Recently, the world was given the news that Robert Mugabe has passed away. For some, this does not mean much, or have much of an impact on their lives. For others, it is the news of a lifetime. For myself, like many others in the media, it is a time for reflection. A divided figure, to say the least, the opinions on Mugabe are as wide ranging as the legacies that he left behind him. For some, he was a despot and tyrant and the man who brought Zimbabwe to its knees. To others, he was a hero and a liberator, the African leader who sought to bring Africa out of its Western ruled colonial past and into the future; a man with a vision of Africa for Africans. To others, he was profoundly human – one with all the virtues and flaws inherent within. One thing is certain though; Robert Gabriel Mugabe was, for better or for worse, the embodiment of African Big Man politics.
For just shy of four decades, Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist. Having pulled it from the colonial clutches of Rhodesia, he created a nation state built upon the foundations of the colonial past with the intention of creating an African state for the future. A reported champion of women’s rights and education for all, he sought to create a system that would create opportunities for his fellow Africans. However, like many before him on the dark continent, this system relied not on the system but the man running the system. Zimbabwe was, under Mugabe, a nation state that ran on big man politics. A strong and determined leader will provide for a strong and determined nation, or so the thinking goes. Unfortunately, the real-world ramifications are not so easily defined. A legacy of liberation from colonialism he might have provided, but so too a legacy of widespread poverty, violence, death, inequality, inescapable inflation, and widespread hunger. His protégé and successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has his work cut out for him. Improve the system and bring democracy to the failed state, or fill the big man’s shoes?
Parallels can be drawn elsewhere though, not just within post-colonial Africa. In the troubled United States, Former National Security Advisor John Bolton is yet another recipient of Mr. Trump’s fanciful style of political management. A man best described as hawkish and warmongering, Mr. Bolton was fired this week due to difference in opinion between himself and the man in the Oval Office. After months of dismantling the security advisory council, convincing Mr. Trump that he did not need the advice of others, he found that he had perhaps done too good of a job. Mr. Trump, in his inexhaustible lack of wisdom and mental clarity, has decided for himself that he does not need his closest advisor in this regard at all and perhaps he knows better than all. Dismantling the system and relying on himself more than ever, the so-called leader of the self-proclaimed free world is careening down the path of Big Man politics. With all due to respect to the people of Zimbabwe, who are well known and regarded for their friendliness, manners, and excellent work ethic, the ramifications of this political style in the Oval Office could have disastrous global consequences.
So too could the style of one Mr. Boris Johnson, who faces mounting opposition in his own government and party, for his recent declaration that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than pursue a political course of action that best suits the needs of his own nation. Instead of respecting the position of Number 10 Downing Street, Mr. Johnson sees his title as permission to pursue his own agenda – the pursuit of power. To the disservice of millions of Britons and Europeans alike, this inexplicable desire to force a disastrous crashing out of the European Union is just another example of a man too attached to power rather than to the service of the people he represents. A time when the lungs of our planet are burning, our seas are being emptied and poisoned, and distrust amongst neighbours is rising once more to alarming levels, Big Man politics and its incessant member-measuring must step aside.