Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Why Africans are apathetic about bad governance

Posted by CM on April 2, 2007

Here is an interesting thesis by Charles Onyango-Obbo, a managing editor at Kenya’s Nation Media Group:

An observer of the goings-on in Africa called from the US to ask me a tough question : “Why is it,” he wanted to know, “that African strongmen tend to seem more powerful and entrenched at the point when their political record is at its worst?” It had always puzzled him, he said, because at the point when African residents are presiding over flourishing economies and therefore have the money and groceries with which they can buy support, they also seem to be weak.

But when they turn their countries into a shambles, with inflation soaring close to 1,800 per cent as in Zimbabwe and nothing to bribe their people with, everyone seems helpless to remove them. Today, the Zimbabwean government cannot maintain the army and police in the style hey are accustomed to, yet they are more zealous in cracking the skulls of the opposition than when life was better.

East Africa offers some answers. In the bad old days of military ruler Idi Amin in Uganda, for example, we learnt that when an economy collapses, the few parts of it that are still working are almost always in the hands of regime officials and supporters. The opposition supporters have nothing, and therefore they can’t fund anti-government politics. The opposition needs an economy that is doing well to thrive, which is the lesson we glean from Kenya today.

The only problem with that is that there may not be enough anger, because things aren’t bad enough, to cause enough people to kick the government out at elections. And by the time matters are bad enough and there is sufficient anger, there is no economic infrastructure to support rivals.

A situation where people have nothing, however, is fertile for armed rebellion. Therefore, if people don’t take up arms or resort to drawn-out street action (as in Kenya during Daniel arap Moi’s rule), then the strongman will survive. Militant action brings results (though not always) partly because there is a limit to how long policemen on empty stomachs can chase demonstrators around, or hungry soldiers can dig in against rebels.

It might give us another explanation for the apathy of many Africans in the face of bad government. There is a view that peoples who have endured the long and painful history of slavery, which then gave way to colonialism, have a strong tendency toward self-preservation. For that reason, of all the people in the world the African is the least likely to be a suicide bomber. An offshoot of this is that many of us cannot easily be persuaded to put our necks on the line and die in the process, in the hope that the lives of our children will be better.

Moreover, one senses that because a lot of the liberation wars and “people power” revolutions that have swept corrupt and brutal old-style governments out of Africa in the past 20 years have failed to bring a better life, the distrust of politics among ordinary people has grown deeper.

Where the line between the good and bad guys is fuzzy, it is always the bad guys, like Mugabe, who benefit.


As interesting as Onyango-Obbo’s ideas are, they do not explain why, using the case of Zimbabwe, people were able to overcome their strong sense of preservation and take part in a brutal armed conflict against Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. But his overall point may still be valid : the collective societal remembrance of the brutality of the war may very well account for Zimbabweans’ extreme reluctance to slide back towards anything similar. This is particularly so when the Mugabe government has gone out of its way to show it would not only be willing to use any measures against protest, but may even be itching, eager to do so.


One Response to “Why Africans are apathetic about bad governance”

  1. madmouser said

    Can’t some bright, energetic political leaning person tell the masses what is happening and encourage them to vote out the bad guys? There must be someone who can arise from the ashes and take his people to a higher ground.

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