Physical mortality and political immortality of modern Pharaohs

By: Ali A. Mazrui

The term "tyrannicide" has been used relative to the execution of Saddam Hussein, the killing of a tyrant. Ghana has executed more former Presidents than any other country in Africa. Three of them were killed by Jerry Rawlings in one year.

In Nairobi in August 1978 a distinguished friend stopped me with the big Kenya news. He looked anxiously from left to right before whispering 'He is dead!' Foolishly, I was about to ask 'Who is dead?' but the clear anxiety on my informant's face revealed everything.

Only one man's mortality in Kenya was dangerously in doubt. And if one got that issue wrong, one's own life could be at stake. My friend and I rushed to our respective homes to await the official confirmation. It was indeed true that President Jomo Kenyatta was dead.

Mystic President

It was Attorney-General Charles Njonjo who helped turn any discussion of Kenyatta's mortality into a capital offence in Kenya.

This put Kenya way 'ahead' of most other African countries. While Malawi had a life-presidency at that time, Kenya now had an eternal president. Any discussion of the possibility that a Kenyan Head of State was capable of dying became treasonable. We were back to ancient Egyptian rulers.

Like Egyptian pharaohs, Kenyan presidents did not die. They simply changed their addresses. Was Nairobi destined to build pyramids as the new residences of 'deceased' Kenyan presidents?

The distinction between physical mortality and political immortality remains potent and relevant. During Kenyatta's rule the widespread conclusion was that the country was fragile because it was young, while its ruler was frail because he was old. The mystique of the ruler's age, Mzee, was therefore used to consolidate the country's youth, Kenya.

Tragic dynasty

Other countries have dealt differently with the marriage between the physical mortality and the political immortality of particular leaders.

In Nehru's India there was no legislation against those who were prepared to discuss the mortality of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

But the Nehru family created a remarkable dynastic family. Indira Gandhi became a great Prime Minister in her own right. Rajiv Gandhi, her son, also became Prime Minister.

Even Rajiv's ethnically Italian widow has been drafted into accepting dynastic succession. Indian culture was readier to accept political reincarnation from parent to progeny; from husband to widow, than to accept the principle of permanent presidency.

An equally tragic dynasty has been that of the Kennedy family in the US. Far from the trying to prove that they were physically immortal, they have been haunted by violent deaths. President John F Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1963 and 1968 respectively.

And Edward Kennedy was severely compromised when in July 1969 he drove his car off an unmarked bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, and his companion, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. Kennedy's presidential chances were ruined.

Despite violent deaths, the Kennedys seem assured of political immortality. Edward Kennedy is still a senator. The next Kennedy generation is already being groomed for political office. And the name of the family will no doubt be immortalised in the history of the US. To achieve political immortality, the Kennedys did not need legislation that outlawed discussions of their physical mortality.

It is a contradiction for an African country to declare itself a secular state and judicially portray its president as physically immortal. Claims of physical immortality are essentially religious.

There are millions of people who believe that Emperor Haile Selassie has never died; they regarded him as the Anointed of God and a descendant of King Solomon of the Jews. There are also Black people in the Diaspora who belong to the Rastafari movement within which Haile Selassie is also a God and could not have died in 1974. Ethiopia before the revolution of 1974 was a theocracy; it did not pretend to be a secular state.

The pharaohs of ancient Egypt did not preside over secular states either. Man and God were fused in the pharaoh.

Of course it was treason to accuse the pharaoh of being mortal. It was also a sacrilege.

Are there latter-day pharaohs in post-colonial African states? Is the State House a latter-day pyramid? Would it be an act of treason to say that neither President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya nor his fellow citizen, Ali Mazrui, are likely to be alive in the year 2050 ? Would it be as sacrilegious as were comparable statements under Ramses II of Egypt?

Seeking immortality by grooming

In this new millennium some African presidents are seeking immortality by grooming one of their sons to succeed. President Hosni Mubarak is eager for that kind of succession. The late President Laurent Kabila of the Congo has been succeeded by his son. It seems conceivable that Kenya will have a younger President Kenyatta before very long [Uhuru Kenyatta]. A Prime Minister Raila Odinga is also feasible.

Since the days of the first President Kenyatta, we are learning to separate the understandable desire of presidents for historic immortality from the pseudo-religious claims of physical immortality. Since treason is a serious concept, Africa should not trivialise it. Our political morality should not relapse into the simpler political religiosity.

Ghana, the country which executed three former Heads of State, also gave us Kwame Nkrumah, who invented Africa's concept of life presidency. But Ghana also gave us Kofi Annan, the first Black Secretary-General of the United Nations. And this year we are all celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence, with gratitude to Nkrumah and the Ghanaian people.

While Ghana executed three former Heads of State, Nigeria assassinated three of its own Chief Executives while they were still in power. These were Baalewa, Ironsi and Murtala Muhammad. On the other hand Nigeria has never experimented with the concept of a life presidency or with a ruling dynasty. No Nigerian Head of State has been in power continuously for more than 10 years. Africa is learning two big lessons: not to let its rulers claim life-presidency and not to terminate their power by killing them!

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