Lessons from the trees: even the jungle has rules
Although I could have spoken on the very first day when I first entered Uganda’s Parliament in 2001, I did not make my maiden speech until after two months. Instead, being an ecologist, I spent time marvelling at the presumptiveness of ordinary mortals who, after acquisition of power, suddenly imagined that they were super beings beyond the reproach of nature.
I saw many uninformed MPs make lofty but meaningless declarations of what their voters, who knew little about what Parliament was all about when voting, sent them to do. Later I was to witness them fizzle out as Parliament progressed. Over the years, we in Uganda have also seen rulers come and heard supporters declare how their regimes and their leaders were “different”, only for the revered leaders to act true to type and end up in the same dung-heap of history where they had consigned those before them. Underlying the above is the tragedy of power which, in its intoxicating effect, leads many African leaders to delude themselves that they are demigods who are the alpha and omega of their countries. They imagine they can defy gravity and remain afloat forever even against the march of time and the accumulated weight of their omissions, failures, and misdeeds.
In that delusion, they forget or fail to appreciate the minuteness of their time in power against the huge span of history the insignificance of who they really are in the greatness of humanity and of their own countries and people and in the infiniteness of the universe that makes our individual illusions so absurd!
To them, and to their false believers, they are the chosen ones, the anointed ones, the different ones. When a Somalia happens under Siad Barre, a Central African Republic under Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a Uganda under Idi Amin, a Zaire (DR Congo) under Mobutu Sese Seko, an Ivory Coast under Felix Houphouet-Boigny, an Iraq under Saddam Hussein, a Tunisia under Ben Ali, a Libya under Muammar Gadhafi, a Syria under the Hassads, an Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, and now a Burkina Faso under Blaise Compaore, these African dictators and gmen spite those who “have failed” or blame Western powers for “meddling” in their affairs.
Tragically, they remain steadfast in the false self-belief of their uniqueness, capacity, and blessings from some god. They believe they are different from the rest and in their absurd conviction that “it will never happen to me”. But this last only until it is their turn to be bewildered when finally rejected by the people they thought loved them to be fished out of foxholes, to be sodomised before execution, or, if they are lucky, to flee with their dear lives.
For the people and countries these rulers lorded over, the end has always been the same: chaos and suffering, national disintegration along poorly glossed over ethnic, religious, political and other sectarian seams, prolonged periods of instability, wastage of human life and vast amounts of material resources, reversal of gains made, and loss of opportunity to progress and develop with the rest of the peaceful world.
Yet, if these rulers had accepted their humanness, frailness, and inequities if they had humbled themselves in power and had recognised their time when it had come and, other than clingingly on purposelessly, thanked the fate that gave them the unique opportunity to serve at the helm of society and quit peacefully, Africa’s political stability and succession would have been a completely different story.
Most importantly, if only we all could recognise and accept that, as humans, we are merely a tiny part of nature’s organic entity and subject to all its basic laws, we would certainly avoid the tragedy of dictatorship and gman delusions.
Unbelievably, as it may be, we can actually draw lessons from life histories of the immobile, non-conscious trees. The most basic lesson is that despite illusions and delusions, all organic beings and systems, upon coming into being, may grow, blossom and prosper but, ultimately, must faithfully and without exception, age, decline and die. The other is that only those that play by the rules of nature will be historically (and not just transitorily) successful. In these lie the inevitability of the tragic end that awaits all Africa’s dictatorial leaders and gmen.
Political Organisation and succession:
In spite common invocation of “democracy” as a key form of political organisation, the world’s governance systems and succession processes are as diverse as there are countries and administrative units and past regimes stacked in the continuum of history. Yet we must objectively categorise these systems in order to understand them and draw valid inferences and offer accurate predictions of outcomes from them.
Even in the USA, a country touted as the world’s greatest democracy, no single state or national election, not single presidency or governorship, and no governments over time are the same. Just consider how George Bush Jr. and Lyndon Johnson ascended to the Presidency of the USA, and how the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy ended in democratic USA. Yet, in spite of the variations, because of clear configuration and adherence to set rules, we can make valid generalisations about American democracy and safely predict its political trajectory over a fairly long period.
In our Africa, however, without any valid premise or historic framework, we continue to dismissively compare a government or leader with previous ones, or with those of other entities. We do this to then recklessly declare how “ours is different” and will never suffer the fate of its equals in history.
This emotive judgment against historic evidence is our common folly and greatest exercise in futility. What are the objective bases of our African assertions? How will we ever move forward when we do not accept and respect the realities of history, the march of time, and the brutality of logic, and use them to genuinely guide us?
In the spectrum of world governance and succession systems, there probably currently stand out three distinct and contrasting cases that in analogy with trees, we can use to help us appreciate the continued chaos of African political succession, and hopefully draw lessons from. These are: (i) coniferous forests and Scandinavian democracy (ii) equatorial forests and USAIndian Democracy and (iii) the flat-topped acacia tree and African dictators and gmen.
Coniferous forests and Scandinavian democracy:
Temperate coniferous forests are remarkable for their location, uniformity, sereneness and predictability. They thrive in harsh environments and have very short summer periods to grow. A typical forest is a large expanse of basically one tree type (conifers). So regularly spaced as if deliberately planted, it looks the same year-in and year-out. The forest seems devoid of any struggle amongst the trees. Yet a closer look reveals trees of different ages, all striving to grow and flourish trees that are dead and rotting and seedlings that are germinating or growing to occupy space vacated by fallen ones and ensuring succession and continuity without fanfare. Scandinavian summers are very short, 3-5 months of useful sunlight, while the winters are very cold, with heavy snowfalls and little food for animals (deer, yak etc.) that have to eat virtually any organic matter to survive. To flourish in this harsh and limiting environment, therefore, the conifers found strength in obedience to nature, and in life as a collective, with the basic principle being maximizing the limited opportunities and minimizing competition, wastage, and risks. Firstly, the cone-shaped, highly trimmed canopy of the conifers ensures that upper branches and leaves do not compete for space with, and shade, the lower ones. The limited sunlight is therefore captured maximally with little intra-plant competition. This canopy construct also enables conifers to deflect falling snow, preventing snow from otherwise accumulating on and break the branches a wastage that it can ill-afford. To survive, a tree must uphold these attributes.
Secondly, because of the tight canopy configuration that allows for judicious use of space, conifers preferentially survive as a tree type in this harsh environment, with the sharing of space allowing it to fan out in highly regular but closely knit formation. This large collective coexistence further minimizes risk of individuals being eaten up by animals thus enhancing the survival and spread of their kind. Hence, in spite the limits of its environment, and its unassuming form, the coniferous forest is one of nature’s greatest success stories.
The same attributes of coniferous forests and the same rules that govern their survival and success are the same attributes and rules that govern the social organisation and political construct of the Scandinavian countries where these forests are found. In Norway, Demark, Sweden, Finland etc., the social construct and political processes are virtually the same. People are unassuming, work in complementarity, and with self-restraint. They maximize resource use and minimize wastage. They share, are prudent, and non-predatory, with no corruption, cronyism, sectarianism etc. Children of the rich and poor share schools and ride bicycles to and from schools, and all have equal opportunity in life. Politicians, technocrats, workers, housewives etc. too ride bicycles without any clash of egos.
At the political level, parties are not built around brutal ideological contestations and cutthroat competition, but rather as alternatives to serve and contribute. There is also no pomp and grandeur in leadership. Prime Ministers share train rides with citizens, and leaders remain who they really are in life, even upon being elevated to high elective offices.
When time comes, people are given the opportunity to freely and truly make their choices. Because the choices are theirs, made genuinely and purposefully and for a common good, outcomes are accepted and embraced by all. Those chosen take over from previous leaders, who are no vanquished, and continue the tradition of leadership for country, people and posterity. In that apparent monotony and drabness of Scandinavian politics, the people stand unassuming like their coniferous forests, sharing, and stability. Successions are non-issues. Even with transitory disturbances, such as the assassination of Prime Minister Olaf Palme of Sweden, politics and succession remain uneventful and far different from the chaos and genocide of African politics.
Equatorial Forests and USAIndian democracy:
In contrast are the great equatorial forests exemplified by the Amazon of South America, the Ituri of DR Congo and our own Mabira. While they are also remarkable constants, they are instead based on diversity and ecological tumult. The massive resource opportunities arising from their equatorial location (high rainfall, warm climate, long, and intense daylight) created entities that are intimidating in their existence, size, and complexity. In function, they are difficult to understand and appreciate. Yet, like the serene coniferous forest, the existence of a tropical forest is equally governed and guaranteed by strict rules and universal adherence thereto.
While the equatorial forest is difficult to physically define, other than by its vastness, its overall existence is strictly governed by brute competition, focus on seizing available opportunities, and maximizing efficiency. Everything, however, is achieved by playing by the rules. For the individual plant, the struggle is to capture a share of key resources for itself space and light through rapid canopy growth and spread, and soil nutrients through root extension. Survival in this environment, with its enormous resources does not depend on structural conformity, but on seizing even the smallest opportunity and outwitting others.
Thus, while obviously dominant species outgrow the rest, others like figs, rather than establishing on soils, germinate in holes high on the stems of huge trees, grow their canopies to equal heights, tap light, extend their roots to the ground and turn the roots into stems, and eventually dominate their hosts and the spaces they occupied. The climbers, who are late colonisers, forego stem strength to achieve height by climbing on the backs of existing trees. The parasitic species establish on top branches of existing trees. At the same time, in the lower layers of the forest up to the ground, thousands of species of all sizes and physiological adaptions exploit the diverse opportunities, and thrive in their own rights.
In this chaos and grandeur, self-preservation and seizing of opportunity are paramount, and excesses are punished resolutely. If a shaded lower branch no longer contributes to growth and competition, nutrients are withdrawn from it and channelled to vantage shoots and the shaded shoot is left to die off. Inordinate focus on shoot growth at the cost of root development is punished by predisposing the roots to rotting and the plant to toppling with loss of competition. Even overbearing branches are broken by wind with the greedy tree ceding space to competitors.
In the non-limiting equatorial environment, opportunity is available to all, and those that play by the rules thrive in their contexts. Most importantly, success and dominance are attained by excelling and out-competing others, and not by cynical, opportunistic, and toxic suppression of rivals. The sum total is the teeming, highly productive, and ever present, equatorial forest. The tumult of the equatorial forest has its greatest equal in the democracies of the United States of America and India. Both countries are huge and geographically complex. Their societies are diverse, assertive, and highly dynamic. Their political contestations are high profile constants.
With India’s religious, cultural, wealth, and other diversities, and America’s teeming influx of world peoples, its social complexities and its perpetual and brutal ideological struggles between Democrats and Republicans, one wonders how these countries hold together, prosper, promote the progress, and wellbeing of their citizens and remain stable even in moments of greatest political challenges such as the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and John Kennedy. No matter the passions on issues, height of emotions, and the chaos of a campaign, elections are always universal and guaranteed opportunities for citizens to freely express themselves and make political choices without let or hindrances. At the end, outcomes are accepted and changes are embraced, allowing for smooth successions, continuity, stability, and predictability.
In both countries, as in equatorial forests, healthy competition is institutionalised. All must play by the rules opportunities are open and changes fair, institutions and laws do not discriminate, those who utilise the broad opportunities succeed. The price of weakness and failure is paid in equal measure by all. In the end, while much of the drive is selfish the national, institutional and psychological construct of the two societies transforms this drive into common progress and strength. Hence the greatness of the democratic cultures of the USA and India that is so lacking in Africa.
The flat-topped Acacia Tree and African dictators and gmen:
Uniquely found in Africa are the flat-topped acacia trees that, even when in the same environment, are never a collective but stand out as outstanding individual trees. Other than chance and fate, no ecological analysis tells you why a particular acacia tree grew where it did, survived and blossomed to be the majestic tree that it is. The key feature of this tree is the flatness of its roof, with the branches spread out to minimize energy sapping intra-branch and intra-leaf competitions. Structurally, branches and leaves are also so optimally arranged and so closely knit to allow all elements to tap light- the key resource- and to maximally benefit from this existence and dominance with little internal competition.
As children herding cattle and goats, we used to shelter (find security) from rain under the tight canopies of these trees. Magically, standing under these trees, the tiny apertures in the canopies also allowed us to see actual stars even during the day. Thus, besides majesty, the trees had valuable and marvellous attributes. Yet, the singular dominance of the flat-topped acacia tree and its tight canopy construct has an ominous side to it. Because of the thick canopy, it cuts off light so much that little reaches the ground, thus preventing germination and establishment of its own seeds and those of other plants under it. The acacia tree may even aggressively resist other plants by constantly exuding from its roots toxins (allelochemics) that inhibit germination and growth of other plants.
Thus, the ground under this majestic tree remains largely bare, with virtually no under-growths. Even its own will not germinate, grow and flourish under it, nor will it allow new branches to emerge on lower stems, as any wayward branch growth is brutally curtailed. Only ecologically daring but weak species, with short and highly transitory lives, try to live in this oppressive environment.
At its inevitable end, and regardless of how long it stood, when the majestic and imposing tree suddenly topples due to rotten roots, a storm, or lightning, or it is cut, all that is left is a visual and ecological void. Tragically, in its sudden departure, the majestic acacia tree will have no other to replace it, triggering instead an unplanned, chaotic rush by others to occupy the space it vacated.
With the suppressor gone, weak species that previously barely survived as under-growths now attempt to flourish and impose themselves. Being highly transitory, weak and ineffectual, however, they fail to command and dominate the available space. Dormant seeds of all kinds that were previously shaded or chemically suppressed also rush to germinate and occupy the vacuum, while smart and daring species (“opportunists” or “early colonizers”), whose seeds float in air or are dispersed by wildlife, also quickly arrive to seize the opportunity. For a very long time, the site of that fallen tree remains in a state of ecological flux and disequilibrium, witnessing unrelenting struggle for dominance and rapid changes in species composition and spatial structures. This brutal and unrelenting struggle goes on with one group succeeding another until dominant plants or members of a dominant species overwhelm the rest to dominate the space vacated by the original acacia tree, and establish a new equilibrium.
With rare luck, the dominant entity could be another acacia tree but more often than not other species that grew much faster and most aggressively would replace the fallen acacia tree at that spot. In very rare circumstances also, defects in the canopy construction of the dominant acacia tree, or a catastrophic event that causes breakage of a large branch also opens up its canopy, allowing a lucky acacia seed to germinate and establish. If this happens early or long before the demise of the main tree, that dominant acacia tree will have a successor g enough to ward off competition and grow to replace it in the same spot.
For those who have experienced African dictatorships and gmen rule, this ecological story requires no further transcription. These rulers share the same history with the lone acacia tree, in defiance of African diversity and the complexity and tumult of their own countries. In its glory days, an African dictatorship or gman rule usually stands out as unique, majestic, and highly attractive in intent, deeds and outlook. Unfortunately, it is nearly always base and highly deceptive, with much of its realities couched in propaganda and image building. Internally, such a regime is closely knit but only held together by the leader and not institutions or impartially applied rules. Unquestioned loyalty to the leader is built around sharing of opportunities, resources and benefits, through corruption, cronyism, sectarianism etc., and by use of resources (bribery) and fear (suppression and oppression) to ward off competition. The constant struggle is for self-perpetuation, total dominance, and suppression of all dissent.
Internal dissent, like wayward branch growth, is punished by the cutting off of resources and opportunities, and even incarceration, while external competition is actively and vigorously suppressed. The opposition, like under-growths, are stifled and denied space and resources to flourish, or are actively and toxically fought to ensure that their struggles remain inconsequential. Violent police and security agents are let loose upon the opposition, harsh laws are enacted targeting them, and jail on flimsy reasons, rights abuse and even death become the costs of dissent.
As a consequence, while the regime flourishes, all-embracing and sustainable systems and institutions are not built, alternative leaderships are not developed, and platforms for political stability and smooth leadership succession are not established. Instead, regime cronies continue to bask in the illusion of grandeur, permanence and invincibility until, as inevitably does, the end comes with all its tragic consequences.
When that end comes, the leader or dominant system leaves behind a huge political vacuum. Tragically, without systems and effective controls, that vacuum sucks in all manner of players- daredevils, crooks, spoilers, opportunists and even the lucky. Each of these, weak in themselves and, in the absence of a g state, are incapable of holding a country together. The result is the chaos that has followed the fall of all African dictators and gmen (Bokasa, Mobuto, Siad Barre, Gadhafi, Mubarak etc.), and monolithic regimes, such as the communist regimes of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. A country then suffers fratricidal wars that tear it apart (Somalia, Libya), and has to face long and very costly struggle to hold together and piece itself back after conflict. Very rarely do early internal contradictions and power contestations help redirect survival to institutional development and collective action rather than to dependence on an individual and his capacity to hold things together. When this happens, the demise of a dictator or gman causes only momentary instability, and power is passed on to successive, albeit, weak leaders. Even then, this buys a country time and enables it to move on. Uniquely, seemingly monolithic leadership and governance systems, such as the Communist leadership in China or the Chama Cha Mapenduzi (CCM) leadership in Tanzania, seem to defy this general dominant-tree rule, with power passing to successive leaders without instability.
Close examination, however, reveals that, in these countries, in spite their apparent situations, the exercise of State power and leadership succession are actually institutionalised. Opportunities and access to resources are not used as instruments of political coercion and suppression, and there are regular and predictable changes of leaders (through 2-Term limit for Tanzania and generational limit for China) that generate hope and allow critical stabilising adjustments to be made with each succession. These situations are certainly poor excuses for apologists of dictatorial or gman regimes in Africa.
My “Law of Cumulative Error”
Even with the above analysis, some Africans are still wont to reflect on their own situations, and on what they mean in space and time, but remain defiant. In concluding, let me affirm that this is nature’s way from which we humans are not exempt. Let me also add my own third dimension- my “Law of Cumulative Error”- which I coined in my early life in Parliament. By this law, I simply assert that, in politics, the mistakes we make and the failures we suffer do not go away. Instead, they accumulate like sugar on a weighing scale being weighed in the dark. Against a 5kg stone, the first few cups of sugar have virtually no effect on the weighing scale, and a person weighing the sugar has nothing to worry about. As one approaches the 5kg mark, however, a quarter cup or just a few grains of sugar may be sufficient to tip the scale a quantity that, unfortunately, in darkness, we are unable to know.
In the tragic journey in darkness that is the general fate of African dictators and gmen, who knows where their countries are and what additional mistakes shall finally tilt the scale? Even just a day earlier, whoever could have told us that, after 27 years of self-deception, October 30, 2014 was Blaise Campaore’s day of reckoning with the people of Burkina Faso? African dictators must really learn from this and move on.
Prof. Morris Ogenga-Latigo was the Leader of Opposition in the 8th Parliament of Uganda.
Source : The Independent