“No one will treat his imitator like an equal” – Franz Fanon
On a recent trip to the USA, I was awakened to the serious damage that we, Africans, have done to ourselves by copying blindly the term limits we impose on our leaders just so we are in alignment with what the Americans and the Europeans do, even though conditions in their countries and our countries are totally different. Thinking about it, as I sat in a minibus travelling from Lowell in Massachusetts back to New York City, a 4-hour journey, my mind went to the exploits of Winston Churchill, Britain’s prime minister of the World War II years, and wondered if Africa cannot learn something from some of the good things he said and did, or even from how other countries behaved, and still behave, in the face of adversity, and adapt it to suit our local conditions.
Before my trip to the USA, I had been reading the entry on Churchill in the revised version of the book, Speeches that Changed the World, published by Quercus of Bloomsbury Square, London, and I was held spellbound by Churchill’s single-mindedness and strong determination not to accept defeat even when defeat was standing right in front of him, eyeball to eyeball. And this was a man, who earlier on in his political career, had felt intellectually inferior to many of his peers because he did not go to university. Yet, rather than sit down and moan about his condition (as many of us are wont to do), Churchill, who had a slight lisp and a stammer, visited speech therapists and practised words and gestures in front of a mirror to enhance his speech-making prowess.
According to the book, Churchill “sometimes spent weeks constructing speeches, refining and improving them, and he came up with a style that was unique. His vocabulary was extremely large, filled with inventive word play, alliteration, vivid imagery and metaphor.” Humble reader, please mind the phrase: “He came up with a style that was unique”, for I will come back to it later. Churchill was first elected to Parliament in 1900. His moment came 40 long years later when on 10 May 1940, with Hitler’s troops at the gate of the Low Countries, the then British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, whose earlier peace pact with Hitler had shattered his reputation in Britain, recommended to King George VI that Churchill become the new prime minister.
The man with the slight lisp and stammer felt as though, as he put it later, “all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour”. Three days later, in his first speech to the House of Commons as prime minister, Churchill set the goalposts: “I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many, months of struggle and suffering. “You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs – victory in spite of all terrors – victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”
Then as the War went on, and the British ally, France, was losing battle after battle, and it became clear that the British Isles would not be able to resist a German invasion, Churchill dramatically roused his fellow Britons by telling them: “If this long island of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” Perhaps Churchill’s greatest speech by a country mile came when the War had become much tougher for Britain as Germany chalked one victory after another. With his nation facing mortal danger, Churchill felt obliged to stir British passions not to give up.
“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail,” he told his countrymen and women. “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
What is the moral, in terms of Africa, of this long extract from Churchill? The book says: “He came up with a style that was unique”. As I sat in the minibus travelling from Lowell to New York City, I watched in admiration as it changed motorway after smooth motorway after smooth motorway, until we reached the New York suburb of Bronx. By now it had long dawned on me how myopic Africans have been in imposing 4-year or even 5-year presidential limits on our countries when there is a huge difference between the responsibilities of the American president and the presidents of Africa.
From what I saw, the American president, now in the shape of Barack Obama, does not have to build any motorway or school or university or electricity plant or water supply project or hospitals or airports or anything! Everything has already been built, and is in tip-top condition – except the New York Subway which is pretty awful! On top of it, the American president has an army of top civil servants, bureaucrats, technocrats, hawks, doves, and other sundry officials to help him administer the Federation, while state governors do their bit in the 50 states. No wonder American presidents have so much time on their hands. On the other hand, if we take for example my president in Ghana, John Mahama, who equally has a 4-year term to bring prosperity to Ghana, he has to think about how his government will get money to build roads and motorways, schools and universities, water supply and electricity plants, hospitals and airports, and even public toilets! Everything has to be built from scratch.
Yet, in our glorious short-sightedness, our national Constitution gives Mahama only 4 years in office to do all that. And, with our hands on our hearts, we do sincerely believe that Mahama will be able to achieve all that in 4 years. What simpletons we are! Why must we do as the Americans? At one crucial point in time, one American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had four consecutive terms (of 4 years each) in office – ie, he was there for 16 years because conditions in the USA at the time warranted his continued presence in office.
Let me ask: What stops us from behaving like Churchill – “He came up with a style that was unique”. Why can’t we come up with a political system that is unique to our conditions in Africa? Even in Europe, Britain now has a fixed term of 5 years for its prime ministers. France used to have a 7-year-term for its presidents, now it is down to 5 years. Tell me, what do British prime ministers and French presidents do that they need 5 years to accomplish? They don’t have to build any new motorways or universities or water supply systems or electricity projects or hospitals. All these are already built and they have well-functioning local councils to look after them. Yet, the PMs and presidents stay in power for 5 years!
And the African president, who has so much to do, is given 4 years, at most 5, to do all that? Why can’t we think outside the box – and do things outside the box? Is it any wonder that 5-year, and 7-year development plans are non-existent in Africa? If the president and his government have only four years in office, why should they bother to think about, let alone launch, a 5-year development plan, when the next president will just ignore it and start afresh. It’s logical, isn’t it! If the president has just 4 years to seek re-election, it’s logical that short-termism will be his philosophy. He will do the short-term things that will win him votes.
But history shows that no nation has developed under short-termism. Africa has unique circumstances. Therefore, my humble solution would be to make our leaders stay in office for two terms of 7 years each – 14 years should be enough for any serious leader to put his mark on the development of his country. And even more radically, African countries should allow their Parliaments to develop national development plans (5-year to 50-year plans) and insert them as clauses in the national constitutions, to be binding on all governments, so that even if a president is only in office for 4 years, he would be obliged by the national development plan to continue from where the previous government left off. This would, besides bringing stability to national development, also stop the damaging practice whereby new governments abandon national projects started by previous governments, to the detriment of hard-won national funds and other resources. The time has come for Africa to reconsider the way we run our countries.