BY PETER KAGWANJA
From the dark Mau Mau days, stray dogs have come to occupy a privileged place in the political psyche of the people of Rwathia hills—where I was born and weaned. Here, the stray dog—a real menace in the Balkans, India and the former Soviet Union—has become an idiom of plight and fright. This political rendition of the ‘stray dog’ hacks back to the legend of “Waitina”, the fabled colonial brute who routinely chopped off the tails of dogs upon encounter. Ever since, Rwathia is enchanted as the “Valleys where dogs have no tails.” Riding on the wisdom of the valleys, my grandfather’s clarion cry was, “beware of a stray dog bite, it is the most awkward and potentially fatal encounter.”
Many pundits in ODM and PNU alike agree that an encounter with Miguna Miguna, the advisor to the Prime Minister, can turn out to be a nasty, brutal and fatal affair. On that account, I have an axe to grind with the media anchor and colleague, Mutegi Njau, who invited me to the Breakfast Show on Citizen TV without a forewarning that my co-guest would be Miguna. In its aftermath, I have paid dearly for this fateful encounter (Star of April 19, P20 or www.the-star.co.ke).
Far be it from me to ask, “who is Miguna and who pays the piper”? For this line of inquiry would hurtle down the dodgy strait of honoring an invite to a fight in a pigsty— where all come out muddled and reeking. I shall instead squeeze the unfolding \’Miguna syndrome\’ for any intellectual insight it may offer on Africa’s troubled politics. “We live in an age of charlatans,” wrote one professor of politics recently. What is emerging as a ‘Miguna syndrome’ in Kenyan politics has a long pedigree in charlatanism as a strategy of controlling power especially in fluid political settings.
Three traits have come to identify political charlatans: a missionary zeal and passion about political positions; proclivity to demonize opponents; and claim to martyrdom including false claims that they represent the greater good (a ‘non-tribal’ and ‘reformist’ moral order and viewpoints).
For centuries, wielders of power have entreated the services of populist charlatans to confuse, disorganize and contain diverse political interests. In Africa, the services of rabble-rousers have been instrumentally used to demonize, demobilize and out-flank foes in fiercely contested democratic elections or in the post-election power sharing arrangements.
The rise of the modern (Westphalian) state thrust to the centre-stage of politics the spectre of political charlatans. One of the most celebrated populist charlatans in modern history is Grigori Rasputin (1869 –1916) better known as Russia’s “Mad Monk.” As an icon of populist charlatanism, Rasputin’s evil spell over Emperor Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their only son Alexis so thoroughly soiled the Tsarist government that he is cited as the decisive factor in the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917.
The first wave of democratic revolutions in France and America threw up a new kind of a rabble-rouser like Maximilien Robespierre (1758 –1794), an icon of the French Revolution, whose excessive zeal for the revolution pushed too many Frenchmen to the guillotine on flimsy grounds. This prompted one historian to quip that Robespierre would have made a better man had he concentrated on growing roses.
Contemporary African politics has had more than its due share of populist charlatans. Colonial charlatans mainly consisted of chiefs whose withering measures to dramatize loyalty to the crown drew too much African blood.
But it is the single party regimes, which stalked Africa’s political landscape in the Cold War era, which thrust the rabble-rouser syndrome to its high-noon. Many of these charlatan demagogues have since become part of the continent’s comic relief, cynical jokes and black humor as society struggled to come into terms with this difficult memory.
Africa’s political charlatans have come of age in the wake of the pro-democracy wave that washed over the continent from the late 1980s. But it is the continent’s contested democracies which have given populist charlatans a new lease of life. As its hallmark, charlatanism has amplified ‘wedge issues’ such as ethnic, religion, class, gender, age/generation and other ideologies that set communities against each other in order to win votes or support.
As such populist charlatans have fuelled what one historian has dubbed “the clash of peoples” driven by ethno-nationalism, now defining the contours of Africa’s troubled democracy which is everywhere in retreat.
Contemporary Africa’s best known populist charlatan is South Africa’s Julius Sello Malema, the president of the African National Congress Youth League. Malema’s vociferous support for Jacob Zuma was the game-changer in the 2008 deadly power tussle that saw Zuma defeat the former President Thabo Mbeki. But some fear that his alleged "reckless populist" can destabilize South Africa and stoke racial conflict.
Power sharing experiments in Africa have transformed the populist rabble-rouser into the most lethal weapon in the arsenal used to out-manoeuvre rival factions of the political elite within grand coalition governments particularly in Kenya and Zimbabwe.
The heckling, name-calling, reckless remarks and confrontational tactics used by the charlatan demagogue have contributed to heightened political tensions in coalition arrangements, everywhere threatening reforms and raising stakes for democratic peace.
Like the proverbial tailless mongrel stray dogs of Rwathia, Africa’s power-sharing governments are risky and uncertain, forcing democracies into retreat. But in this pervasive fluidity the career of the political charlatan is assured.
(Professor Peter Kagwanja is the founding president of the Africa Policy Institute and policy adviser)