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We’ve seen Donald Trump’s type of populism in Africa, it always ends in tears

AP Photo/Mel Evans
Donald Trump speaks to voters in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, ahead of a victory in that state’s Tuesday primary.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Early this month the worst nightmares of a large number of Americans—and the world—came to pass when reality TV star and businessman, Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party.

This is of course the man who has called immigrants rapists and criminals, promised to build a wall keeping Mexico out (that Mexico will pay for), promised to review hitherto untouchable NATO treaties, promised to restore waterboarding as legitimate intelligence gathering and promised to ban all Muslims from entering his country.

He delights in having severely limited knowledge of international affairs and how the world actually works. Unsurprisingly, he has said little about Africa, unless you count his supporters yelling “Go back to Africa!” at black protesters.

He has promised, without offering any specifics that can he held onto and tracked, to make America great again.

It all sounds eerily familiar.

Africa’s post-colonial leaders excelled at appealing to the basest sentiments in their people.

The African continent has had its fair share of populists and demagogues. We have an entire generation of books—fiction and fact—that document the rise and ruse of those who will say anything, promise everything and, ultimately, do nothing.

The eventual end of colonialism in Africa in the sixties led to many post-colonial leaders without the intellectual depth, policy chops or intrinsic character to confront the complex task of modern governance.

They instead excelled at appealing to the basest sentiments in their people. Typically, these leaders positioned themselves as ‘strong men’ able to stand up to Western imperialism and protect the interests of their citizens. Such leaders usually parlayed a vacuous insistence on ‘nationalism’ into xenophobia and clannishness to help them to electoral success. After which they would promptly surround themselves with an army of the narrow-minded who, unable to deliver the dividends of leadership, turn to sycophancy, and ultimately corruption.

This is inevitable. Good leadership, especially in a democracy, has no easy answers. It requires the humility of perspective and the restraint of consensus. Successful leaders focus less on a cult of personality and more on systems and structures that ultimately put a cohesive set of national interests at the center. This requires nuance, it requires context, and it requires complexity.

Where this is missing, the result is largely failure.

Bad examples

Africans have seen this happen with once promising leaders in Zimbabwe with Robert Mugabe; Cameroon with Paul Biya, in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea with Teodoro Obiang, Africa’s longest serving ruler and in Sudan with Omar al-Bashir—all mixing up demagoguery with a sit-tight government.

We’ve seen it in the circus show at the Gambian Presidential Villa, where president Yahya Jammeh says he can cure AIDS on Mondays and Thursdays, accuses his opponents of witchcraft, and made a promise to transform his country magically into an oil-producing nation—a promise he, of course, has been unable to keep.

Good leadership, especially in a democracy, has no easy answers. It requires the humility of perspective and the restraint of consensus.

In my own country, Nigeria, the notorious late general Sani Abacha once spoke of a dubious concept known as a ‘homegrown democracy’; only a smokescreen to help him transmute from a military dictator to a civilian version, all focused on grabbing and consolidating power.

South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma—who just barely survived an impeachment vote—has lost all moral legitimacy to lead his people through a string of 783 corruption charges before the courts, and a squandering of public refunds—including a profligate upgrade of his private home.

South Africa is a particularly depressing and urgent symbol, as Zuma displayed and continues to display many of the worst populist tendencies. He once declared minorities have less rights than others prompting outcry from a concerned intellectual class. In office, he has promptly led his country into 26.7% unemployment (the highest on record since the end of apartheid), massive examination failure and school drop out rates.

Trump follows in this distressing tradition, a politician in a fact-free zone, telling people what they want to hear without the interruption of reality; offering little by way of clear and proven policy proposals.

As a mature democracy and a self-conscious model for representative government, there are many across the world who thought Americans had seen enough populist demagogues and extremists in other spaces to become wary of those who promise the impossible.

As they confront a crucial moment in their history, perhaps they should learn from the experience of those who should know better.

This kind of leadership only ends in sorrow, tears and, sometimes, blood.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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