The Big Man is back in politics. His return as a serious political alternative is somewhat surprising. Too horrible was his reign in the 20th century, too devastating his legacy. But people’s memory is short, and ethical considerations have always been a brittle bulwark against the worst political instincts. And so, recent years have seen the rise of political leaders who govern (or seek to govern) in a highly personalized way, unconstrained by institutions and general rules.
Of course, the Big Man has never really disappeared from world politics. After his decline in the developed world, he had found a comfortable home in developing countries of Asia, Latin America, and, especially Africa. Indeed, the mindset and political style of the Big Men who have recently returned to the political arenas of Europe and America have often been compared to those of African dictators. But how justified are such comparisons? Do the vast historical, economic, social, and cultural differences between African countries and the rich nations of the northern hemisphere not render any such comparison absurd?
To approach this question, it is instructive to have a closer look at some of the defining characteristics of African Big Man rule. My assessment is, in part, informed by my personal experience of one of the most firmly established Big Man regimes in modern Africa: the rule of Ali Bongo Ondimba, president of the central African nation of Gabon.
Since 2007, I have frequently visited Gabon, often many months at a time. I was privileged enough to experience the country’s exceptional beauty and its cultural diversity and wealth. Another lasting impression was the extreme social discrepancy in a society that includes the poorest slum dwellers, merely surviving on the bare minimum, and the extreme affluence of a minuscule privileged class, whose obscene wealth would render many millionaires in the developed world speechless with envy. Stability, despite this explosive constellation, is maintained by the Big Man regime of Ali Bongo, whose clan has kept a firm grip on Gabon for half a century. Many of the conditions in Gabon are specific to this nation, for instance the continuous influence of the former colonizer France, whose interests have guaranteed the unconditional rule of the Bongo clan without any extensive power struggles. Nonetheless, the leadership style, the political dynamics, and the social consequences of Big Man rule in Gabon provide shed a light on various general aspects of this type of political system.
1. To state the obvious, the Big Man’s rule is based on his deep and profound belief in his own greatness. The theory is simple enough. There are common folks, going about their simple lives, and then there are extraordinary individuals like the Big Man. In the 19th century, Thomas Carlyle, historian and Napoleon admirer, laid the intellectual foundation for this hypothesis. He considered great man the driving force behind history, politics, and just about everything that matters. The personal belief in their own exceptionalism is evident in the personal biographies of many African Big Men, sometimes even before they became engaged in politics. Ali Bongo, for example, sought fame and recognition as a singer, crediting himself as the “African James Brown,” before realizing that even his father’s far-reaching influence was no substitute for talent. Another aspect of their beliefs in their general awesomeness is the tough-guy persona that African Big Men cultivate—in the best tradition of traditional high-school machismo. This carefully constructed persona includes not only a reputation for ruthlessness and political fierceness, but also for sexual prowess. The Big Man is a stud and wants the whole world to know it. Heroic tales of sexual conquests and presentable trophy wives support this image.
2. A second characteristic of African Big Man systems is the complete absence of any outcome-oriented ideology. Adopted policies can be conservative, liberal, or even socialist in nature. What is considered right or wrong is not defined in terms of social outcomes, but in terms of the impact on the Big Man’s gains—not only political, but also financial ones (African Big Men rank among the wealthiest politicians in the world). The complete lack of policy orientation results in a political discourse that is primarily personnel-oriented. Pretty much every public debate comes down to tiresome questions whether the “right man” is in charge. This, of course, excludes the Big Man himself, who is, naturally, above criticism.
3. It is important to understand that no Big Man maintains himself by himself. Big Men depend on a privileged class that benefits greatly form their continuous rule. While most Africans in Big Man systems live in utter poverty, a minuscule elite has accumulated incredible riches. This upper-class frequently occupies opulent mansions, drives imported luxury cars, travels overseas for shopping trips, and socializes with wealthy European expatriates. Their lifestyle is highly dependent on the continued existence of a regime that provides them with high-ranking positions, access to lucrative business deals, and other opportunities. In turn, they are willing to dedicate considerable influence and resources to keep the Big Man in place.
4. Social upward mobility is usually rare. But the only way to gain access to these privileged circles is through profound, uncritical loyalty to the Big Man and his friends. Big Man regimes are extremely nepotistic, and the most elevated positions are reserved to the president’s relatives and friends. But not only political influence is dependent on unconditional loyalty. If you want to succeed in any area of social life, from business to the arts, you better be on good terms with the powers that be. The result is a culture of servility, in which even those disadvantaged by the regime take any chance to express their support in hopes for social advancement.
5. Absurdly, Big Men and their ruling parties stylize themselves as champions of the common man. While living in opulence, Big Men do not tire from expressing their deepest solidarity with the wretched of the land. The grievances of the latter are declared the result of the malevolent enemies.
6. Big Men thrive in cultures with profound division and resentment—social climates that easily proliferate in environments in which unequal opportunities have created intense frustration. Big Men are quick to name the true culprits for people’s misery: ethnic minorities, immigrants, opposition leaders, or educated regime critics, who are out of touch with true citizens are usually to blame. International influence is another common scapegoat. But resentment does not only serve the purpose of scapegoating. It provides a substitute for personal self-esteem. Although Big Men can, usually, not realize actual improvements for their followers, they can provide them with a sense of superiority and group exceptionalism.
7. One consequence of the Big Man’s declared alignment with his people is the aggressive promotion of the idea that criticizing the regime is synonymous with hating the country. The Big Man and his cronies claim patriotism for themselves. National holidays are turned into regime celebrations, and patriotic symbols such as monuments, the flag, and the anthem are embraced with big pompous rituals. The repeated insistence on the equality of country and Big Man installs the notion that opposition to the government is an unpatriotic sentiment, which is not only illegitimate but worthy of punishment.
8. Despite all the power in the hands of the Big Man, political institutions remain in place and are readily cited as evidence that these regimes are actually quite democratic. In reality, however, these institutions are mere hollow tools in the hands of the regime. Parliaments are completely dominated by the majority party. Individual delegates who deviate from the official party-line are readily replaced. Courts provide pseudo-legal ex-post justifications of government decisions. High-ranking judges are usually recruited from the Big Man’s inner circle of trust. In Gabon, for example, the president of the constitutional court was a former mistress of long-term dictator Omar Bongo. And while there may be independent newspapers, TV networks, and online sources, they usually refrain from any far-reaching criticism. Government-friendly reporting is ensured through the risk of suspension or repercussions against individual journalists. Elections, the apparent standard of the people’s sovereignty, regularly take place. However, gerrymandering, communication restrictions, and campaign expenses clearly favor the incumbent Big Man party. If, despite these advantages, the Big Man still comes up short, there is always the last resort of good old-fashioned fraud. A recent example for the latter was the presidential election in Gabon in 2016.
9. Naturally, not everybody buys into the omnipresent claims of the Big Man’s benevolence, toughness, success, and excellence. But alternative accounts have a hard time prevailing in the cacophony of loudly competing news stories. Every report is quickly countered by loudly voiced alternative versions—some based on fact, some completely made up. In the end, there are plenty of truths to pick from. The internet has turned out to be an immensely useful tool for this purpose. In the 2016 presidential election in Gabon, trolls did not only alter several country profiles to inflate the number of residents of the president’s home province, they also propagated the story that nearly 100 percent of this province’s residence voted for the regime. Domestic media, and the constitutional court, soon adopted this ludicrous claim, which was resolutely rejected by international observers.
10. If gaslighting and the propagation of alternative truths proofs are insufficient, there are, of course, traditional means of direct punishment. The vengefulness of Big Men is not only informed by the desire to stabilize their rule, but also by the deep personal hurt their ego suffers from attacks. Disciplinary actions don’t necessary have to come in form of physical violence or imprisonment, although these options remain always possible. Libel lawsuits and smear campaigns often proof just as effective. Increasingly common is the reliance on devoted, but formally independent, regime followers, who express the “wrath of the people” against deviating opinions and actions. Their tactics range from internet trolling to physical assault, and provide means of intimidation that do not implicate the government.
These Big Man characteristics are relatively stable across various cultural, political, and social idiosyncrasies of African countries. Notably, extreme violence and mass murder is not a defining characteristic of Big Man rule. Big Manism is a leadership style, a social climate, and a political culture. And while violent oppression is always an inherent possibility, it is not necessary for Big Man regimes to be qualified as such.
Whether African style Big Man rule is a potential danger for the rich nations of the northern hemisphere is another question. Postcolonial Africa has never established effective and stable institutions that can provide a reliable safeguard against demagogues with Big Man ambitions. This resulted in leadership structures that have more in common with criminal organizations than with legitimate governments. Free media that live up to their responsibilities, independent law makers, functioning courts and, most importantly, dedicated citizens have mostly emerged in rich countries and led to an unprecedented period of democracy and relative peace.
However, this doesn’t mean that these elements are guaranteed to stay. Functioning institutions can be undermined until they are just a hollow as their African counterparts. And apathetic citizens will find that there are plenty of potential Big Men, who are all-too-willing to terminate the freedom that they no longer care to defend. In the end, democracies without democrats will cease to exist.
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