Africa and the myth of the philosopher kings

By Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni

In terms of traditions of thought and leadership paradigms, Africa has been led by warriors, philosophers and the poets.

The leading African political scientist and historian, the late Ali Mazrui, dedicated a lot of his research efforts to the study of African leadership paradigms.

Mazrui described three important paradigms of political leadership in Africa namely the warrior tradition, the tradition of the philosopher kings and the tradition of the poet presidents.

In the warrior tradition African leaders saw themselves as later day warriors who were descendants of Africa’s ancient warriors and would lead their people and countries to battle against the colonial invaders.

The philosopher king tradition is peopled by presidents of Africa who saw themselves as brooding philosophers and meditating princes that would employ and deploy the stamina of their minds in the leadership of their peoples and countries.

The poet presidents were lyricists and poetic presidents who composed poems and songs as part of their leadership and imagination of liberation.

Unlike the British historian Anthony Hamilton Millard Kirk-Greene who wrote of African heads of state contemptuously as deluded natives that were seeking eternity, were eccentric and imagined themselves to be exemplary, Ali Mazrui carried out a sound investigation into and description of African leadership paradigms.

A study of the paradigms that guided African heads of state and their state of the head is important in that Africa cannot honestly navigate itself to the future without sound leadership and political paradigms.

It is the argument of this article that Africa’s leaders, whether in the warrior, philosopher or poet category became captive to the colonial paradigm of politics and leadership, they tried to liberate their countries from colonialism using colonial paradigms of power and leadership.

True to Friedrich Nietzsche’s observation that those who fight monsters should be careful that they do not become monsters, most African leaders who fought colonialism got infected by the colonial paradigm of leadership and became colonial leaders in black skins.

Enter the Philosopher Kings

It is ancient Athenian philosopher Plato who generated the idea of the philosopher kings in his mediations about the ideal republic.

Plato opined that unless society was led by philosophers, until those that were leaders became philosophers, there would be no end to society’s problems.

Plato believed strongly that people that were not philosophers should not be allowed near the leadership of their countries.

Plato’s imagined philosopher kings were also individuals that would have proven their abilities in the military and the arts of physical combat.

In Africa almost all the founding fathers, the first group of black rulers of Africa, came up with their own philosophies of liberation and leadership.

Kwame Nkrumah spoke of the philosophies of consciencism, the African Personality and Pan-Africanism. Julius Nyerere came up with ujamaa or African socialism.

Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia preached the philosophy of humanism as a paradigm of liberation and political leadership. Amicar Cabral was another celebral leader who circulated a lot of political and philosophical aphorisms.

It is to Cabral’s desk that we owe such political ideas as “tell no lies, claim no easy victories.”

Thandika Mkandawire has observed that the founding fathers of Africa even if they were not true philosophers found themselves pretending to be philosophers to the extent that some of them mistook slogans and other incantations as philosophy.

Mobutu Joseph Seseseko of Zaire came up with the philosophy of authenticity under which he banned European names in Zaire, any parent that gave their child an English or French name were immediately arrested and punished for not being authentic Africans.

For all his philosophy, at some point Kwame Nkrumah as life president had more political prisoners in his jails that apartheid South Africa.

Julius Nyerere became infamous for the contempt he had for ethnic groups, he is credited with coining the phrase “the tribe must die so that the nation can live.”

In that way ethnic consciousness was called tribalism, false consciousness and was banned in Tanzania.

Kaunda also perfected the science of detention without trial of some of his political opponents, notwithstanding that he was a self-proclaimed humanist.

No matter the sophisticated philosophies and grand concepts that they coined, African post-colonial leaders found themselves reduced to enemies of the people that they intended to liberate.

The African liberators became African tyrants.

Ali Mazrui suggested that post-colonial social and historical conditions in Africa did not permit democratic rule.

Other scholars have argued that Africa after the colonial experience needed benevolent dictators because revolutionary change cannot be achieved without a strong man or strong woman in the leadership.

I believe that in the process of fighting colonialism African leaders of the liberation movement unconsciously absorbed colonial ways and sensibilities from the oppressor that they were fighting.

Paulo Freire described how the oppressor consciousness can easily infect the oppressed to the extent that they see the world and live their lives in terms that are defined by the oppressor.

There is a strong way in which the African post-colonial political and leadership paradigm mirrored and reproduced the colonial.

Ali Mazrui described how Kwame Nkrumah got into the struggle for liberation as a democrat and left as a tyrant and how he became “a great African and a terrible Ghanaian.”

While the rest of Africa celebrated Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanist vision, at home in Ghana the people were living in fear of the Nkrumah the ruthless dictator. Might it be true that social, historical and political conditions in post-colonial Africa makes democratic and consensual leadership impossible?

The Poet Presidents of Africa.

The poet presidents of Africa are exemplified in Agostinho Neto of Angola and Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal.

The two did not become poets when they were already in power but they got into the struggle for liberation through their poems.

These were the princes of the lyrical and the beautiful who believed that populations could be moved and charmed through song and poem. Even as he was the prince of the lyric and rhyme and reason, Agostinho Neto did not escape the label of tyrant.

In the view of Ali Mazrui, Senghor was poetic before he was political and showed more tolerance towards opponents than most leaders of his time.

The suggestion that Ali Mazrui makes is that political power does not only need philosophy or the very big ideas but it also demands a sense of the poetic and the beautiful, where the leader can charm his people through rhythm and rhyme, and get them to imagine better futures under his leadership.

The poetic tradition is directly opposed to the warrior tradition that believes in power and force Perhaps the ideal African head of state is one that will combine the warrior tradition, the philosopher king tradition and the poetic tradition, a balanced leader who knows when to be tough, who can philosophise and also serenade the population with pulsating poetry and oratory.

In Africa and elsewhere, oratory is an important leadership quality and the founding fathers of Africa became known for being fire eating orators.

Post-colonial Managerialism

The African founding fathers, those political leaders who took over from the colonial administrators after decolonisation entered leadership already with the seeds of their failure in their hands.

The paradigm of politics and leadership that they carried were still colonial.

The states that the leaders headed were still colonial states and the African leaders simply became managers of a colonial system that they inherited. Before anyone noticed our liberators had become our new oppressors in Africa.

These leaders, some of them, mistook simple slogans and ideological statements for philosophy and pretended to be philosopher kings when in actuality they were black managers of the colonial system which the new flags and new national anthems could not eradicate.

Sixty years after the first African country was delivered from juridical colonialism, Ghana in 1957, it is important for Africans to reflect on the myths and fictions of decolonisation and generate ideas and political paradigms that make a break from the colonial to the decolonial.

This might be the time for new political and leadership paradigms in Africa.

• Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni writes from South Africa

June 2017
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