In June 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte led an army of 500,000 men to invade Russia. Napoleon was already the ruler of the French Empire, which stretched all the way to Egypt, Belgium, the Netherlands as well as much of Poland, Spain, Germany, Austria and Italy.
Directly or through alliance, Napoleon was lord of most of Western Europe. But Napoleon was not satisfied. Emperor Alexander I of Imperial Russia had refused to pay homage to the Frenchman, and was the last man standing, as it were, in Napoleon’s path.
So Napoleon led half a million men – the largest army ever assembled up to that point – to capture Russia and teach Alexander I a lesson. Only 20,000 men made it back home to France by December that year. Poor planning and the hostile Russian winter did to Napoleon’s army what no other army had been able to do.
That defeat paved the way for Napoleon’s final defeat three years later at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium. There are many accounts of why Napoleon, a brilliant military strategist and revolutionary, committed such a grave error of attacking the Russians at the worst possible time, and without adequate stores of food – or even at all.
The common theme in those historical accounts is hubris.
It was hubris – the epitome of narcissist arrogance – that drove Napoleon to invade the last corner of Europe that had not bent its knee to his power. And it was hubris that drove Napoleon to disregard instinct and common sense to attack in the manner and at the time he did; he had been so successful in the past against the odds, so why would he not succeed this time?
Success has many fathers and theories, but it is in failure that history teaches us the most important lessons and gives us frameworks to understand the madness and eventual capitulation of great men.
How will history judge Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who at the time of writing, was fighting to hold onto the reins in Zimbabwe?
The picture many young readers have of Mugabe is of a pamper-wearing, drooling and diminished old man prancing around from seat to podium like a chameleon on crack, his handlers on stand-by to keep him from the earth, which always seems to want to reach out with an invisible hand and claim him.
Many of them do not remember the brilliant radical with a handful of degrees or the young revolutionary, who led his people to independence and refused to accept political power without control of economic resources, particularly land. A kinder reading of history will show how Mugabe was both a sinner in the way he went about redressing these historical injustices, and one sinned-against, along with the rest of the natives in Zimbabwe.
Yet a man who could have become an icon for revolutionary struggle in Africa has become a caricature of a greedy African despot, who hangover on hubris, came to see himself not just as a great man and the only one capable of leading, but as a king with a country to hand over as some form of inheritance to his wife.
Mugabe is not alone; our contemporary history is littered with revolutionary leaders – from Mobutu to Gaddafi and many others in-between – who got high on their own supply and, ignoring the omens, tried to play god. They achieved greatness through courage, boldness and talent then lost it through hubris.
Uncle Bob could have got away with being carried on a stretcher to yet another perfunctory election, but he over-estimated his own influence and control. Hubris.
Lesser men – think Jerry Rawlings, Eduardo dos Santos or even Baba Moi next door – were able to get away with dignified exits by merely knowing when it was time to go and packing in their chips.
A few who ride the tiger are lucky enough to do so until they die in power, leaving the messy business of cleaning up behind them.
But the examples of Uncle Bob, now merely a sad old man drinking his meals and waiting to die, or Gaddafi, crouching in a sewer begging for mercy, should serve as a reminder to leaders to know when their greatness is behind them.
Susan Linee, a veteran journalist and former Associated Press bureau chief in East Africa, died earlier this month in Minneapolis. She was 75. Kind, gentle and fiercely intelligent, she improved every life she touched, as those who knew her, including your columnist, will attest. Rest in peace, Guardian Angel.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. email@example.com