Shame of Africa’s endless cycle of megalomania

Saturday October 08 2022
Burkina Faso's Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba.

Burkina Faso's Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. PHOTO | AFP


In January this year, Col Henri Damiba overthrew the government of Burkina Faso President Roch Kabore. The army man accused Kabore of laxity in many areas, especially defence.

An Islamist insurgency that had begun in 2015 had taken over huge swathes of territory, killed thousands of people and forced over 2 million people to flee their homes. As in other places where the jihadists have struck — from Iraq to northern Nigeria —  the violence against civilians was extreme in its depravity. Now the self-styled saviour of Burkina Faso has himself been overthrown by Captain Ibrahim Traore. 

Damiba, says the new saviour, failed in many areas, especially defence.  I can bet my last shilling that Traore, too, will fail in many areas, especially defence.

This column has over the years tried to analyse why Africa keeps failing. My consistent argument has been that the crisis of development in is underpinned by a crisis of governance.  We have totally failed to transition from a traditional concept of leadership to a modern concept of leadership.

In traditional Africa, the leader was a Big Chief. The chiefs were adorned with gold. They dispensed wisdom and largesse as a measure of their greatness. They seduced every beautiful maiden as testimony to their virility. Often, they required their subjects to prostrate themselves before them. The chief’s word was final. Anyone with the temerity to contradict the chief quickly became, as they say, “food for the vultures.”

Some pan-Africanist ideologues have claimed that pre-colonial African political leadership was “democratic”.  Jomo Kenyatta, in Facing Mount Kenya, writes that “before the coming of the Europeans, the Gikuyu had a democratic regime.” But this romanticising of traditional governance has been discounted by several scholars.


Writes S. Kiwanuka in the History of the Baganda: “When powerful enough, Baganda kings would endure few limitations”. In Democratic Theory and Practice in Africa, V.C Simiyu writes: “When colonialism came to Africa, it found mixtures of rudimentary democratic institutions and despotism.” The modern African leader has transposed the traditional concept of leadership onto leadership in the modern era. Thus the endless motorcades. The endless greed for money and land. The use of state resources as tools of patronage. The praise-singing and ostentatious ceremonies. The pointless trips abroad.

Governance as a cog in development is voided. Instead, what we have is a concept of power devoid of any function other than self-aggrandisement. Ali Mazrui has talked about the way modern African presidents have transformed themselves into traditional chiefs.

So the new rulers of Burkina Faso will not end the insurgency. They will not improve the economic wellbeing of the people. They are installing themselves as traditional chiefs. Then they, too, will be deposed, and other power-hungry megalomaniacs will take over and install themselves as traditional chiefs.

Haiti is increasingly looking like Africa’s future.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator