Big men (a link-intensive experience)



President Obama this week told Africa it needed ‘strong institutions, not strongmen’. Fair enough. But what does that really mean? What is a strongman? Is he different from a Big Man? A He-Man? Here’s a disambiguation for you:

Strongman – According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, ‘ one who leads or controls by force of will and character or by military methods’. So, barring the ‘military methods’ bit, nothing like a President who got elected despite widespread disillusionment in his party, by an electorate significantly enhanced by people who had never voted for his party before, based largely on his own personality, vision and non-specific message of ‘Hope’.

Big Man – A favourite way to refer to any African leader we don’t like  and who, according to an unsourced article on Wikipedia that cites only brown people (and one communist) as examples, is a single leader who is corrupt, autocratic and totalitarian. It also seems to be used to describe African leaders we just don’t like (though not the white ones in Apartheid South Africa, because they were, um, totally different, or something). And not just the genuine megalomaniacs (and specifically not the megalomaniacs Europe or America are still propping up — these are only converted from ‘allies’ to ‘Big Men’ when we have no use for them), either. Leaders who have been democratically elected in democratic countries (with, like, real constitutions, independent judiciaries and everything!) can also be tarred with this brush, if you’ll excuse the phrase.

He-Man – Well, according to the Longman dictionary, this is a powerful guy with big muscles. AND he’s supposed to be ‘humorous’. Who knew? It’s also the name of a brand of skin-lightener that was very popular in Apartheid South Africa. That is to say a commercially-available skin-bleach that black South Africans would use to make themselves look ‘more beautiful’, that is to say, less black, and thus more legitimately allowed to weild social power.

Longman – The dictionary I cited above. And, probably, a male porn star’s name. Actually, that pretty much goes for all these terms. And the word ‘dictionary’.

Little Man Tate – is a reasonably annoying film, starring Jodie Foster. It really has nothing to do with this discussion. Wise up, man.

What I’m trying to say here is that, while I totally agree that Africa could do without totalitarian leaders, it could also really do without unfair trading relationships with America and Europe. It could do without European-American mining giants funding conflict, abusing the human rights of workers and undermining (excuse the hilarious pun! oh my sides!) local communities. It could do without being forced to privatize basic services such as water and aid budgets being spent on that privatization, for the simple reason that private enterprize exists to make money and large portions of Africa have no money (and so will probably be ignored by companies who now own, in some cases, rivers and even rain water).

Don’t get me wrong: Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and parts of Europe could do with this too. But they are not, right now, being lectured to the effect that their problems are their own fault while trade injustice; civil wars for minerals used by the Developed World and the growing phenomenon of profits, raw materials and physical wealth being syphoned off-continent, continue to dominate their lives.

But this whole: an African leader who uses nationalist rhetoric or takes a strong stand against America or Britain (or who, God forbid, stands for election more than once or whose party is actually popular) must be called a strongman thing is just getting a little old. It’s a myth. Every region has had despots, each continent has endured injustice. Only in Africa can being a strong leader automatically be equated with being a strongman. And that seems a little, well, prejudiced.

All that said: I still love you Obama! I think you (Bar)rock! I voted for you (in my mind)! But, maybe a little bit of balance there, buddy. You’re right about the institutions and the strongmen. But let’s not forget the millions of ways Africa is being screwed before we denounce a few ‘Johns’ instead of the pimps, yeah? And maybe stop buying into racist stereotypes of strong black leaders by using terms that only ever mean black men in the African context? Ta!


One Response

  1. I quite like looking through a post that will make men and women think.
    Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

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