ON THE MORNING OF OCTOBER 7, 1981, I was at the Our Lady of Fatima Church, Eleta, Ibadan to share in the joy of six Medical Missionaries of Mary who were making their first religious profession, having been inter-novitiate classmates.  My own class of Dominicans had made first profession ten days earlier.  While we were in the Church that morning, Egypt was experiencing a bloody crisis, a violent change of political leadership. 

At a military parade in Cairo, a soldier taking part sprayed the State Box with bullets.  His obvious intention was to eliminate the President, Anwar Sadat and other members of his cabinet.  Sadat died before he was brought to the hospital.  Beside him on that occasion was an Air Force officer called Hosni Mubarak.  He escaped unhurt.  Later in the day, he was named successor to President Sadat.

Let me mention in passing that, earlier in the same year, while Gambian President Dawda Jawara was attending the wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles in London, his government was overthrown by a young military officer, Yahaya Jameh, who remains President of the Gambia today having metamorphosed into a civilian President.

Why do I go back memory lane by mentioning where I was when Mubarak became President of Egypt?  Because, on February 2, 2011, while I was in the same Church of Our Lady of Fatima, Eleta, to be part of the celebration of the Day for Consecrated Persons,  pro-democracy Egyptians took over Tahir (Liberation) Square in Cairo insisting on the immediate departure of Mubarak.  On February 2, as I remarked to a few people in the reception hall, which used to be the Eleta Church building, I was right inside the same building when Mubarak became President.  This is not to insinuate that there is a connection between my being in the Church at Eleta and the political climate in Egypt.  It is to point out how long it has taken Egyptians to call on Mubarak to go.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from what has happened, first in Tunisia, and later in Egypt, it is this: no one should take anyone for granted.  But in Africa, leaders take the people for granted, and that largely explains why Africa is what she is today.  A monstrous misconception of leadership reigns in Africa, and there seems to be no end in sight.  The subject of this dangerous misconception of leadership is the one I call the African Big Man. 

Even when we pretend to practice democracy, it is one in which big men form political parties, outlaw internal democracy from the parties, and impose candidates for elections.  Where they are not imposed by internal gerontocracy masquerading as internal democracy, candidates are imposed by party congresses devoid of fairness.  In a nutshell, slaves are human beings governed against their will.  Africans are governed against their will, that is, by men and women they did not choose.  There is a syndrome whereby Africa is held down by the African big man who violates the rights of the African as a human being with impunity.  And, to use inclusive language, which we must, so as not to forget our numerous first ladies, Africa is held back also by a big woman syndrome.  If you are member of a cabinet in a typical African country, make sure you pay homage to Her Excellency the First Lady, even though she has no constitutionally assigned role.  Failure to do so may mean you will not survive the next cabinet reshuffle.        

Africans must urgently rethink what it means to lead and what it means to be led, what is and what should be the relationship between the leader and the led.  Africans have been too accommodating of leaders who abuse their power.  Nguza Karl I Bond, a former Prime Minister of Mobutu Sese Seko, Zairean brutal dictator of ignominious memory, once said to a journalist: "En Afrique, on ne maudit pas le chef." (In Africa, one does not speak ill of the leader).  Nguza began his political career as an ally and servant of Mobutu.  Later, Mobutu arrested him on charges of wanting to overthrow his government.  His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after pleas from some world leaders.  He was later released and allowed to live in exile.  In exile he did all he could to overthrow Mobutu.  All of a sudden, at a speed faster than that at which a typical Nigerian driver changes lanes, he began to sing the praise of Mobutu.  Some cynical commentators said he changed his discourse when he ran out of money and became home sick.  A journalist of Radio Africa Numero Un asked him why he was no longer opposing Mobutu.  His response: "En Afrique, on ne maudit pas le chef."

Respect for and promotion of the dignity of every human being is one of the pillars of Catholic social doctrine.  It is derived from the book of Genesis in which God created the man and the woman in his image and likeness.  When sin obscured the image of God in us, the Father sent his Son to remake the image of God in us, making us even more beautiful than we were at the time of creation.  For decades, Papal encyclicals have taught this with repeated emphasis.  The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria, since the publication on October 1, 1960 of the letter marking Nigeria's independence, up to its most recent intervention, has based its commentaries on the state of affairs in Nigeria on this very important pillar of any decent constitutional arrangement.  Respect for the dignity of every human person must be a feature of life in our homes and in our offices, in our families and in our parishes.  No one in a position of authority has the right to violate the rights and dignity of anyone.  Yet, it is a well-known secret that many Catholics in and around the corridors of power are primary violators of this noble principle. 

Quite often, I have found myself in a government office where a Muslim public official shows courtesy upon recognizing that I am a Catholic priest whereas, in the same office, the official who shows contempt turns out to be Catholic.  But as I have often insisted, I do not want to be well treated because I am a priest.  I deserve to be well treated because I am a human being.  Christ did not die for me because I am a priest.  He died  to save me because I am a human being.

The African big man syndrome makes our leaders forget that every human being has been created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ.  Our leaders have no respect for the led.  In various ways, they treat us with contempt and brutalize our psyche.  They talk to us and talk down to us as if they own us.  They think they are doing us a favour by being in office.  While we hope and pray that their democratic movement will not be hijacked by anti-democratic forces, those who lead us, and in fact all of us, should take time to watch and  reflect what is going on in Tunisia and Egypt.  What the Tunisians and the Egyptians are saying is: "Trop c'est trop."  Enough is enough. 

The Tunisian Big Man has gone.  The departure of the Egyptian Big Man is imminent.  Perhaps he would have gone by the time you read this.  As for Nigerian Big Men and Women, particularly some of our state governors and many in various sectors of our life, let them think of the Ghanaian saying: "abaa y? d? b? Kofi y? d? b? Kojo." (The cane that is used to flog Kofi is reserved to be used to flog Kojo).

The above was first published on February 12, 2011.

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