In politics, age isn’t just another number

Sunday July 14 2019


By Bernard Tabaire

If you live really long, like into your 90s, you know you are ever closer to leaving the world. Forever. If you believe in reincarnation, well, you will have another chance.
Yes, younger people die too, but that is another matter.
If age is wisdom, age also is frailty. A government that lasts 33 years (and counting) must be said to not only be mature, but it is actually in very old age. The signs of infirmity — poor service delivery, galloping corruption levels, rights abuses — are now more than obvious. No amount of faking it will work any more.
In real life, when we get old, we retire just so we slow the pace down. Not so with some governments. Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Tunisia, Algeria, have paid a price because their leaders hang around longer than was useful for the general good.
And yet their lesson, also taught by Ozymandias 200 years ago, never gets learned in some palaces. There is no way of telling how things will pan out in a place like Uganda. I wonder, however, what it is that keeps some leaders rooted in one spot, feeling like they will be king forever.
Such a leader must obviously think highly of himself (rarely herself), for example as the guarantor of a country’s glory, current and future. Without him, all falls apart. This is just kajanja kabisa.
I suspect that beyond the chutzpah, some leaders have more prosaic reasons for hanging on. If you have been in power for decades, you have probably done a lot of good and also a lot of terrible stuff.
Those you short-changed will always want to come after you the moment they notice that you no longer have power. The most obvious demonstration that you are no longer The Boss is when you leave State House.
A number of privileges disappear. If you figure that your high crimes and misdemeanours are way too many and serious, you stay put.
Cronies are the other reason The Boss will never want to hand over power with a fuss. The longer you stay in power, the larger and more intricate your patronage and crony circle grows and gets entrenched.
The leader and the cronies form a deep symbiotic relationship where the survival of one depends on the survival of the other. To cut loose is to betray the corrupt ties that bind. Safer to stay put and keep the status quo. And so initiative after initiative must be cooked up and billions of cash thrown at it.
The initiatives deliver nothing except piles of cash to the cronies, who in turn pass on the bigger chunk to The Boss through a slush fund. The leader’s hands must be seen to remain spotless.
If not protecting cronies, a leader sticks around sometimes because one gets used to the good life. The salutes, the motorcades, the dinners, the pomp and the circumstance. Everything at State expense.
One can come up with loftier explanations about how the socio-economic set-up of a society allows for leaders to stay for ages in power.
The same explanation, however, rarely goes further to explore why the masses rise up against the beloved leader. When any attempts are made at explaining, it is to blame the ever-scheming imperialists who have confused some natives to erupt.
Maybe there is always a foreign hand when the Burkinabe chase away Blaise Compaoré or when the Libyans and Egyptians say to hell with their aged autocrats brimming with dynastic ambition. One last act in self-importance is always worth it.
It may just be that basic considerations are at the heart of the hunger to hold on just one more year, one more election cycle.
If we have a clear grasp of that, we could possibly find solutions to get some of these tired yet clinging leaders off our backs.
Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.