Succession – Why Can’t We Learn From Trees? [opinion]

When I first entered Uganda’s Parliament in 2001, I did not make my maiden speech until after two months although I could have spoken on the very first day.

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, etc, only for them to 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 that, in its intoxicating effect, makes many African leaders delude themselves that they are demigods who are the alpha and omega of their countries, and 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 Joseph Mobutu an Ivory Coast under Felix Houphouet-Boigny an Iraq under Saddam Hussein a Tunisia under Ben Ali a Libya under Muammar Gaddafi 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 of their difference from the rest and in their absurd conviction that “it will never happen to us”.

But this, 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 sodomized 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 had humbled themselves in power and had recognized their time when it had come and, other than clinging on purposelessly, thanked the fate that gave them the unique opportunity to serve at the helm of society and quit peacefully, Africa’s political instability and succession chaos would have been a completely different story.

Most importantly, if only we all could recognize 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 that continue to bedevil and bog down Africa.

Unbelievably, as it may be, we can actually draw lessons from life histories of the immobile, non-conscious trees the most basic being 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 Organization and Succession

In spite of common invocation of “democracy” as a key form of political organization, 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 categorize these systems in order to understand them, 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 Federal election, no 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 generalizations 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, and 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, that looks the same year-in and year-out, and 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, three to five 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 breaking 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 of the limits of its environment, and its unassuming form, the coniferous forest is one of nature’s greatest success stories.

Scandinavian democracy

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 organization 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 they work complementarily and with self-restraint maximize resource use and minimize wastage 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 [alternate moments] 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.

In that apparent monotony and drabness of Scandinavian politics, that stand unassuming like their coniferous forests, sharing, stability and 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.

The author was leader of Opposition in the 8th Parliament of Uganda.

In part two of this article on Friday, Prof Ogenga-Latigo places African politics in the context of equatorial forests such as our own Mabira.

Source : The Observer

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