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Politics of death: The way we mourn leaders reveals what unites and divides us

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Political Capital
Nic Cheeseman
By Nic Cheeseman

Every month 'Political Capital' tracks which leaders' political stock is rising, who is on the slide, and what this means for democracy and development. Focusing on the trends behind the headlines, Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) highlights the political power plays and events that will shape the future of Africa. He is Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham and Author of 'How to Rig an Election'. Founder of www.democracyinafrica.org. Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Friday, 16 April 2021 17:09

Military officers carry the coffin of former President John Magufuli, draped with the national flag, during a funeral service in his home town of Chato, Tanzania, Friday 26 March 2021. (AP Photo)

Two countries have been mourning the deaths of very different leaders recently.

In the UK, the media has been dominated by stories about Prince Phillip – an unelected but nonetheless prominent public figure – who passed away on 9 April. A few weeks earlier, tens of thousands of Tanzanians crammed into the national stadium to pay their respects to President John Magufuli, who officially died on 17 March.

Sadly the loss of sitting presidents is not a rare occurrence in Africa. Recent examples include Zambia’s Michael Sata in 2014, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Ghana’s John Atta Mills and Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika in 2012, Nigeria’s Umaru Yar’Adua in 2010, and Gabon’s Omar Bongo in 2008.

The way that these leaders are mourned has profound things to tell us about what unites societies – the common national symbols and ideas that are emphasised by governments and mainstream media.

But beneath the headlines, the struggle over their memory and legacy also highlights profound disagreements not only about the role of specific individuals but also about who gets to define national identity, and who belongs within the nation-state.

Because of this, we can learn a great deal about a country from how it reacts to the death of its leaders. To fully learn these lessons though, we need to start by recognising that national mourning is neither organic nor politically neutral – instead, funerals have long always been used as projects of state-building and to strengthen the position of those in power.

Mass mourning

When any vaguely popular or respected leader dies in office, the official mourning process kicks into gear. Flags fly at half mast, fellow leaders appear dressed in black, funeral details are drawn up and a period of national mourning is usually announced.

This process goes hand-in-hand with the drafting of eulogies and the making of speeches that highlight the qualities of the departed leader and gloss over their deficiencies. One of the greatest ironies of human life is that the nicest things said about us are only uttered after our death.

This has clearly been true for both President Magufuli and Prince Philip – controversial figures when alive, they have been depicted as unifying heroes in death: President Magufuli stood up for ordinary Tanzanians, fought corruption, and put multinational companies in their place; Prince Phillip was a loyal consort to the Queen – the non-Brit who helped to build modern Britain.

The cult of death

That these hagiographies do not always comes across as political projects has a lot to do with the way that very different cultures conform when it comes to the idea that those no longer living should be respected. Almost all societies have a saying along the lines of “one should not speak ill of the dead” – what we might call a cult of death.

This is particularly pronounced in some – though not all – African countries, where, as Ekore and Lanre-Abass have argued, it is a taboo both to speak of the potential death of a current leader, and where the process of mourning has become socially and politically institutionalised.

In a conversation with friends in Malawi recently, it was suggested that the intensity of mourning is rooted in a culture of deference to authority. This is an unhelpful overgeneralisation, however, because the cult of death is increasingly being challenged and because attitudes to death have long histories that are deeply entwined with religious cosmologies and beliefs.

As Lee and Vaughan have put it, performing the right rituals has been particularly important to many African societies historically because “the dead could only find their place as ancestors, rather than vengeful ghosts, if their loss had been properly registered, not only by the individuals closest to 3them, but by the social groups of which they were members.”

When it takes place on a national scale, institutionalised mourning suffocates debate and critical analysis. I remember being in Zambia following the death of President Mwanasa in 2008, a respected leader who was not universally loved and opening the newspaper to find wall-to-wall adverts taken out by individuals, companies and political leaders to sing his praises.

There is nothing “African” about hagiography and the cult of death of course – or about excessive state-sponsored mourning. When the news broke of Prince Phillip’s passing, national broadcasters pulled all of their scheduled coverage, local election campaigns temporarily ceased and sports events observed a period of silence.

All this, despite the fact that he was neither the Monarch nor wielded significant political power.

Death, taxes and state-building

The fact that state-sponsored mourning reflects social norms is one reason that it does not always appear to be a politicised process designed to strengthen the status quo. But this is precisely why it has become institutionalised – it serves the interests of those in power.

The cult of death, and the act of collective forgetting that it often involves, represents a prime opportunity to improve the image of a regime, encourage reconciliation, and strengthen the position of new leaders by depicting them as inheriting the mantle of the deceased.

In Tanzania, the ruling party has used the unifying power of death to try and move the country on from the controversial – and flawed – 2020 general elections. In the UK, allies of the Royal Family have seen Prince Philip’s death as an opportunity to revive the institution’s reputation, which was tarnished by recent accusations of bullying and racism.

It is critical to these efforts that dead leaders are depicted as flawless heroes. After all, you can only invoke Prince Philip’s memory to shore up public support for the privileges enjoyed by Royal Family if you depict him as being in some way superior to the rest of the population.

In this way, official mourning is intimately connected to hagiography, state-building and the protection of the status quo.

The politics of death

It is precisely the need to exaggerate the qualities of the fallen, and to promote a specific narrative of national identity and the recent past, that inspires resistance.

In some cases this is because recent political controversies are still painful. Tanzanian opposition and civil society leaders who had been persecuted by Magufuli during his time in office reacted angrily to his portrayal as a national hero.

The celebration of a man nicknamed “the Bulldozer” as a unifying pan African hero was just too much to bear for those who suffered under his rule.

In other cases, rebellion against official narratives occurs because they reflect a narrow and contested version of national identity based on a myopic view of history.

Many Brits, for example, were rather surprised to find out that Prince Phillip – often described as being somewhat cantankerous and rude during his life time – had in fact combined the engineering prowess of Henry Ford, the feminist stoicism of Mary Wollstonecraft, and the self-sacrifice of Mother Theresa.

More importantly, deliberate attempts to play down his racist comments – such as the Prime Minister’s claim that these had just “broken the ice” – minimised the suffering and concerns of communities that have experienced consistent racist discrimination.

It is therefore unsurprising that official accounts of his legacy were contested on Twitter, with critical tweets widely circulating among what some users referred to as “#BlackTwitter” and “#IrishTwitter”.

While for some President Magufuli and Prince Phillip’s deaths will be remembered as moments of national healing, for others the celebration of their lives only serves to highlight and reinforce political exclusion.

As ever, national mourning aims for unity, but on closer inspections reveals the divisive fault lines of power, historical memory and national identity.

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