Wednesday, February 6, 2008

African leaders confuse State House with home

There are words that jump out of the page at you, grabbing you by the throat, daring you to look more carefully at them, savour, and digest them. That happened to me last weekend while reading a certain Saturday paper.

There, under the title “He is responsible for the fact that our children are not with us” was a story about Israel’s disastrous and ill-thought out foray into Lebanon in 2006 in which the Israeli army suffered a humiliating defeat and withdrawal at the hands of Hezbollah.

Now, after the affair faded from headlines, Israel went about finding what went wrong, how such a defeat could happen to the highly venerated Israeli army, and what should be done to ensure it never happens again. You will remember there have been other Israeli inquiries in the past, most famous of which was the Agranat Commission, established after the Israeli Defence Force suffered a string of humiliating drubbings from Egyptian and Syrian forces at the start of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. It should be noted that Israel went on to win that war, but not before staring in the face the possibility of defeat. Anyway, the latest commission of inquiry, led by retired Israeli judge Eliyahu Winograd, into the 2006 war in Lebanon indicated that many mistakes were made, especially the decision to send the ground army at the last moment into Lebanon, without sufficient air cover and well-thought out withdrawal plan should things have gone helter-skelter. And things did go bad: Israeli troops were surrounded and many killed in a war that was Israel’s to win. “Israel embarked on a prolonged war that it initiated, which ended without a clear Israeli victory from a military standpoint," said Justice (ret.) Eliyahu Winograd.

Anyhow, what got my attention about the story was the remark made by the parents of one of the Israeli soldiers who perished in Lebanon. Moshe and Shula Nisan were very bitter about the whole war, and felt that their 19-year-old son, Yinon Nisan, had been sent to a war that should never have been declared in the first place, since there was little to gain from it even if Israel won. They felt that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had sacrificed their son and betrayed the Israeli Army. Then, in closing, they uttered the phrase that caught my attention: “We think Olmert should take responsibility and go home,” Moshe Nisan is quoted to have said. “We will continue to put pressure until Olmert goes home.” Olmert must go home. Think about that statement for a moment. Olmert must go home. They never said Olmert must resign, apologise or whatever, but that he “must go home”.

Now, we all know what they mean—Olmert must resign and leave power. Yet, the idea of Olmert going home has a different ring to it. Somewhere in there, the grieving parents are suggesting that Olmert’s political career has come to an end; it is finished such that he must now go home. If they had said: “Olmert must resign”, there would still be a possibility (which is true in Israeli politics) that he could be recycled at some later date to return as prime minister or even as president. But here, the avenue leads straight to Olmert’s home—go home Olmert, presumably, where you could spend time with your grandchildren and family, but cannot dabble in politics any longer. Home is where you cannot do any more harm to anybody.

This notion of “going home” is fascinating in light of world politics in general, and African politics in particular, where in numerous instances the incumbent cannot, or is incapable of, thinking of “home” as separate from state house. Often, in these cases, state house has become home, and the notion of “going home” simply does not arise in the minds of the occupants of the government residents. In many countries, such as the United States, the notion of “going home” is guaranteed in the constitution to remind the incumbent that at some point, he or she must go home—away from the official residence of the leader of the nation. Bill Clinton went home. George Bush is about to go home, to Crawford, Texas. Nelson Mandela went home. Former Indonesian President Suharto who died two weeks ago never went home until he was ousted in 1998. He had refused to go home for 32 years, hanging onto power.

Indeed, there are many African leaders for whom the notion of “going home” is a very difficult concept because state house has become synonymous with home. For long term incumbents who have been in power for over a decade, state house is also home. Though relatively new in power, Kibaki’s motivation to cling to power may have come from the difficulty of accepting that he needed to “go home”. Refusing to “go home” has been at the roots of African political crises. This is where the incumbent clearly feels a sense of entitlement to power, a right to hold the reins in the duration of his or her natural existence, or simply because the notion of state house and home has become so blurred that he or she cannot distinguish where one ends and the other begins. The problem is that where the incumbent is unwilling to go home, the population is left with no option but to push harder until something gives. That may explain Kenya and Chad today. It might explain a lot of the chaos in Africa.

Still, for the Israeli couple, there will be no rest until Olmert goes home. What a novel notion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I note in this photo that this is only half the family. One does wonder whether he celebrated his birthday with the other half?

Cheers from NZ