Skip to main content
gerald caplan

Gerald Caplan is an African scholar, former NDP organizer and a regular panelist on CBC's Power and Politics.

Two weeks ago, at the annual meeting of the African Union, 54 African heads of state quietly voted to grant themselves and their senior officials immunity from prosecution for genocide and crimes against humanity at the African Court of Justice and Human Rights. In a flash, the credibility of the nascent court, seen as the African alternative to the much-criticized International Criminal Court, vanished into thin air. Amnesty International blasted the decision as "a backward step in the fight against impunity and a betrayal of victims of serious violations of human rights."

The decision can only be seen as a flagrantly self-serving step to protect past and present African presidents accused of terrible crimes, like those of Sudan, Kenya and Ivory Coast, to mention only three. Yet the move is simply one more in a shameful litany of betrayals of their own people by innumerable African leaders ever since colonialism ended.

The struggle to free Africa of the yoke of colonialism is one of the great forgotten causes of the 20th century. Modestly launched in the 1930s, by 1956 Sudan had gained its independence from Britain, followed with great fanfare by Ghana in 1957.

The floodgates, once opened, could not be closed. By the mid-1960s, all French and Belgian colonies and all British colonies except those in southern Africa were, nominally at least, independent. The Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola followed in 1975, white-ruled Rhodesia became Zimbabwe five years later, Namibia five years after that. While in practice neo-colonialism thrived almost everywhere, in 1994 Nelson Mandela's election victory in South Africa marked the end of formal white domination of Africa.

In most countries, the independence struggle was led by "freedom movements" headed by charismatic "freedom fighters": Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Nyerere, Kaunda, Mandela. Great hope was invested in these men and their movements. Many of us in the west allowed ourselves to believe a new era in human history was unfolding. We reasoned that these men had personally endured the worst of what the powerful and privileged do to the weak and oppressed, that their governments would reverse the practices of the colonial powers – violence, racism, the enrichment of the rulers at the expense of the ruled–– and that something approaching a new egalitarian utopia would be built across Africa. We could not have been more wrong.

In fact, the world was soon shocked to discover that too many of the new African leaders had learned a different lesson in the prisons of their white colonial masters. Those prisons now became their prisons, used to brutalize their own citizens. The world of privilege their white rulers once monopolized became their world. In country after country, the proud nationalist rhetoric of the independence struggle gave way to ethnic or clan triumphalism. For decades almost every state on the continent was run by a dictatorship.

It was, from one end of the continent to the other, a betrayal for which Africa is still paying dearly. Yes, the "Big Men," as they were now known, were critically enabled in their treachery by western governments and western commercial interests. But that in no way mitigates their own unquestioned culpability.

You may hear today, in between news about the latest violent crisis or massive famine, that some African countries are finally experiencing economic growth and a kind of democracy. There is some truth to that. But whatever the progress, we can only imagine what it might have been like without a half-century of depredations by the Big Men. A nightmare descended on the continent, sparing few, and it haunts Africa still.

Biafra. Darfur. Rwanda. Anarchy in Somalia. Famine in Ethiopia. And the Big Men themselves, a dishonour role of tyranny and sadism. Ashamed of his country and his continent, Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka wrote of "a power-crazed and rapacious leadership": Gadhafi. Mobuto. Idi Amin. Bokassa. Mugabe. Abacha. Mengistu. Charles Taylor. Samuel Doe. Omar Al-Bashir. Between 1960 and 2004, sub-Saharan Africa witnessed 26 wars, nearly 200 attempted coups, 80 violent or unconstitutional changes of government, half of all presidents overthrown, 25 heads of government killed.

As for their subjects, since independence almost all of sub-Saharan Africa has ranked in the bottom quarter of the UN's Human Development Index, where it remains today.

Are today's leaders so clean they can grant themselves immunity from prosecution? Al-Bashir, the genocidalist Sudanese president, who still reigns after 25 years. Mugabe, still a menace to Zimbabweans after 34. Kenya's Kenyatta, wanted by the International Criminal Court. The leaders of the world's newest state, South Sudan, fomenting ethnic violence. The men responsible for the conflicts in Congo, Nigeria, Mali, Central African Republic, Somalia. The men who unforgivably denied the reality of HIV and AIDS.

Such men are, no doubt, righteously outraged that the International Criminal Court feels more like the African Criminal Court, that the likes of George W. Bush and Tony Blair are forever immune from punishment for their palpable crimes. But should Africa's leaders then seek their own immunity? What have they to hide, to fear, from the pursuit of justice?

Poor Africa. Its Big Men betray it still.

Interact with The Globe