Current Affairs Speaker's Corner

What turns African heroes into villains?

What turns African heroes into villains?
  • PublishedFebruary 27, 2020

Many African leaders, especially the old guard that led Africa to independence, started out as heroes but became villains. And the pattern is being repeated. Why is this? Allen Choruma explores the fatal weaknesses of the ‘Strong Men of Africa’ 

The legacies of most of our old-guard leaders in Africa – Presidents and Prime Ministers – are tainted and they do not qualify to be labelled as heroes.

A common trait of many of our leaders is that they are humble when they start to climb the political ladder, but as soon as they reach its upper parts, they turn their backs, scorning the ordinary people who helped them ascend to power.

What should be written as Robert Mugabe’s epitaph as he lies interred in his tomb? Looking at his life all told, including his early days as a freedom fighter, was he a hero or villain on balance?

This question may have been given additional vigour in newspaper columns, on the radio and TV, and in social media with the passing of Mugabe but it is an old question that keeps popping up regularly at the demise of national leaders.

Revered leaders 

As a general rule, African leaders who fought to get rid of brutal colonial regimes and bring independence to their people, are often revered, and their memories are festooned with colourful and inspiring accolades.

African liberation heroes – the likes of Nkwame Nkurumah, Sékou Touré, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenneth Kaunda, Samora Machel, Sam Nujoma, Nelson Mandela and, yes, Robert Mugabe – to name a few, come to mind.  

These were selfless and dedicated people who worked tirelessly with others and sacrificed a great deal to liberate the oppressed Black people from the shackles of colonial rule. They did this even though at the time, it was said the Black man ‘would not rule in Africa’ for a thousand years.

They endured prison, beatings, torture and exile but they did not give up the dream of freedom even when it seemed impossible.

These were the stalwarts of African liberation, dedicated pan-Africanists who stood unwavering for the total liberation of Africa from the vestiges of Western colonialism and imperialism.

Two shades

But the irony is that a handful of these great revolutionaries, in their later years, used brutal force against their own people, just as the colonialists they fought against had, to quell dissent.

They deployed state apparatus to silence those with opposing views, they turned a blind eye to mismanagement of the economy through political patronage, corruption and wanton looting of state resources for personal gain, driving people into the trenches of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

These are the two shades of most African leaders – heroes and villains.

Millions of Africans have been forced to leave their mother continent for political and economic reasons, through repressive leadership, and are scattered all over the world, especially the Western world. They have no kind words for their leaders.

Craving for power

The weakness of most African leaders is the craving for power and desire to stay in power for as long as it takes and by whatever means, fair or foul.

We have many examples of heroes turned villains, from the list of living and departed African leaders. 

In 2019, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria – not to mention Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe in 2017 – were unceremoniously removed from office. 

These leaders should have left the political stage when the applause from their people was at its loudest pitch.

The common trait of the so-called ‘Strong Men of Africa’, is that they overstay in office and forget why they were elected to power in the first place.

As Anver Versi, Editor of New African magazine, puts it in his editorial comment, April 2019 edition, the one and only responsibility for leaders when they hold office, is “to do everything in the considerable power vested in them by the people, to fulfil the wishes of the people and employ state resources, including the human capital, to alleviate problems faced by their citizens and improve their standards of living. They have no other function.”

That in a nutshell is the function of political leaders. They are all aware of this when they campaign or start their terms. Then something happens to corrupt them. As they say, ‘power corrupts and absolute power, corrupts absolutely’.

But Nelson Mandela was a rare breed. I am not here to romanticise Mandela, but to speak about what he did right; that which many African leaders have failed to do in the past and present.

Mandela, on being asked if he was going to run for a second term as President of South Africa, said: “At the end of my term I will be 81. I don’t think it’s wise that a robust country like South Africa should be led by an octogenarian. You need a younger man who can shake and move this country.”  

Truer words could not have been spoken. 


History shows us that the longer a leader stays in power, the more they get paranoid. The longer they stay in power, the more disconnected they became from the welfare, needs and aspirations of their citizens. 

Their motorcades and security personnel grow bigger and bigger as they grow older and older and more fearful. They build bigger walls around themselves and most exist in a virtual world, surrounded by ‘yes people’ and totally cut off from the trials and tribulations of their people.

His Highness Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum commented in his book, My Vision: Challenges in the Race for Excellence:

“If a leader only sees his entourage and palace, and has no contact with his people, their problems and social aspirations, his vision, thoughts and decisions will move in one direction and those of his people will move in another.”

New Africans

The majority of Africa’s youths, dubbed ‘the New Africans’, look at the current crop of leaders with disdain in the face of poverty, unemployment, inequality and lack of opportunities.

The voice of the New Africans should not be ignored. According to the UN, out of Africa’s 1.2bn people, 60% (720m), are below 24 years of age.

As Winnie Odinga, in her article, ‘African Youth Favour Untainted Heroes’, (New African, October/November 2019), puts it, heroes for African youths “are cut from a different cloth”.

In other words, African youths are not moved by accolades and praises given to their leaders. They want leaders who create conducive environments for their talents to blossom and enable them to realise their dreams.

They want leaders who create opportunities and jobs, so they can make a decent living.

The call to African leaders is: Leave behind an untainted legacy that will be cherished, today and tomorrow, by current and future generations.    

Written By
Allen Choruma

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