bulwark for any society that loves justice and peace. The judicial system safeguards this law. Through the implementation of several reforms, Togo is gradually moving forward by providing the means to make [our] justice system independent, fair and respectful of human rights,” he told a meeting in January this year  to launch a campaign financed by the EU to speed up the processing of Supreme Court cases.

On 23 January this year, Togo’s Supreme Court announced that it would process 500 cases dating from between 1994 and 2010 in “extraordinary sittings” over the next six months; many complainants have been waiting for years for the court to hear their cases. Supreme Court President Gamato Akakpovi said the campaign marked a new era: judicial officials would be required to serve the Togolese people and “talk the law, and only the law”.

Critics, however, remain sceptical – and wary. Kpande Adjare, the lawyer, says the Togolese will continue to mistrust their government until it respects the separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Da Silveira, the sociologist, says the rule of law will not take root in Togolese society if the current situation of widespread mistrust of the judicial system continues. Even if the government makes a sincere effort at reform, “the path is still long,” says Hervé Akinocho, a research coordinator at CROP, “before Togolese people will have confidence in their justice system.”



Students protest on the steps of Lomé court building at the trial of a student leader arrested for trying to convene a press conference Photo: Blamé Ekoue

Blamé Ekoue is the Togo correspondent for the BBC and for Paris-based media house, ANA. He has also reported for Associated Press and Radio France International. He holds a BA in Communications from the Leader Institute in Lomé. Formerly deputy editor of the West Africa Revue, he has been a contributor to the Lome-based Business and Finance magazine since 2015.

Closing ranks under pressure

Zimbabwe, Harare, 1 August 2018. Running battles in Harare between disgruntled MDC supporters and the police /army. Fires we lit throughout the city.

Liberation movements: after the war


More than any other continent, Africa boasts an abundance of former national liberation movements serving in government. Understanding the history of these organisations, particularly the manner in which they attained power, is crucial to comprehending their thinking and behaviour.

Two distinct types of resistance movement came into being on the continent. Across much of southern Africa, liberation struggles were linked to stalled decolonisation or delayed transitions from white minority government to black majority rule. Elsewhere, armed struggles were analogous to civil war between indigenous populations.

In both situations, the origins of revolutionary struggle lay in state repression and coercion. An intolerance of popular debate blocked avenues for political participation, while the excessive use of force normalised the conduct of violence. This combination encouraged opponents to take up arms with the objective of overthrowing the government by force. “Violence was now officially accepted as the legitimate tool of liberation,” Zimbabwean academic Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni wrote in a 2015 book on his country’s politics, “just like it was officially accepted by the colonialists as the tool of colonial conquest and maintenance of white settler colonial power.”

The combination of revolutionary objectives and limited resources generally encouraged opponents to launch low-level insurgencies in remote areas. Accordingly, liberation movements such as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) – both of which I studied in detail for my PhD – opted for guerrilla tactics rather than conventional warfare.

The pressures of managing clandestine operations prompted fighters to forge extremely close-knit relationships. Combatants expected struggle loyalties to trump family ties, recalls Faye Chung, who joined ZANU in exile and published a book in 2006 on the armed campaign against the white minority government. “It was part of the ethics of the liberation struggle that there was no family loyalty greater than the loyalties formed in the struggle,” she writes. Moreover, the armed objective of liberation movements necessitated the establishment of militaristic hierarchies and secretive decision-making, as Sara Rich Dorman argues in a 2006 article on post-liberation politics in Africa.

Revolutionary movements developed a culture of suspicion of outsiders, a preference for long-winded debates and a tendency to close ranks under pressure. These became entrenched practices, which are still visible in Zimbabwe’s ruling party to this day. Decisions taken by the ZANU-PF politburo either determine or overrule those taken by cabinet. One notable victim of this practice is Zimbabwe’s “technocratic” finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, who has repeatedly failed to exert influence over his own brief, owing largely to his status as a political outsider. Ncube attends cabinet but not the politburo meeting that usually precedes it.

Meanwhile, the TPLF leadership continues to employ a Maoist self-criticism and evaluation strategy known as gim gemma (assessment or evaluation). During the armed struggle this mechanism ensured cadre discipline; however, following the outbreak of war with Eritrea in 1998, it was used to purge opponents of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

In Ethiopia more than in Zimbabwe, Vladimir Lenin’s principle of “democratic centralism” has taken root. In his 1902 polemic, What Is To Be Done?, Lenin encouraged wide-ranging political debates provided they were followed by a vote that was binding on all members. In revolutionary politics, subordination of minority views to party unity was a necessity amid the pressures of the struggle, but this aversion to dissent replicated the authoritarian practices of the state the liberation movement sought to overthrow. Raymond Suttner, a former African National Congress (ANC) operative, feared that this practice encouraged a perspective whereby the movement “sees itself as the only legitimate source of power, which includes intolerance towards any form of political opposition”, as he writes in a 2008 book on the ANC’s underground structures during the struggle against apartheid.

In the case of South Africa, it could be said that this inherent righteousness was constrained by the need for the ANC to negotiate with its former opponents and draw up a new constitution. Nelson Mandela repeatedly stressed the ANC’s inability to “dictate terms” during the initial transition, noting the need to forge consensus over the new rules of the game, according to a 2017 book by Mandla Langa on the struggle icon’s years as president. ZANU faced a similar constraint in Zimbabwe. Its failure to achieve an outright military victory forced the liberation movement to participate in talks about a new constitution at Lancaster House in London, during sessions facilitated by external mediators.

Unlike ZANU, the TPLF and its allies defeated the Derg regime on the battlefield, and so attained power unencumbered (The Derg [committee] was the Marxist military regime that governed Ethiopia following the 1974 revolution). This served to magnify the convictions and self-belief of the victors, who channelled a popular legitimacy from their military triumph. Initially, an inclusive transitional government was formed, but it collapsed when political rivals questioned the victors’ blueprint for Ethiopia. The TPLF and its allies felt no need to pander to the whims of others, who they regarded as playing lessor roles in the armed struggle.

ZANU and the TPLF again differed in their experience of occupying territory prior to assuming power. Facing the strength of the Rhodesian security forces, ZANU struggled to operate inside the country during daylight hours, but found that this did not rule out work on the ground. Instead, ZANU guerrillas enlisted the assistance of local power brokers, spirit mediums and traditional chiefs, to live in villages undercover, according to David Lan’s 1985 study of the war. To avoid provoking suspicion by day, revolutionaries attempted the political education of local people at night rallies known as pungwe.

Interviewing peasants affected by the struggle, researcher Norma Kriger found that ZANU operatives resorted to coercion to enlist villagers to attend political meetings, as she noted in her 1991 book on the Zimbabwean campaign. In so doing, the guerrillas ignored Maoist teachings included in the movement’s code of conduct – and its central war song, Nzira ye MaSoja(Soldier’s Guide). Mao and his followers had argued against the use of force because it was ineffectual in peasant mobilisation. The failure of ZANU guerrillas to adhere to these principles has left its legacy, establishing norms of violence at odds with the notion of participatory governance. Coercion is entrenched in the party’s DNA, according to Ibbo Mandaza, a former ZANU operative I interviewed in Harare in 2018: “ZANU needs to unleash violence to control.”

The TPLF, by contrast, occupied large swathes of highland Ethiopia, developing strong party structures and forging bonds with host populations. Peasants were offered political education, encouraged to participate in administrative committees known as baitos, and provided with a wide range of services, according to a 1997 study by John Young. This was consistent with Mao’s notion of establishing a “mass line,” as outlined in his treatise On Guerrilla Warfare (1937). The opportunity for leaders to learn the pitfalls of governing peasant populations first-hand undeniably shaped the TPLF’s approach to this problem when it came to power. Ethiopia’s ruling coalition invested heavily in the capacity of kebele (ward) committees in the first decade of office. It later bolstered urban party structures through the establishment of “one-to-five” cells following a highly-contested election in 2005.

Common to both liberation movements, however, is a failure to successfully demobilise. In an interview with me in 2016, Welshman Ncube, a former minister of industry in Zimbabwe’s government of national unity, recounted how South Africa’s acting president, Kgalema Motlanthe, warned him that ZANU-PF was “not a civilian political party”. Similarly, Douglas Mwonzora, the secretary-general of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, regards ZANU-PF as “a military institution”, as he told me in a 2016 interview.

In Ethiopia, the TPLF is no longer the dominant player in the ruling coalition, having been displaced by the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) following the ascent to power of Abiy Ahmed in April 2018. The ODP does not share the history of the TPLF. Its predecessor party was only formed in the final years of the struggle, and it never had to establish a strong connection with the local population. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Abiy is a former intelligence officer who served in the national defence force from 1993-2010. Abiy worked alongside former TPLF guerrillas, learning to speak fluent Tigrinya. He saw action as a peacekeeper following the Rwandan genocide, and as an intelligence operative during the Ethio-Eritrean war.

The centrality of combat to the armed struggle has bequeathed unhealthy civil-military relations across much of the continent. In both Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, ex-combatants were offered posts in integrated armies, and the new incumbents often maintained close ties with their former struggle leaders. This encouraged the new officer class to exploit business opportunities and influence politics, largely with impunity. Zimbabwe’s involvement in the DRC was driven by the desire of military officers to control Congolese mines, rather than any need to defend an ally against aggression. Similarly, war veterans seized commercial farms without facing sanction. In Ethiopia, the recent change of government has prompted the exposure of corrupt practices in the military-owned conglomerate, MetEC.

The November 2017 “military-assisted transition” in Zimbabwe highlights what can happen when powerful securocrats assert their authority over an ailing leader. Despite initial hope and goodwill, the brutality exhibited by the armed forces in Harare on 1 August, 2018 and across the country in late January 2019 is the worst Zimbabwe has seen in a decade. President Emmerson Mnangagwa appears unable or unwilling to reform the Zimbabwean polity – at least as long as his deputy, former general Constantino Chiwenga, remains in his post. Whether Mnangagwa or Chiwenga is truly in charge of Zimbabwe remains a constant preoccupation of the Harare commentariat.

In this regard, ZANU-PF appears to be an outlier. Angola’s head of state, João Lourenço, has upended the system established by José Eduardo dos Santos, who had governed since 1979, inspiring growth in the languishing petro-state. In South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa is attempting a similar renaissance, having narrowly ousted allies of Jacob Zuma to secure the leadership of the ANC. Former liberation movements in Mozambique and Namibia emulate the ANC’s practice of respecting constitutional safeguards and limiting top leadership to two terms.

Thus, beyond Zimbabwe, national liberation movements in power appear to have adopted the norm of changing leaders ahead of elections – convincing voters that the new leader will bring reform. While it may be a facile form of electioneering, such an injection of new blood is essential to avoiding the bunker mentality that predominated during the struggle era. Presidents constrained by term limits have less recourse to retreat into secrecy and misrule, since they know that one day they will leave office and may have to account for their actions.


Nick Branson is senior researcher at Africa Research Institute (ARI), a UK- based think tank, where he has analysed oil and gas legislation and constitutional reform in Tanzania. Prior to joining ARI, Nick advised political parties, governments, legislatures and civil-society organisations across Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone Africa. He is currently a part-time PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.


The elusive psychology of Africa’s leaders

Kenya’s street names get an overhaul for independence in December 1963 Photo: AFP

There is a notable lack of specifically psychological studies of African leadership

Among contemporary black leaders in Africa there is a “widely shared belief … that it is time for Africa to produce leaders with the requisite capacity for high performance and moral impact to ensure that the people of the continent secure their fair share of opportunities in the twenty first century”, according to an undated Foundational Report on the concept of leadership prepared at some stage after 1994 for senior leaders of the ANC, South Africa’s ruling party. Remarkably, the report set out to “identify among South Africa’s multi-ethnic communities, the group or groups with a leadership model or system that comes closest to representing the ideal effectiveness ‘x-factor’”.

Given the failures of so many African governments in the earlier post-colonial period, the Foundational Report suggests that future rulers will need to “restore the credibility and integrity of African traditional leadership”. At the time it was written, though, it concluded that “whatever leadership writing has gone before, this is largely in the realm of anthropological studies, which by definition and approach tend to concern themselves with ‘primitive societies’”. However, a 2017 article by three academics from the University of Pretoria of peer-reviewed studies of leadership in Africa published between 1950 and 2009 reveals considerable growth of interest in the topic. During the 2000s, the main themes that African authors were interested in were: leadership and management, leadership and gender, leadership styles, leadership and African values and political leadership. Meaningful research on the psychological aspects of African leadership is, at present, virtually non-existent.

A psychological understanding of African politics can at present, then, only be arrived at indirectly in the glimpses of it we have in the work of other disciplines, such as history, anthropology and political studies. For example, African statesmen have often argued that they have to contend with a (post) colonial inheritance. Most African countries consist of distinct geographical areas and diverse populations that were artificially yoked together by colonial projects, they say. This has rendered the constituencies which they represent easily fragmented, making divisive politics, with all its underlying ulterior motives, impossible to avoid. This view accords remarkably well with dependency theory, according to which Europe’s underdevelopment of Africa left a structural inheritance of inequality that is impossible to escape.

Zimbabwe is a case in point. ZANU-PF, its ruling party, is now largely regarded as a project of Shona domination, with most of the party’s senior officials belonging to that grouping, according to Clifford Mabhena in a 2014 article in the Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. Moreover, competition for power within the ruling party is often a matter of affiliations to Shona clan affiliations, as Owen Gagare argues in Africa in Fact 39 . On the other hand – although far more rarely – an inheritance of group dynamics can be the occasion for an ideological denial of their existence. Infamously, Rwanda’s politics have been shaped by hostilities between its Tutsi minority and Hutu majority, culminating in the genocide of 1994. Yet its ruling party, the RFP, is widely regarded as Tutsi-dominated, though Paul Kagame’s government officially denies the existence of ethnic groups, as Marie Béatrice Umutesi argues in a 2006 article in the Journal of International Affairs.

Zimabwe represents an extreme case of the more common pattern throughout sub-Saharan Africa: the lack of a specific vision of what a state should look like in a country comprising several, or many identities. This impedes efforts to create wealth and restore dignity to previously colonised populations. Post-colonial African governments’ evident disdain for their constituencies, except at election time, expresses a fairly common pattern, too, across the sub-Saharan region. Between elections, governments appear to govern mainly by various strategies of rent extraction, supported by tactics of containing their citizens and distracting critics.

“Containment” of citizens relates, in the first place, to policies that result in underdevelopment, which hinders citizens’ capacities both to engage with their polities and to pursue life choices that benefit society, such as opening businesses. Development, of course, involves many factors, which include the rule of law, improving education, widening access to health services, building infrastructure and providing efficient governmental services. Despite many continental agreements and expressions of intent, meanwhile, African governments’ achievements during the post-colonial period have been patchy at best.

For example, while African countries’ spending on education improved from just above 3.5% of GDP in 1999 to about 4.5% of GDP in 2015, that relative improvement was only marginally larger than the world as a whole for the same period (4.18% to 4.814%), according to a 2014 report by the African Center for Economic Transformation. Meanwhile, according to a 2015 study by the Africa-America Institute, The State of Education in Africa, sub-Saharan countries spent about $1.5 trillion on public education, while North America spent $32 trillion and Europe some $24 trillion annually. It follows that sub-Saharan countries would have to invest proportions of their GDP some orders higher than their counterparts in other regions to begin the process of clawing back their educational deficits.

Seen like this, the challenges of development might look virtually insurmountable. Yet as noted in the above 2014 report, other developing countries, the “earlier transformers” – Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam – began their trajectories with similar deficits and have succeeded in eradicating them or are in the process of doing so. Policies inevitably involve choices among priorities. As Egbe Ojong Tandu and Mary Anyie Tandu argue in a 2017 paper on Africa’s underdevelopment, the “bazaar mentality of African leaders ha[s] starved the continent of the necessary funds for development”. Whether conscious or not, the lack of serious attempts to narrow developmental deficits results in populations that are less threatening to political elites and therefore can be contained.

A second major tactic frequently employed by African governments is that of distracting critics from the realities of their governance. This is not a new phenomenon. As the Ghanaian-born academic George Ayittey pointed out in a 2005 article, the “externalist doctrine” which “totally absolve[s] the leadership of any responsibility for the mess in Africa” has been around since the 1960s, soon after the independence of many African countries. One of Africa’s longest-reigning dictators, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, often blamed the results of his own failed policies on external factors, among them “greedy western powers, the IMF, the Asian financial crisis and the drought”, as Ayittey puts it. Within Africa, most of his support came from a coterie of political mavericks who had normalised the unacceptable through the frequent use of force against their own citizens.

By the end of the twentieth century, Ayittey argues, African citizens’ attitudes to their leaders had reached a new nadir. He quotes an unemployed Kenyan, speaking in 2002: “All these people [African leaders and elites] do is talk, talk, talk. Then if they do get any money from the wazungu [white men], they just steal it for themselves. And what about us? We have no food. We have no schools. We have no future. We are just left to die.” Ayitteh detected a growing gap between African leaders and the people they governed, with the “leaders increasingly insecure, sensitive, repressive and less responsive to the wishes of society” and the people increasingly regarding the state “with fear, suspicion and cynicism”, and as “no longer legitimate or relevant in their lives”.

The “externalist” pattern of locating responsibility elsewhere was designed to appeal to the collective sentiments, irrespective of their rationality. This phenomenon is far from unique and not exclusively African, but on this continent it is part of a specific recipe for holding onto power: a chauvinist tribalism mixed with a dogmatic rejection of “imperialist and colonialist” influences. The privileges of the new elites are defended by a disingenuous political correctness that publicly claims hostility to the West while privately enjoying its services and consumer goods. Platforms for the acknowledgement of past dignity deprivations and compensatory development are denied to outsider groups.

African leaders often complain about an uneven economic playing field that shuts them out of the mainstream global economy. In outline, this is a version of dependency theory. Yet, just as often, their governments are quite prepared to exploit the world trade system for their own purposes. A good example is Lesotho’s use of its status as a Least Developed Country (LDC), which entitles that country to pay zero duties in its importing markets. In fact, Lesotho’s textiles are produced entirely by Chinese capital, labour and equipment. This defeats the purpose of LDC protection and sends the profits out of Africa. Basothos, meanwhile, are denied the real jobs and investment that the LDC provisions are meant to promote. The only locals who benefit are connected members of the elite, and that in the form of kickbacks, which are, relatively, small change.

Approaches to governance based on the “externalist” justification can look like a mixture of indolence, ignorance and ineptitude, and probably these factors do play a role in Africa’s failures of governance. But looked at more closely, the “externalist” deflection is often used as a rhetorical and psychological tool that helps African elites in their use of their public roles to pursue their private interests. Ideology often plays a merely instrumental role in African leaders’ strategies of power hoarding – the ever-popular anti-western stance, for example. Though it might appear lazy and superficial, it plays on a deep understanding of political landscapes, collective insecurities, historical inheritances, socio-economic aspirations, emotional biases and cultural sensitivities.

Africans’ approval of their leaders – even when they are to all intents and purposes apex predators of their societies – appears to have slightly increased over the past 20 years, as reflected in figures provided by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research network. In a 1991/2000 survey in 11 countries, some 29.1% of the Africans surveyed said they “trusted the president a lot”, while in a 2018 survey of 31 countries (including the previous 11), some 35.3% affirmed the same view. This represents an apparent 6.2 percentage point increase in approval for the continent’s presidents over the period.

However, these averages conceal wide disparities. Africans’ approval of their presidents varies widely between countries. In the 2018 survey, it was 21.8% in South Africa (a new, contested democracy), as compared to 61.8% in Tanzania (effectively, a one-party state). Moreover, even the increased figure compares unfavourably with the 42% of citizens of OECD countries who said they trusted their governments in 2016, according to a 2017 OECD report – a figure which itself represented a decline of some three percentage points after the 2008 global financial crisis.

So to some extent, the “externalist” deflection works. However, it is likely to face serious challenges. Most African countries have moved to a form of democracy (either formal or real), and this is creating expectations of better governance. Africa’s middle class is growing and with it the economic and social requirements of people who see themselves as contributors to the common wealth through production, job creation and taxes. Moreover, technological advances, specifically the Internet, are allowing people to access more information and combine in more effective interest groups than ever before. Greater urbanisation is also providing citizens with more networking opportunities and contributing to their greater awareness of the more abstract values central to national governance.

Yet these developments are also exposing cracks in leadership capabilities, the quality of public administration, inconsistencies in the rule of law and breaches of basic liberties. These problems, in turn, are revealing the need for a transformation of the implicit social contract that has been operative in African nations. They are compelling African citizens to observe and evaluate their leaders and their governance structures more critically, and, in particular, to ask questions about the motives behind the behaviour of their public servants. A kleptocratic state in which the greed of a small elite creates economic mayhem and generates armed conflict is less sustainable in the current Africa than it was just a few decades ago, when a country like Sierra Leone was brought to its knees by the malice of its leaders.

The word “malice” might look too strong here, but some sort of evaluation of this sort must spring to mind when the ideological and policy claims of many African leaders are put alongside their actions and achievements and those of their governments.

It is at this point that Ayitteh’s argument that the externalist arguments about the causes of Africa’s governance crises are largely a quasi-ideological smokescreen and that an “internalist” critique, according to which the most important causes lie mostly within the nature of African governments and how they run their countries’ affairs, becomes important. As he puts it: “This school of thought maintains that while it is true western colonialism and imperialism did harm Africa and continues to do so, Africa’s condition has been made immeasurably worse by such internal factors as misguided leadership, misgovernance, systemic corruption, capital flight, economic mismanagement, declining investment, collapsed infrastructure, decayed institutions, senseless civil wars, political tyranny, flagrant violations of human rights, and military vandalism.” Explanations for some of these aspects at least have generated a vast literature over the decades, including studies in dependency theory and Marxist or Marx-inspired studies. More latterly, studies in development theory and postmodernism have urged the importance of nuance with regard to previous structural accounts that appeared to deny agency to African political actors. But, as earlier noted, there is a notable lack of specifically psychological studies of African leadership.

One reason for this lack can be located in an ongoing debate about the place of psychology in the context of African, or more generally black history. In a 2018 article, for instance, Kevin Cokley and Ramya Garba review developments in black psychology, which they identify as a discipline that challenges “the hegemonic paradigms and racist beliefs perpetuated by Eurocentric approaches to psychology”. In a parallel attempt to outline a specifically African psychology, Augustine Nwoye in a 2015 article argues that an African psychology would represent “a psychology of rehabilitation … that will derive anchor, not in comparing Africans and Europeans, but rather in people’s everyday needs, epistemologies, and world view”. He goes on to argue that an African psychology would, in particular, take account of Africans’ fundamentally communitarian world view, as opposed to the individualistic world view of western or Eurocentric psychology.

Ongoing attempts to re-orient the discipline have, then, resulted in forms of academic protest and “engaged scholarship” that pitch themselves against supposedly “western” psychology. However, rather problematically, this enterprise can be, and often is, framed in ways that do little justice to the object of criticism. Nwoye, for example, holds that Eurocentric psychology is dominated by a “mechanistic or machine-model of human mental life” and that it is based on obsession with quantification. This ignores the very real contributions of figures such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Jean Piaget, among many others. Moreover, there are serious questions about whether an approach to the discipline is aided by such approaches to identity-based theory. “Some psychologists don’t want to talk about ‘groups’ because it brings back apartheid-era discourses of difference,” says Dr Wahbie Long, a lectuer in psychology at the University of Cape Town. “On the other hand, decolonisation discourse within psychology is obsessed with difference. So there’s a paradox if ever there were one.”

Substantive and specifically African studies of the psychology of leadership on the continent must therefore await the outcome of theoretical and ideological debates. For glimpses of the psychological aspects of this subject, we must still turn to studies in other areas. In a 2008 study, Tom Kelsall, argues, for example, that the frustrations of western donors and international agencies with Africa’s poor record of governance are, in part, a result of their own failure to understand “the grain of African ways of doing things”. His study is an example of a new trend among non-African academics to re-orient African studies along lines that take the continent’s long history much more seriously and, in particular, to understand emerging African governance styles as, in part, a continuance of deep traditions. On this view, the so-called Big Man phenomenon can be understood as a rigidification of long-standing traditions of governance by colonial rule that have been exploited by post-colonial elites, as argued by Mahmood Mamdani in a pioneering 1996 study, recently updated (and reviewed in this journal).

The postmodern approach is exemplified in another path-breaking 2000 study by Jean-François Bayart that argued that Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world has been informed by modes of agency (“formalities of action”) that have been used to exploit an often very unequal situation. These modes he identifies as “coercion; trickery; flight; mediation; appropriation and its opposite, rejection”. By deploying some of these types of action, African leaders and their governments have acted in ways that demonstrate an agency that was long discounted by thinkers in a long Hegelian tradition that saw the continent as a whole excluded from, and peripheral to, world history. But for our purposes, the most significant aspect of his study is its (implicit) use of notions that can be accorded a specifically psychological interpretation.

Firstly, Bayart analyses the history of Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world in terms of its “extraversion”, as he puts it, by which he means a tendency to seek external support for internal struggles, by whatever means available. The term is in fact borrowed from Jungian psychology, where it means, very broadly, a tendency to seek validation and satisfaction from sources external to the self. Secondly, his presentation of one of his formalities of action, trickery, derives from similar sources. Trickery, he says is a quality which allows a person to “manipulate hostile forces which are too powerful to be confronted directly, but which can be turned to good account in spite of their hostile nature”. He goes on to point out that the character of the trickster features prominently in African folklore, and to suggest, in passing, that “the truly hybrid character of so many [African] presidents represents the most up-to-date version of such a type”. In this suggestion we have, perhaps for the first time, an indication of a specifically psychological understanding of the personalities of many of Africa’s “Big Man” leaders.

We return to the word “malice”. With regard to the example of Lesotho mentioned above, we might wonder what specifically psychological characteristics would allow a civil servant to seek rents on top of the salary they earn in a country of high unemployment. In the same way, we can ask what kind of personal mentality is involved in the massive, so-called “grand” corruption that has plagued the continent, and which has held back its development. The historical, anthropological and political aspects of this problem have been studied at length. The psychological aspects, however, still await serious study. Bayart’s image of the Big Man as “trickster” is, perhaps, a good start. Like other archetypes, the figure has tremendous potential as an explicator and exemplar of a certain type of human personality on the continent.

As he points out, this figure, as others, has deep roots both in African traditions and contemporary society. Familiar tricksters include “those picaresque individuals who are the true pioneers of modern Africa … smugglers, diamond diggers, currency changers, fraudsters and simple migrants … who find ways of evading laws, frontiers, and official exchange rates.” Others, again, include “practitioners of illegal immigration, the drug trade and fraud on a larger scale”. The figure of the trickster is not always controversial in these senses. Sometimes, indeed, some of our most revered statesmen have themselves been tricksters of a kind. The Senegalese leader Léopold Senghor, for instance, features in that country’s national imagery as “the prototype of the astute politician … the political version of the léek, the hare of Wolof folklore whose cunning is legendary”.

The Foundational Report compiled for the ANC was a perhaps unparalleled effort of an African political party to get to grips with a formidable, age-old problem and to locate it in the broad stretch of human cultures and history: the question of what constitutes effective leadership, and how to recognise or educate good leaders. Yet the effort was largely in vain. As it turned out, Jacob Zuma was the epitome of the trickster, Big Man problem the party thinkers were trying to solve. Such people, it would appear, are simply not amenable to the intellectualisations of “clever” people, whether black or not. For them the issue, if there is one, is simple. Representatives of the “common people”, comedians, have been pointing this out for aeons.

In an ancient Greek play, for instance, a slave questions a politician about his job. “I’m supervisor general of all things here, public and private too.” The slave says: “A great profession, that. What did you do to qualify for it?” The politician answers: “I wanted it.” Fast forward two and half thousand years, and we find Victorian dramatist WS Gilbert reflecting a similar view when he has a duke celebrating his own elevated station in life: “The work is light, and I may add, it’s most remunerative.” And moving forward another hundred years or so, we find Nigerian protesters using humour to express their dissatisfaction with Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida’s military dictatorship. “IBB = 419”, their slogan went, indicating that his claim to democratisation was nothing less than another Nigerian fraud.

Richard Jurgens is editor of Africa in Fact.
LUZ HELENA HANAUER has worked as an international trade project manager with a company focused on public health development. She holds a PhD in international economic law from the University of the Witwatersrand, a LLM from the University of Liverpool and pursued undergraduate law studies at the Universidad Externado de Colombia. She is fluent in Spanish and French and has a thorough knowledge of the cultural, historic, policy and societal landscape of South Africa.