By Rev. Fr. Paul Irikefe
| Pope Benedict XVI
The shocking announcement of Pope Benedict XVI on February 11 will certainly go down in history as one of his greatest reforms, maybe the most modernizing decision for a conservative pontiff.
A once-in-6oo-years event does not happen every other day, nor is it enacted by any other personality. It is the product of a vigorous intellect and an authentic personality. In this sense, Pope Benedict is a revolutionary who with regard to the petrine office, has balanced the mystical and the pastoral in favor of the latter: being a pope is a job, and the Pontiff must be in the condition to do the job.
Then again on February 14 during a meeting with the clergy of the Diocese of Rome, he left further hint of that announcement: he would not just be retiring, he said, he would remain hidden to the world in prayer.
In reaction, priests in attendance said they felt they had witnessed a powerful moment in church history. Some were moved to see the pope smile. He has found peace within himself, they rightly concluded. And not just them, the entire world still receives this news like a bolt out of the blue.
It is never really easy to limit one’s power, let alone to voluntarily abdicate that which is supreme, full, immediate, and universal over the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. And yet Benedict did it.
Arguably the greatest scholar to rule the church since Pope Innocent III in the 13th century, his thought puts in sharp relief some of the key questions bordering on the relationship between faith and reason, the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and the unbreakable bond between scripture and tradition.
This willingness to accept the verdict of time, to realize that it is possible to define one’s future and the meaning of one’s life as something other than the ability to control someone else’s is in no doubt in serious short supply in Africa. Our continent stand in need of men and women who accept the responsibility of power because they have a vision for their people, and not just for their own family or party or regional base.
The politics of power has always been the bane of African leadership. The landscape is strewn with autocracy, oligarchy, and illiberal democracies. Everyone seems to be taking his chapter from Idi Amin’s playbook.
Shortly after seizing power through a putsch, he renamed himself: “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji, Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC. Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in particular.”
As a result, Africa is home to some of the worst dictators and longest serving rulers, definitely not leaders: Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Equatorial Guinea (33 years and counting), Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Angola ( 33 years and counting), Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe (32 years and counting), Yoweri Museveni, Uganda, (26 years and counting), King Mswati III, Swaziland, (26 years and counting), Blaise Compaore,Burkina Faso, (25 years and counting), Omar al-Beshir, Sudan (23 years and counting), Idriss Deby Itno, Chad (21 years and counting), Emperor King Haile Selassie, Ethiopia (44 years), Muammar Gaddafi, Libya (42 years), Omar Bongo Ondimba, Gabon, (41 years), and so on. It is the same syndrome that drives an incumbent to seek for a pliable candidate that would run the office like a prebend. But the opportunity cost is always professionalism and merit.
The irony is that many started like revolutionists, reformers, heroes, and sometimes as freedom fighters, but morphed into autocrats due to the proclivity for power and quest for control of the money jugular. Yes election may be held, but the vote may not count. Some of them even master the craft of using experts, and reformers in their cabinet like Ibrahim Babangida, but in the end these technocrats emerge from their stint in office severely compromised.
In fact in the gap-tooth general’s case, it was taken to a level of fieldcraft in which all institutions, the police, the various arms of government, most especially the judiciary and the civil service were ferociously battered and morally eviscerated. Nothing eventually became the country like the way they left it: socially devasted, morally decrepit, and politically moribund.
Again not a few were in their early days in schools without shoes, without school bags, and even had to carried their books in their hands. Some even left their political imprisonment with barely 20,000 naira in their account.
But today, they are billionaires, and while their country has stayed poor, they have benefited from it, and only through that way. Indeed in Africa failure works, first for those in power and then second for their front men through whom contracts, assets and cash are channeled to foreign accounts and investment, and finally for their narrow base of supporters.
Zimbabwe is case study on the politics of poverty. Barely a few weeks back, the finance minister Tendai Biti announced to the press that his country has just $217 (roughly 34, 720 naira) in the national coffer! “The government finances are in paralysis state at the present moment,” he said. And that was not the first of its kind. Zimbabwe had made similar news in 2008 when its annual inflation hit an estimated 96 sextillion percent. The Central Bank had to print a $100 trillion note which now sells on Ebay for a few U.S dollars.
But while the country is hemorrhaging, and more than a majority living on less than $1 a day, Mugabe and members of his ruling party have grown stupendously rich. Robert Mugabe himself has an estimated wealth running into Billions of Dollars. In November last year, a Canadian watchdog alleged that more than $2 billion worth of diamonds have gone missing in Zimbabwe since 2008. That is how far elites can go in stealing a nation blind.
It is the lack of strong institutions, compounded by illiteracy and poverty that continues to make Africa a continent where the demand for civil and political rights far outstrips its supply.
From South Africa to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Nigeria and to the Gambia, and indeed to much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, we witness regular election but it is successively less fair, less efficient and less credible. Nor is it placing credible and responsible government in place. Across the continent, democratic and autocratic systems of power are simultaneously in play.
Indeed, in the voluntary resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church has spoken a loud and a strong moral message: the last best hope of Africa is not the strong man with a messiah complex, but strong institutions that work for the people. And yes, there is a messiah, but it is not you for a lifetime. Pope Benedict has said a big no to the big man syndrome in Africa.
Rev.Fr. Paul Irikefe is a priest from the Catholic diocese of Warri, Delta State, Nigeria. He can be reached at Ovoekene@yahoo.com