Think of so-called independent Africa and you’re likely to visualise the names of Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara and the West African triad composed by Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sékou Touré of Guinea Conakry and Modibo Keïta of Mali. While we generally agree that Léopold Senghor of Senegal and Félix Houphouët-Boigny, president of Côte d’Ivoire, were not forces for good for their respective countries due to their close association to and complicity with France, we generally hold very positive views of leaders like Nkrumah, Touré and Keïta.
Some of the stories and lived experiences of people under those presidencies don’t make it to books or archives. They are stories known to the survivors of those regimes and their families. Modibo Keïta, the first president of Mali, for instance, isn’t viewed as a liberator in my paternal side of the family.
My father grew up under his presidency. At the age of 11, he had to get up at 4 am to queue to get food for his parents and sisters. Food was rationed and in order to get your portion, you had to provide the number of people in your household. They were small rations, and you obviously couldn’t buy more to store. If someone from the countryside cultivated rice and wanted to take it to Bamako to their relatives, the rice would be confiscated, and you’d be arrested.
Modibo Keïta didn’t particularly fancy literate people either. Those who could read and write and lived in villages were sent far away. That was the fate of my paternal great-uncle. His nickname was Lacoli (l’école or the school in French) because he could read, and that skill meant that under Keïta rule he was kidnapped, removed from his village and sent away doing forced labour.
Beloved revolutionary Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso is probably one of the greatest presidents that blessed African soil. In a short four-year presidency he slashed the salaries of ministers, abolished many of the privileges of government, made the Renault 5, the cheapest car in the country, the official car of government including for himself as president, led an agricultural revolution, redistributed land and promoted women’s rights amongst other things. But like all humans, he was flawed and started being resented by the population when he stifled independent unions and stopped teachers’ salaries. His changes were fast and radical but without an appropriate education campaign, the population may have not understood or supported his vision. The Burkinabe and the elite started to see him as an autocrat and moments before his assassination Thomas Sankara admitted feeling “mal aimé” (disliked).
Whether it be Modibo Keïta or Thomas Sankara, these men had great long-term ambitions and dreams for their respective countries. They benefitted and were supported by some but hurt others in the process. To be a visionary and revolutionary leader, one must remember that one person alone cannot do it all. If a leader doesn’t speak to and educate their followers, their plans will likely not succeed. The people of a nation must be involved in all stages so they can actively contribute to the materialisation of a president’s dream in the country’s best interest. Failure to do so will turn the people against the president for they will not understand the reasons for restricting practices, such as food rationing, even if they are advantageous in the long run.
A poor and struggling people is focused on today. A visionary must open their eyes to let them see tomorrow.
“If revolution is tied to dependence on the inscrutability of ‘long-range politics’, it cannot be made relevant to the person who expects to die tomorrow. There can be no rigid time controls attached to ‘the process’ that offers itself as relief, not if those for whom it is principally intended are under attack now. If the proponents of revolution cannot learn to distinguish and translate the theoretical into the practical, if they continue to debate just how to call up and harness the conscious motive forces of revolution, the revolutionary ideal will be the loser – it will be rejected.”George L. Jackson from his book Blood in my eye