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Truth to power

Beatings, embarrassments and bad luck bedevil African leaders

Fingers crossed: Goodluck Jonathan failed to impress in Paris. EPA/Christophe Karaba

It has been an interesting month for leaders across Africa. Goodluck Jonathan finally declared a “total war” against Boko Haram despite not having the means to wage one, and after a puzzlingly sluggish response time (“Lightning Jonathan” might well become his new ironic nickname). He was taken for a total lightweight by the assembled world leaders at May’s Paris summit, who came away muttering that they were less than impressed by Nigeria’s accidental, lacklustre and luck-free president.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s re-elected Jacob Zuma gave a victory speech that crowed at his defeated opposition, while including nothing but platitudes about the state of his country and its people and what he would do for them. But he also finally did something genuinely symbolic: he appointed the first openly gay cabinet minister in the continent of Africa, Lynne Brown.

This was of course in keeping with the South African constitution, which remains the most advanced in the world on the measure of guaranteed equality for all groups and persuasions. If it was meant to send a signal to a seemingly homophobic continent, it still did nothing to stop the inauguration of Ugandan foreign minister Sam Kutesa as head of the UN General Assembly.

That was an ill-starred appointment indeed. Kutesa supported the Ugandan legislation that proscribed homosexuality and set terrifyingly harsh penalties for its practice, and said himself that Africa abhorred homosexuality. The Ugandan gay community has shown much defiant resistance. It held a gay pride march on August 4 2013, which was mercifully unmarked by violence. But the climate of Ugandan politics and the new legislation make a repeat highly unlikely.

The same cannot be said for the Zimbabwean riot police, sent into Harare’s Budriro township to warn the Johane Masowe Chishanu Apostolic sect against their controversial behaviour. Clad in their white robes, the sect confronted the riot police and beat them to a pulp.

Members of the opposition MDC, often beaten to a pulp themselves by the same riot police, might take some pleasure in videos of the spectacle and the hip-hop soundtrack that has been married to the footage in viral videos.

But the sect was targeted after accusations of abuse against women and children, and that reflects one thing that has gone right in Zimbabwe: the adoption last year of a strange new constitution. It is studded with “exceptional” clauses that allow the ruling ZANU-PF party to behave exactly as it wishes to for the next ten years – but it is also very strong on gender rights. So here we have the riot police going in to enforce gender rights and taking a beating which, from the footage, appeared comprehensive.

Meanwhile, in the north of the continent, Egyptian military leader Abdufattah al-Sisi turned the clock back to the days of Mubarak, using elections as a tool; in neighbouring Libya, rogue general Khalifa Hafta similarly set about crushing Islamic militias on the pretext of maintaing stability, while a fractious and useless civilian leadership fumed and continued to argue with itself. “Wait until elections,” cried the Libyan leaders – but in such a mismanaged country, elections will not solve anything for now.

Nor will they solve anything in Malawi, where the election of Peter Mutharika restablished another old order after the blip of Joyce Banda’s presidency. Brother of Bingu, the late president whom Banda succeeded, Mutharika defeated the second-placed candidate, Lazarus Chakwera, who himself represented an even older order – that of Hastings Banda, and the shadow of his totalitarianism.

Joyce Banda came a poor third, victim of her own appalling inability to govern or recognise what good government might mean. Those who follow her might not know either – but it is a sorry shame for Africa’s first female president south of the equator.

All in all, May 2014 hardly presented a spectacle of brilliant, wise, perceptive, forward-looking, strategically-informed, democratically-committed, well-advised African leaders with both a common touch and common sense. It has all been fodder for Afro-pessimists, and for those who delight, even if for the wrong reasons, in the spectacle of Zimbabwean bully boys finally getting their comeuppance in a flurry of white robes, shepherd staves and vengeful, pent-up fury.

And unless they learn to lead their people to something resembling a better future, similar explosions of fury may yet engulf many other lacklustre and misguided African leaders.

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