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Sunday, July 31, 2022

Joe Biden, Donald Trump, And Turning Eighty - Old Age Never Stopped The Big Men Of Africa

Image result for images bokassa emperor

Hastings Banda, President for Life of Malawi presided over one of the most repressive regimes in Africa, an era that saw political opponents regularly tortured and murdered. Human rights groups estimate that at least 6,000 people were killed, tortured and jailed without trial. As many as 18,000 people were killed during his rule, according to one estimate. He maintained full diplomatic relations with the apartheid government in South Africa. By 1993, after decades of autocratic rule, he was stripped of his office, forced to face the electorate, and was defeated.  He was 90.

Paul Biya, President for Life in Cameroon is still in office at the age of 90.  On 6 November 1982, following the resignation of President Ahidjo, Biya rose to the highest office.  In 1984, the presidential guard attempted a coup. From that moment on, Biya began to become more authoritarian and ruthless; and during his regime hundreds of people have been killed, especially in the north of Cameroon. Former President Ahidjo, considered an accomplice to the putschists, was sentenced to death in absentia.

Paul Kagame, President for Life of Rwanda, rose to power thanks to his fight against the Hutus during the genocide; but as he consolidated power, he became more autocratic. Rights organizations have made serious allegations against Kagame. Human Rights Watch, claims that since Kagame took office, people have been prosecuted for doubting the official government's explanation about the genocide. The rights body lists a long series of murders, disappearances, politically motivated arrests and illegal arrests of critics, opposition members and journalists.

Kagame himself has, at times, unashamedly commented on such allegations, as in the case of former secret service chief and dissident Patrick Karageya, who was strangled to death at a hotel room in South Africa: "Rwanda did not kill this person. But I wish Rwanda had done it," Kagame said. Kagame is only 64, but foresees a long run as President for Life of Rwanda.

Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for over thirty years until forced to resign at the age of 93.  Like Kagame, he rose to power as a legitimizing political force, but as he accrued and consolidated more and more power, his rule became authoritarian and autocratic, and any traces of democracy, promised in his early years, disappeared.  

Mobutu Sese Seko, President for Life in Zaire (Congo) ruled the country for over thirty years and was forced into exile by rebel forces.  Although he was only 67 at the time, had he been able to navigate and exploit the rebellious forces in the country, he would have ruled well into his 90s. Mobutu was notorious for corruption, nepotism, and the embezzlement of between US$4 billion and $15 billion during his rule.

Image result for Images Mobutu. Size: 206 x 206. Source: afrique.lalibre.be

In December 1976 Jean-Bedel Bokassa assumed the title Emperor Bokassa I and changed the name of his country to the Central African Empire. He was crowned a year later—in emulation of his hero, Napoleon I—in a lavish ceremony that cost more than $20 million. By this time Bokassa’s rule had effectively bankrupted his impoverished country, and his reign as emperor proved to be short-lived.

Following the substantiation of international charges that Bokassa had personally participated in a massacre of 100 schoolchildren by his imperial guard, French paratroops carried out a military coup against him .Bokassa went into exile, first traveling to Côte d’Ivoire but later settling in France.  He was only in his early 70s when he died, but had it not been for the French coup, he would have remained as President for life.

Geriatric dictatorship is not confined to Africa. President for Life Francois Papa Doc Duvalier ruled Haiti for decades and would have continued his autocratic rule well into his 90s had he not died in office. 

The Tonton Macoute, the undercover death squad organized by Duvalier indiscriminately killed Duvalier's opponents and became so influential that everyone was fearful of expressing any form of dissent.  

Ali Khamenei, 83, is the clerical, spiritual, and political leader of Iran; and given his status, power, and religious authority in a very religiously conservative country, he has no intention of resigning, facing the electorate, or tolerating any dissent.  If all goes well, he will rule well into his 90s.

Mahathir Mohamad, President for Life of Malaysia, while no brutal dictator was never known for enlightened democracy. He used the controversial Internal Security Act to detain activists, non-mainstream religious figures, and political opponents. . Mahathir's record of curtailing civil liberties in Malaysia was well known in the West which chose to publicly condemn his actions but privately to tolerate them.  In 2016, Mahathir quit UMNO over the 1MDB corruption scandal, and in 2020 was forced to resign under pressure as he refused to give up the Presidency voluntarily. He was 95.

Image result for images president iran khamenei

Joe Biden is under intense scrutiny because of his age, now (7/22) a few months from 80; and many even within his own party are quietly suggesting that he demur and not run for re-election in 2024.  It isn’t so much his age, but his mental competence that is called into question. He has none of the will, determination, character, or personal authority that enabled Africa’s big men to acquire, retain, and extend their rule.  

He is now a caricature of a doddering old man, helped to walk in a straight line and corralled by his aides to never go off script and to pick only the most generous reporters from the press pool.  He is a shambles and doomed to lead his party to defeat in the mid-term elections of this year and in the presidential poll in two years.

Donald Trump is 76 – hale, unrepentant, aggressively political, ambitious, influential, virile and at the top of his game – and it is clear that he would like to be the first Big Man Of America, President for Life, ruler ad infinitum, consolidating his rule, stifling criticism, thwarting opposition, and governing the country well into his 90s just like his African colleagues.  America has a few more roadblocks to this ambition than Africa, a continent where since independence autocracy and big man control have been the rule, not the exception, but that does not mean that Trump cannot dream.

As much as inveterate Trump haters refuse to admit it, he had charm, exuberance, charisma, and confidence.  The Trump presidency was, after decades of temperance and the appearance of good will and sound rule, a release, a catharsis, a happy time.  America is, after all, not the land of Pablo Casals, Robert Frost, New England, patrician manners and breeding; but one of Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the mean streets of New York.  

We are a nation of brawlers, hucksters, snake oil salesmen, strip tease artists, and con men; a nation of parades and fireworks, band concerts, bass fishing, guns, and tobacco.   It felt good to have one of us in office, and the reason why the January 6 ‘insurrection hearings’ have so little resonance in Trump country is because there has always been an admiration for the outrageous and the unthinkable.

History, of course, is on the side of African big men and autocrats.  Genghis Khan did not extend his empire from Japan to Europe thanks to cake and ale but through unbridled ambition, power, intelligence, brutality, and will.  Rome was ruled by the likes of both Augustus and Nero, Claudius,  Marcus Aurelius, Caligula, Commodus, and Trajan – great leaders and despots, subject to popular rule only intermittently during episodes of republican government and even then, governed martially and completely.

The Persian and Indian Empires were no different, producing visionary leaders like Darius I and Ashoka and those with limited, crass vision and venal ambition. 

Image result for images augustus caesar

Mugabe, Kagame, Banda, Duvalier, and Mobutu all came to power during heady times of independence or nationalism.  They had legitimacy based on their patriotism, personal appeal, political savvy, and intelligence.  They were appealing and heroic; and their quick descent into big man autocracy is only proof of the saying about absolute power corrupting absolutely.  The best of Persian, Roman, and Indian emperors and kings had the same universal appeal.

Democracy is a relatively new phenomenon, challenged at every turn.  It is no coincidence that two of the world’s most influential powers, Russia and China are ruled by supreme leaders, presidents for life, ambitious men who link themselves to past glory, empire, and international influence.  Big men will not go away, but will be carried away.  It has always been so.

Yet this does not diminish the appeal of big men, or at least those men of virility, ambition, and will – men who will always rise to power and will extend their rule well into their 90s if they possibly can.  Eighty means nothing to Donald Trump or any African big man.  It means everything for Biden.

Poor Joe, stumbling and bumbling as he approaches 80, supernumerary,  a politician well past his pull date who will soon be escorted to the wings.  He is in office because of the vitriolic hatred for Donald Trump by the embittered Left, not because anyone thought he would be an influential, let alone charismatic leader. He was the antithesis of Trump, a man of temperance and moderation; yet his happy smile disguised an empty suit, and the anti-Trump candidate has turned out to be a presidential cipher, run by his aides, a man of platitudes and vagaries who would rather be in a chaise longue in Delaware than in the White House.

He will soon get his wish.  The brouhaha of American presidential politics is only just beginning, and who knows what kind of President will come next?

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