This is the story of a young French student who was marked by a growing political consciousness, found himself leaning towards the left or even extreme left and had a visceral attachment to the anti-colonial and third-world ideals promoted by the emblematic Fédération des Etudiants d’Afrique Noire en France (Feanf).
This organisation was historically made up of pugnacious democracy activists and courageous oppositionists, who were often forced into exile and were assumed to be close to the Internationale Socialiste (IS). Then came the big night, the long sought-after election in which he became president.
Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo (elected in 2000), Guinea’s Alpha Condé (2010), Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou (2011), Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) (2013) and Burkina Faso’s Roch Marc Christian Kaboré (2015), our West African ‘club of five’, have a lot in common.
These men have known each other for a long time, from the banks of the Seine – where their political culture was shaped, notably within the famous Feanf – to the presidential palaces they conquered; and from their stooges of yesteryear: Solange Faladé, Félix Mounié, Emmanuel Bob Akitani, Francis Wodié, Djéni Kobina, Seyni Niang and Albert Tévoédjrè, who made the walls of the rue Béranger – where the student federation’s General Assembly took place – resound, to their counterparts with whom they shared power, gold, privileges and responsibilities.
This solidarity between these IS comrades, who still talk and visit each other regularly, has often benefited them greatly (except for Gbagbo), especially when François Hollande was president of France and they were on good terms with him.
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More than any other president, at least out of those that came up via the classical route, they raised huge expectations. Their original ideals (patriotism, true independence, democracy, freedom, a sense of social justice), their track record – as oppositionists who never hesitated to confront whoever was in charge at that moment – and their deep convictions defined their careers.
All of these traits have rekindled their fellow citizens’ flame of hope: hope for a different kind of governance – one that is more open, more modern, more courageous, more just, more concerned about the poor and that attaches greater importance to the sovereignty of nations hitherto accustomed to being trampled on by the great powers.
This is where our five comrades’ common destiny ends. The original matrix is one thing, what you do with it is another. Gbagbo fell from power in April 2011, a victim of his stubbornness and blindness. IBK was ousted in August 2020 for the same reasons; and most recently, Condé was swept away by a coup d’état.
This is not an attempt to justify putsches or the use of military force to end a president’s term in office. Instead, it is worth noting that these three heads of state failed in all of the above-mentioned areas, areas in which they were supposed to shine. Long-term oppositionists – such as Gbagbo, IBK and Condé – who come to power late (and at an advanced age) rarely make good leaders.
There are sometimes extenuating circumstances, notably the attempted coup d’état of ‘comrade Laurent’ in September 2002 and its consequences, but there is still a long way to go. Gbagbo acted like a clan leader, albeit in a besieged citadel. He was a shrewd politician, a true political animal with above-average intelligence, but certainly not a leader destined to preside over an entire nation’s destiny. He also had too many scores to settle and too many cultural blinders to become one.
What about IBK? He proved to be more of a lazy king than the captain of a ship caught in a storm. As for Condé, although no one doubts his determination or patriotism, the fact remains that he too has failed in his mission, especially when one compares him to the fighter and statesman that was Lansana Conté.
‘Alpha’ was clearly afflicted with hubris syndrome, the loss of a sense of reality that the Greeks had identified and fought against in ancient times. In other words, excess, the crime of pride that was punished by the gods.
This inspired David Owen, a former British foreign secretary and doctor, to write In Sickness and in Power, in which he cites 14 symptoms resulting from the transformation of political leaders’ personalities once they have been in power. These include lack of critical thinking, arrogance, rejecting differing opinions and having a [false] sense of immunity. In short, Condé felt that he knew better than anyone else and that only his point of view mattered.
As for Gbagbo, IBK and Condé, a simple conclusion can be reached. These leaders, who were responsible for making decisions and leading their countries along the path they had traced for many years, developed – once in power – a total inability to do so lucidly. Worse, their behaviour was in total contradiction with the ideals that they had promoted.
The examples of Issoufou and Kaboré
Certainly, when one becomes a head of state, it is necessary to compromise one’s conscience or principles. It would be naïve, even hypocritical, to think otherwise. The pipe dreams of militancy and idealism give way to pragmatism. Power, both its conquest and its exercise, implies that the rules that one has set for oneself will have to be bent. One must learn to close one’s eyes, to ally oneself with people one does not like, to look for the money necessary for one’s ambitions or those of one’s country and show flexibility. However, these ‘arrangements’ with morality or the law can only be justified if their final objective is in the general interest. This has not been the case.
Kaboré, who was re-elected in November 2020, and Issoufou, who passed the Nigerien torch to Mohamed Bazoum last April after two terms in office, are the more successful figures within this ‘brotherhood’. Nevertheless, they have not achieved everything and much remains to be done in their countries. However, they have remained true to themselves, by placing their mission above family, clan and ethnicity to become the presidents of an entire country.
Their governance is more transparent and consensual, and they are committed to serving public interest. Democratic life is healthier than under their predecessors, freedoms have progressed, and so has the economy, despite a delicate security situation. Issoufou was able to step down in time and there is no doubt that Kaboré will do the same, as he has promised to do so.
“I am very happy about my friend Roch’s victory. We are very close, and our paths, strangely enough, have overlapped. We were prime ministers and then presidents of the National Assembly at the same time; and now he is joining the brotherhood,” said IBK, a day after Kaboré’s election in November 2015. This brotherhood consists of people who have not all learned – let alone applied – the same lessons.
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