United Kingdom—It was about 11am UK time when I turned my data on and the phone vibrated to deliver a WhatsApp group message that Fidel Castro was no more! I was sincerely hurt but it later got worse when I saw some Cuban-Americans dancing to the same news! It’s understandable and normal that reactions to Fidel’s death elicited mixed feelings. Not all people, Cubans or others, believed in his course! Some saw him as an oppressor, others had tepid feelings towards him and yet some (like me) were his avid admirers.
In my opinion, Fidel remains a revolutionary and icon against blatant imperialism and racism, a benefactor of liberty for Africans and advocate for other subaltern groups. He may have suppressed some Cubans in the course of his revolutionary ambitions, but Comrade Fidel was neither Lenin nor Stalin like some want us to believe. And if anything, which revolution has ever been quenched from rose water? Even the Glorious, American and French Revolutions never materialized from mere talk, rivers of blood flowed, necessarily or not! But Cuba today, thanks to Castro’s egalitarian vision, has some basic public amenities which even the US cannot dream of having in several decades coming, and African nations can learn something from this.
The reason I woke up that late is that I went to the City of Manchester to apply for a VISA to an African country. Quite laughable and sad but not today’s topic. During my trip I marveled at the magnificent UK cities, highways and the obvious top quality life; but also internally reflected on how different things were back home in Sub-Saharan Africa where I personally had a first-hand experience with penury.
Close to six decades after colonialism, African economies within this region exhibit the worst statistics globally in many human development indicators. Why are Africans still abject poor and worst governed globally? Why are Africans still landless in their own countries? What happened to the promises (or rhetoric?) of the “independence” years? Why are ujinga, ugonjwa na umaskini still elusive despite the MDGs, SDGs and our various versions “plans of action” and “vision twenty-somethings?” No target has never been met and when time elapses we reschedule through rebranding.
Methinks our economic development models are not working properly due to two setbacks: a) unconscious leadership which has undermined b) our economic and political freedom. But today I will only comment on the unconscious and thus failed African leadership.
Achebe once reasonably remarked that the “trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership”, an observation that applies to the entire Africa. Most African leaders have declined to sacrifice personal ambitions for the greater good of their societies, instead preferring to be coopted in the shameful exploitation of their own hapless people. Why can’t they learn from the likes of Fidel Castro on this? Self-sacrifice is driven by a serious commitment to ethics in whatever one does or aspires to do, a virtue quite remarkable in Castro’s vision for Cuba however oppressively he pursued it.
Castro openly stated that he was inspired largely by the selflessness in the Cuban anti-imperialist Jose Marti. While Marti may have been too idealistic in his views, he bequeathed Castro with a personal commitment to shun unnecessary personal ambitions, more so when fighting against a serious plight for a helpless majority of people. When your personal ambitions overshadow the plight of a majority of the downtrodden people, that becomes sacrilege against your society and not merely a betrayal.
Near all post-colonial African leaders have failed in this regard by turning against their people when most needed, more so on land matters. Most accepted independence constitutions that they knew would not offer redress to their people, more so on the land question in former settler colonies. If one would reason that African leaders at this time were being strategic and focused on independence, why did they not address these sensitive issues in the post-colonial era? It’s because they are steeped into their materialistic and personality cult ambitions at the expense of their people’s plight and which has in turn failed to cultivate a sense of unity of purpose against foreign influences.
Materialism among African leaders has served to impoverish African people. Most post-colonial African leaders have turned into comprador bourgeois merely gatekeeping for foreign interests and reaping massively too in the process. It’s shameful how most were rewarded with massive titles which they shared with their retinue at the expense of indigent natives who were previously evicted from these lands. So many Kenyans and South Africans remain not only landless but hopeless and hapless since there is no credible chance for redress in the near future. This is despite the fact that the Kenyatta, Moi and some minority settler families own vast tracks of land.
The kleptocracy that was Mobutu’s Zaire is something hard to forget, more so the collusion of France in the filth. Yet Castro, born to a landed emigrant family from Spain, chose to forego his middle class trappings to fight for Cuban autonomy.
Furthermore, unlike other Communist leaders like Stalin or Mao Zedong, Castro shunned monuments of himself and declined to have even his image or name in the local currency or public institutions, an indication he made clear when he ordered that Enzo Gallo Chiapardi’s monument of him next to the Columbia military base be torn down just shortly after the 1959 revolution. He instead preferred to venerate others like Marti and Che Guevara. Yet African leaders seemed obsessed with this habit, naming public assets like among others universities, major city highways, roads, streets, and parks after the first families as Kenyattas, Mois, Nkrumahs, Nyereres and others.
These failures of personal ambitions in Africa have made it hard for African leaders to unite against foreign imperialist pressures and thus vulnerable to manipulation or possible dethronement, more so during the Cold War. When the OAU rallied African leaders against the “immoral sovereignty” of the minority apartheid-regime in South Africa, the personal interests of certain leaders like Kenyatta could not allow them to abide by the resolutions thereby weakening the African resolve.
Even the lone voices of Nkrumah and Nyerere against Western imperialism could not have any considerable impact since they were drowned by the betrayals in the actions of their peers. Interestingly, the African Union that Gadaffi passionately propped up failed to even save his life after the continent’s leaders backtracked on the plan. Unity cannot thrive in African leadership when every leader prefers to do things their way even in situations where obviously coming together is most beneficial. Even the monster of ICC remains no exception.
Yet Castro remained quite steadfast in his anti-Western imperialism stance, even as some of his friendly regimes collapsed alongside the Berlin Wall; thus earning him more veneration even from his nemeses. Furthermore, even as some African leaders declined to indulge in the revolutionary struggles in the continent’s late colonial outposts, Castro contributed massively to realize freedom for black South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zaire among others. Later on he offered technical aid in terms of medics to African societies and elsewhere too, actions which remain hallmarks of his vision for a fair world for many. There is a lot African leaders can learn from Castro’s conscious and visionary personality.