Nov 25, 2017
It is almost impossible to topple an iconic, founding leader of a political party. One essential reason explains it – he/she is the party. A later leader can amass a following inside and outside the party, but he/she will never be as invincible as the founder-leader. The new leader will never possess the aura and domination, because he/she hasn’t achieved what the founder-leader accomplished – the birth, preservation and success of the party.
Even though he held the position of Prime Minister in Trinidad and Tobago, Basdeo Panday was not seen as the magical leader of the UNC as Errol Barrow was in Barbados, Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan in Guyana, or Vere Bird in Antigua. When politicians struggle hard against tremendous odds to bring success to the parties they birthed, they become impregnable fortresses in both their party and country. Names that come to mind include Castro in Cuba, Nasser in Egypt, Tito in Yugoslavia, Nyerere in Tanzania.
The area of vulnerability they have is when the party and the masses feel that they have strayed away from their ideals and have become ordinary mortals. They then lose that myth of omnipotence and their party colleagues and army generals feel brave enough to challenge them; feel that they should no longer be on a pedestal.
A classic example of this is Milton Obote in Uganda. Though a gigantic figure in the anti-colonial struggle, he was seen as corrupt. In Libya, Gaddafi had lost his soul, his people knew that and they rose up and overthrew him. He may have lasted longer without the intervention of the British and French, but his days were numbered. In Grenada, “the hero in the crowd,” Eric Gairy later became a despised figure.
It is in this context that one must examine the praxis of Walter Rodney. To the PNC and African Guyanese, Burnham was a giant par excellence. He was a thinker outside the box. He had transformative ideas that even people like Nehru in India didn’t. But a creeping, inevitable authoritarian passion began to show its face. The Commission of Inquiry into Rodney’s death has now become a document on the shelf. But it is a priceless document for any scholar anywhere in the world that wants to study the failure of leadership and the pitfalls of post-colonial charisma.
What that document revealed is that in less than eight years after Independence, Burnham’s constituencies, pivotal players in the state bureaucracy and officers in the army, began to find the appeal of Walter Rodney enticing. Witnesses gave account of Rodney’s penetration of the sensitive state institutions. The most important factor to note in the dwindling of the iconic brightness of a great founder-leader is when the aura of invincibility and omnipotence goes.
The leader sees him/herself as coterminous with the nation. Any policy, whether cruel, sadistic, culturally and religiously insulting, is implemented without regards to the pain and suffering it may cause. When exceptional leaders who are worshipped by their nations begin to falter so badly, people begin to see them as ordinary. It lets loose a set of consequences that make them vulnerable. This was perhaps the colossal weakness of Burnham that opened the door for Rodney. The leader believes he/she can do just anything he/she wants to do and it will be accepted. This explains Indira Gandhi’s fall from grace. This explains the defeat of the dynasty of the Congress Party in India.
Robert Mugabe was the man Zimbabweans credited with making them a nation free from white bondage. He was their saviour. Even when he began to oppress a great freedom fighter like Joshua Nkomo, he didn’t lose his appeal among Zimbabweans. So Mugabe, the Jesus-like figure, governed for almost four decades.
One of Mugabe’s brilliant strategies of keeping Zimbabweans close to him was his land policy. Across the border in South Africa, the land still remained in White hands; the economy was still not in Black hands. It was the opposite in the land of the evergreen Robert Mugabe. The people wanted Mugabe to stay. He became authoritarian. He ruthlessly put down opposition, but he was the founder-leader.
But invincibility has its destructive side. Mugabe is gone. The unthinkable has occurred. The army has removed him from the presidency. His own party has relieved him of the leadership. The people took to the street to demand his banishment. They rejoiced when that occurred. Thinking that he could do no wrong, Mugabe was narcissistic enough to shape a pathway for his young wife (forty years his junior) to succeed him. For Zimbabweans this was not the impeccable freedom fighter they knew that brought independence to their country. This was someone else. They didn’t want that someone else.