Power: From Major to Minor

There was a time when my gaze was turned to the big picture: international relations, the behaviour of national governments and multi-national corporations.  These days, my focus has narrowed to governance on a small scale.  This is what I like to call “micro” politics compared to the “macro” politics that occupies the major news networks.

Yet both can be equally afflicted by corruption and abuse of power.
My ‘people’  (i.e. my particular community) elected me President without really knowing me all that well.  The previous ‘regime’ had failed in so many ways that it was enough that I was not the incumbent.   It was unexpected.  But somehow rather flattering (at least until realisation dawned as to just how much hard work lay ahead to right wrongs).

In political life it’s a given that any individual or party’s early promise will eventually give way to cynical manipulation. Democratic procedures get nudged aside ‘for the sake of efficiency’, resulting in dictatorial rule rubber-stamped by a compliant committee of yes-men, encouraged to remain loyal one way or another. As Lord Acton so memorably wrote:  “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Yes. Even at the grass-roots level of administration, human nature ensures that some (perhaps all, given enough time) will stumble and err along the way.   People are gripped by accusations of megalomania, nepotism, personal enrichment, collusion, incompetence and maladministration on a grand scale.

A whispering campaign begins and swells into a chorus of disapproval that culminates in an organised campaign against the office-holders. The Executive is said to be conniving to force through a change in the laws to ensure they can extend their terms of office.  Meanwhile they attempt to silence their critics by using (or abusing) the tools at their disposal:  a summons to a hearing, talk of exclusion, suspension or sanction, threats to mount a lawsuit for defamation and so on.

Or if you are really unlucky (say you live in Angola), preventative detention, daily beatings, a show trial on trumped-up charges, and solitary confinement.

Rotten regimes may go on for decades but eventually change comes. People die off (or go to prison).  New alliances form.  Younger, better-educated, better-looking candidates capture the imagination. From A to Z (Angola to Zaire) the despots succumb. “We the people” endure. And live in hope.

Then the ‘new brooms’ begin to sweep clean, rewriting the Constitution, laws and bylaws in the hope of averting future dictators, reinventing the organisational structure, drafting policy and procedure, tackling the financial crisis, managing a legal case or two…. you get the picture. And that’s just in my little backwater.

At about the same time that José Eduardo dos Santos was being catapulted into power at the end of the 70s, I too was elected President of something (on a much smaller scale). I served my term, organised the election of my successor, and moved on, leaving just one trace: my name in gold letters on the roll-call of past Presidents.

If only.  Nearly four decades later, Dos Santos is still in power, soft and bloated and sickly though he may be.  He thinks he’s still the  “Big Man” but it’s no longer true.  The clock is ticking.  And while he lashes out at the new generation for wanting to exercise their freedom of speech, he fails to hear the whispers amongst his entourage, that soon will also swell into a chorus.

Democracy is harder than autocratic rule… you have to consult everyone, hear them out, negotiate, compromise and eventually arrive at a solution that is the least worst option.  It’s tiresome and time-consuming when things need urgent action. Nonetheless, it has the advantage of making everyone feel included in the process.  And most importantly, it eliminates the “Big Man”.