THIS week, Burkina Faso’s transitional president Michael Kafando was sworn in, a career diplomat and former finance minister.
Kafando immediately named Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Zida as prime minister, in a move widely seen as an attempt by Zida – who initially took power following the ousting of long-serving Blaise Compaore – to remain in position to influence who takes over after the one-year transition period.
Kafando, a career diplomat and former finance minister has been described as “colourless”, but the pool from which he was chosen was definitely not, comprising journalist Cherif Sy, who founded a weekly that had been bitingly critical of Compaore, former television presenter and journalist Newton Ahmed Barry, and sociologist and ex-minister Josephine Ouedraogo.
Although they were not selected, Sy and Barry’s mere presence on that list is notable. Journalists in Africa, routinely harassed, beaten and imprisoned, rarely even make it that high on the political ladder – they are most often the target of the authorities’ ire.
Journalists bad presidents
You would think that a journalist, with their sharp political consciousness, would make a great president. But history tells us that it is not necessarily so.
One of Africa’s most brutal dictators, Mobutu Sese Seko, though trained as a soldier, also had a journalism career in the army, contributing pseudonymously on contemporary politics for a magazine called Actualites Africaines.
In 1956, he quit the army to become a full-time journalist, writing for the daily newspaper L’Avenir, and receiving journalism training in Belgium.
When he became president, his media background contributed to his deft crafting of a personality cult around himself - for weeks at a time, Zaire’s official press was forbidden to mention the name of any other Zairian than the president himself. At one point, newspapers carried a full front page photo of him every day, and the evening news was preceded by an image of him descending through clouds from the heavens.
Another notable journalist-president was Rwanda’s first president Gregoire Kayibanda. He edited two Catholic newspapers in the 1950s, and was trained as a journalist in Belgium. Founder of the virulently pro-Hutu party Parmehutu, Kayibanda’s persuasive skills as a journalist nurtured and clarified what is now referred to as “genocide ideology”, using radio broadcasts as early as the late 1950s to spread the “Hutu Power” message.
But not all journalist-presidents have been publicity-seeking, hatred-spreading despots. Tanzania’s third president Benjamin Mkapa is a former journalist, who served as managing editor of The Nationalist and Uhuru newspapers, and later, The Daily News and The Sunday News.
He went on to serve as press secretary to first president Julius Kambarage Nyerere, and was the founding editor of the Tanzania News Agency. His ten-year rule from 1995-2005 was relatively successful and peaceful although he disliked the free media and never lost an opportunity to say how much he despised journalists.
And Nigeria’s first president Nnamdi Azikiwe was a journalist and prolific essayist, though he was deposed in a coup just six years after independence, so there is no knowing how his rule would have turned out if he had stayed longer. He was unsuccessful in seeking re-election in 1979 and 1983.
Faced with the challenge of clarifying their national vision and charting a way forward for their countries going, most of Africa’s founding presidents had to be writers and thinkers of some variety. Those with a leftist leaning tended to be the most prolific writers, in the footsteps of other socialist and communist theorists Marx, Lenin and Mao.
Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser wrote three books on the philosophy of the Egyptian revolution and his vision for Arab unity.
Muammar Gaddafi had The Green Book, “intended to be required reading for all Libyans”, in which he set out his brand of political philosophy, and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere had an extensive collection on his version of “African socialism” called Ujamaa.
Uganda’s Milton Obote was mostly a pamphleteer, writing the eminently readable mini-book Letter to a London Friend, and the controversial manual of nationalisation Move to the Left. Even the country’s first independence titular president, King Kabaka Mutesa, wrote The Desecration of my Kingdom from his London exile after he was deposed by Obote in 1966.
Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta also wrote, as did his short-lived vice president and later intense rival Jaramogi Odinga.
A poetic touch
Guinea’s Ahmad Sekou Toure had his vision set out in Africa on the Move, while philosopher-poet Leopold Senghor of Senegal had numerous prose and poetry works published.
Leaders of liberation movements – as they spend long months in the bush plotting revolution – tend to be writers too. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Angola’s Agostinho Neto, Mozambique’s Samora Machel, Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara, and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, all wrote works on their experiences and vision of the liberation movements they led.
However, these works tend to be written during the struggle or in the early years of victory. If they stay in power long enough, the plush comforts of power soften the rough revolutionary edges - as in the case of Mugabe - and the publishing frequency drops sharply.
Why it matters
It doesn’t seem to make much difference to a country whether it has a leader who is or was a writer of some sort, because all types of nations have fallen prey to coups, civil war or secessionist movements. However, it appears to matter most in what happens AFTER the war or coup – perhaps because once a leader has clarified the national vision, however nascent or controversial, it still seems to provide a common point of return.
It needn’t even be the leftist revolutionary literature per se, even an autobiography has the effect of rallying a nation around the narrative shaped by one individual’s life.
In a few cases, a country doesn’t need to have its leaders writing and envisioning big time as long as it lives in the shadows of another where a towering leader propagated some pan-regional ideas, like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser with his grand pan-Arab ideas. Thus while Algeria might not be known for leaders who write, living in the pan-Arab orbit seems to have helped it find its foot after a deadly civil war.
Alternatively if it has a long history of letters, and a movement of ideas - either in science or religion, like the Coptic church in Ethiopia, that too can be a rallying ideological core - and perhaps explains Ethiopia’s remarkable ability to return from the dead.
However if you are Burundi, Central African Republic (CAR), Eritrea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, or Somalia that have never had any of their notable leaders publishing a book and generating a movement of ideas around the state or society, little that happens in the region will save you either. You just have to do the heavy lifting on your own.