Shades of democracy and the big man syndrome

The bigmanism context in a political landscape has to draw reference to corrupt, autocratic and totalitarian rule of a State, or country, and could be intertwined with neopatrimonialism in a State in which the framework of formal law and administrative rebuttals, mundane and pejorative acclimatisationism to kleptocracy flow without measure.

The State in which one man overshadows the minds of many is then informally captured by patronage clientele relationships of sorts. In this regard therefore, the distribution of resources or the wealth of the State is channelled to such clientele, and targets the formal functions of a State, thus limiting civil society and public officials from making policies in the popular interest of the populace.

Neopatrimonialism in an African variant results in a norm that the bigmanism syndrome will interlink in a presidentialist political system of governance to which the president becomes the focal point of attention. The African lower levels of society are then taught to worship ‘The Big Man’, his surrogates, henchmen, bogeymen and the clientele relationships created.



Examples of these run within the ranks of African and presidents the world over, who fall within these circles.

Mobutu Sese Seko was the president of Zaire from 1965 to 1997 and occupied office for 31½ years. During his tenure of office, he established a regime in Zaire which aimed at purging the country of various colonial cultural influences and engaged in waging wars that challenged the communist movements in some African states. While in office he mismanaged the economy of the country for personal enrichment.

Saparmurat Niyazov, the president of Turkmenistan, ruled from 1990 until his death in 2006. He was criticised by as one of the world’s most totalitarian and repressive dictators of all time. He imposed his personal eccentricities on the whole country, which perpetuated to the remainder of his posterity for some time.

Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq from 1979 to 2003. His power reached the colossuses of history during his tenure of office, with the significant Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988) and the first Persian Gulf War (1991). In order to manage these conflicts, Saddam repressed and used the Shia and Kurdish movements to overthrow the government and get his independence.

The same Kurdish people, who were known to be his subjects, he turned against and murdered in great numbers in the sanguinary wars that followed. Saddam was finally deposed by the United States and their allies in 2003 and later executed by hanging. World leaders should learn from this kind of “bigman syndrome” and its repercussions.

Many examples of such leaders would have been cited and extensively discussed, but due to space limitations, this contribution had been limited to these instances.

Dr Vincent Ntema Sazita

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