Monday, November 01, 2010

Power Corrupts: The African Big Man Syndrome

Kibera, in Nairobi
I'm home from my trip to Kenya. It's 2 AM and I'm wide awake. I expect it will take me over a week to overcome jet lag. Hopefully I'll return to normal faster than I did from last fall's Bangkok trip.

My mind is consumed with all things Africa. Where to begin? I'm still reading Peter Paris's (Princeton and Harvard) The Spirituality of African Peoples. I saw Richard Dowden's  Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles in the Nairobi airport, kindled it, and read about a third on the flight home. I'm going to connect Dowden and Paris re. the "Big Man syndrome" in Africa, its rootedness in African monarchical society, and the idea of "regal authority" ascribed to African American pastors.

Dowden writes: "Africa's one-party states increasingly became one-man states - the Big Man. All tyrants suffer from the same apocalyptic monomania bit in the late twentieth century Africa provided some of the most spectacular examples." Dowden quotes Blaine Harden's description of the classic African president:

"His face is on the money. His photograph hangs in every office in the realm. His ministers wear gold pins with tiny photographs on the lapels of their tailored pinstriped suits. He names streets, football stadiums, hospitals, and universities after himself. He carries a silver-inlaid ivory mace or an ornately carved walking stick or a flywhisk or a chiefly stool. He insists on being called 'doctor' or 'conqueror' or 'teacher' or 'the big elephant' or 'the number-one peasant' or 'the wise old man' or 'the national miracle' or 'the most popular leader in the world'. His every pronouncement is reported on the front page. He sleeps with the wives and daughters of powerful men in his government. He shuffles ministers around without warning, paralysing policy decisions as he undercuts pretenders to the throne. He scapegoats minorities to shore up popular support. He bans all political parties except the one he controls. He rigs elections. He emasculates the courts. He cows the press. He stifles academia. He goes to church." (Kindle, 901-6)

The Big Man is above other people and likes to show it. He has escaped ordinary life. These are signs that he is blessed by God. And, rarely (says Dowden), are they interested in anything African. The only African presence in the Big Man's mansion are his servants. (Ib.)

Ugandan president Idi Amin "became the stereotype of the African dictator." (K 482-86). "He created some spectacular new honors and orders for Uganda - and awarded them to himself. So simple Idi Amin became His Excellency Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada, President of Uganda, Conqueror of the British Empire, Victorious Cross, Member of the Excellent Order of the Source of the Nile, Distinguised Service Medal, State Combat Star, Long Service and good Conduct Medal." (K, 496-504).

Dowden says Mobuto Sese Seko, who ruled Zaire (now the Congo), was the "ultimate Big Man." "He gave himself a string of titles that outdid even Idi Amin. His name means 'The Cock that Covers all the Chickens', and his full title read, 'Father of the Nation, Guide, Helmsman, Chief, Messiah the All-Powerful Warrior who Goes from Conquest to Conquest, Leaving Fire in his Wake'." (K, 922-30)

All of this has a context, of course. When the British and French colonial powers departed Africa the newly formed "nations" were left vulnerable to dictatorships. The West (especially the U.S. and Russia and the "Cold War") propped up these dictators. And, "dictatorship was not exclusive to Africa in the Cold War." (Dowden, K, 930-34) Dowden does a nice job situating all of this in the broader context, to include historical tribalism and the global situation.

The transcultural, transtemporal human context of the African "Big Man syndrome" gets expressed in British historian Lord Acton's famous statement, “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Judaeo-Christian narrative warns us throughout that pride goes before destruction (Proverbs 16:18), and that God is opposed to the proud (James 4:6). Regarding Jesus and the gospel stories, I have found Joel Green's explanation of honor-shame cultures and how Jesus inverts them (as expressed, e.g., in Mary's song) helpful. "Kings" and "rulers" just flat-out receive more honor and deserve more honor than peasants and expendables and everyone else, at least according to the subhuman kingdom of darkness. Jesus turns this upside-down. One would expect, then, Jesus-followers to be non-self-aggrandizing.

I think the Big Man syndrome in Africa is more deeply undergirded by its rootedness in a monarchical society. The one, supreme deity is "creator of the community and all of its societal structures... [I]n monarchical societies the sovereign was thought to rule in accordance with God's favor... As God's paramount priest the monarch represented the authoritative moral, political, and religious center of the tribal community." (Paris, K 837-44) African kings had an authority that placed them "at the ritual apex of their people's socio-moral order." (Ib., K 844-50) The king was supposed to have "exemplary moral integrity because a direct correlation existed between his character and the community's well-being." (Ib., K 850-56)

Paris, following W.E.B. DuBois, argues that "the spirit of African kingship was transmitted to the clergy, whome the community viewed as their primary leaders embued with charismatic powers." (Ib., K 862-68) "African American clergy often enjoy a regal lifestyle not unlike that of traditional African kings. That is to say, because of their office, they enjoy immense social status in the face of very limited material benefits." (Ib., K 874-80) This has left some of them "vulnerable to corruption." (Ib.)

I would think that the spirit of African kingship signifcantly contributed to the Big Man syndrome. Monarchically ordered societies would seem to produce more corruption and devastation than communally-ordered societies, where power (authority; exousia) is distributed. For example, in Christianity, the early Christian community and, more recently, Anabaptist communities.

While in Kenya at the pastor's conference I shared about power (dunamis) and authority (exousia) in relation to being a pastor-leader. All authority belongs to Jesus (Matthew 28). Jesus confers authority upon his followers (Luke 9, 10). One must constantly remember the real source of authority as Jesus. Otherwise one might take on the Big Man syndrome with its regal lifestyle and resultant corruption. As we have seen and continue to see, this possibility is not limited to African presidents and African American pastors. Sadly, some of today's Christian leaders might be described as follows:

His face is on TV. His associates wear the finest clothes. He loves to associate with people of power. He insists on being called 'pastor' or 'doctor' or 'teacher' or 'evangelist' or 'prophet' or 'community leader'. He sleeps with other men's wives and daughters. He shuffles ministers around without warning, paralysing policy decisions as he undercuts pretenders to the throne. He bans all viewpoints except his own. He spins things in his favor. He has his hands on the money. He stifles learning. He controls the worship services. He leads the church.