Cameroon strongman Paul Biya, will turn 87 in about three weeks. Nearing 45 years in power, he is Africa’s and the world longest ruling non-royal executive national leader.
Biya is now doing a Robert Mugabe. Decades in power, in his 90s, and ill, the former Zimbabwe dictator clung to power, insisting on attending international events and making a spectacle of himself. If you are a big man, at some point you have join other rulers on a stage for things like a photograph, or get on a pulpit to deliver some great wisdom.
Unwell, Mugabe would try to take a few steps to join his peers, and would stall on the stairs, clinging desperately to the rails as he slowly slid to the ground. Guards would rush to hold him up.
At the India-Africa Forum Summit, host Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to rescue him from disgrace.
At the end of last year, a video circulated on the internet, showing Biya on an official visit to Paris.
He was being ushered through a grand entrance, and had to take just one step. Flailing like a feather in the wind, he approached the stairs, unable to take that one step. A French official helped him over, and he wobbled inside.
One of the most valuable traits we can have, is knowing our limits and coming to terms with the march of the clock, that comes to us all.
Thus, it is only a foolishly optimistic 100-year-old man who takes a 25-year-old wife. An ailing 90-year-old president should know that if he insists on mounting the speaker podium at the UN General Assembly, he will likely embarrass himself and country.
In life, we have caring family who protect us from such disgrace. The older children of the 100-year-old widower, would veto their father’s bid to marry a 25-year-old if they love him.
If as a president you can’t walk from the bedroom to the dining table on your own, a diligent First Lady will draw the line and say you will not go to a state visit to Europe where you will be required to walk twice the distance to make a toast.
If your children, wife (or husband) can’t prevent such calamity, the state should have the structures to do so. It couldn’t in the case of Mugabe, and can’t in the case of Biya, because they were/are the state. They are the law. They are the beginning. They are the end.
This in part is because too much, including the economy, is still too concentrated in the African state, for many people, they won’t eat or live a good life, unless they please the ruler.
Acting in any way that acknowledges his frailties and infirmities, can be career-ending, because it would be saying he’s unfit to be in office. So, they all play along.
A government position is so crucial, a few days ago in Uganda a young politician recently appointed minister by President Yoweri Museveni, was hoisted and sat on a plastic on a hot tin roof of a house in his village, when he visited to celebrate winning a political lottery. Such a man would tell Museveni he can win the London marathon with a new record, even if “Mzee”, as they call him, couldn’t get out of a wheelchair.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is The author is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]