Elliot Ziwira @ The Book Store
Machiavellianism as a strategy has been used in politics for ages to gain and maintain power. The strategy, which is driven by self-interest, thrives in running with the hares and hunting with the hounds, which always keeps both sides running.
Ousmane Sembene’s “The Last of the Empire” (1981) explores the nature of Man with regard to power in an interesting way as democracy in a Manichaean world is given new meaning. Through characterisation, setting and use of satirical tropes, the writer holds up the post-colonial nation state leader to account.
The central character – Leon Mignane, The Venerable One, who is the president of the fictional state of Senegal – has surrounded himself with a spendthrift young Cabinet that is always at his beck and call because of what he represents to them – a gold mine.
Democracy starts and ends with him, which makes him a dictator, albeit a necessary presence to his hangers-on. This is made possible by his Machiavellian strategy of keeping his lieutenants running. As attorney Ndaw aptly observes, whatever Mignane does, be it constitutionalism or anything else to do with state hegemony, it is “pure Machiavelli!”
As a master schemer, Mignane knows that power thrives in chaos, so he creates factionalism, through selling a succession plan that purportedly favours rival/contesting groups within his inner circle when he has no plan of stepping down.
His bet is fanaticism, ethnicity and religious tiffs inherent in his people, where caste, class and tribalism cannot be wished away, even though what really matters is material gain. Central to the Venerable One’s deceitful and hypocritical nature is Mam LatSoukabe, who is also a chameleonic character.
The first case in point is that which involves Mam LatSoukabe and Ahmet Ndour, with the former being appointed Governor and the latter Head of Cabinet. Aware of the bad blood between the two, Mignane plays them off against one another to further entrench himself while depending on their support and their constant weakening of each other.
The third person narrator informs us that Mam LatSoukabe, as Governor of his region, “behaved like a head of state, riding in an open car preceded by two motorcycle policemen and a pennant”.
“He had his subordinates punished and whipped as he liked . . . He once fired almost an entire barrel at a supporter of AhmetNdour, the President du Conseil or Cabinet Head”. Naturally such behaviour should elicit censure since it does not only smack of lunatic power hunger, but intolerance and violent penchants, but when Ahmet-Ndour expresses his concern and vows to bring the wayward Governor to book, Mignane decides to play them off to his advantage. He, however, forgets that continuing to play the game comes at a prize (Fanon, 1967).
It is said of The Venerable One: “He often fanned then appeased conflict between his subordinates, taking advantage of their differences.” By fanning tensions, Mignane, like other despots, keeps the two sides apart, with himself as the pivot linking them.
Realising that the Cabinet Head was becoming his own man, with his own power base antithetical to his, the President gives AhmetNdour a long rope to entangle himself with and he plays him off with others with power in their sights. Subsequently, the Cabinet Head and Mignane’s companion for 15 years gets himself isolated and is imprisoned for attempted coup and the “Second Constitution was revised. The post of Head of Cabinet was eliminated.”
With the Head of Cabinet gone, Mam LatSoukabe is elevated to Cabinet as the Minister of Finance and his “belly grew round, his cheeks swelled”, which is testimony to good living courtesy of the good tidings that come with handling of the Government purse. The struggle for power within the ruling party exacerbates social conflict, as the people they purport to represent are dragged in while at the same time breaking the seams of the national fabric. This is the prize of individuals’ tussle for power to determine/control matter and material gain at the expense of the common good.
When Leon Mignane realises that age and health are taking a toll on him, he decides to create the post of Prime Minister through a sham referendum whose result is part of his “made-to-order constitution”. His idea is not only to keep Man LatSoukabe in check, but to maintain power by choosing someone with flaws that will easily be used against him should the need arise, and with the political naivety to fill the post of Prime Minister.
His choice is David Daouda, who is described as “docile and studious”, without a “brilliant or profound mind” and whose father “a praise-singer of the Ayane dynasty (Mam LatSoukabe’s family) had told him time and time again: ‘Whatever the future may hold for you, you must keep to your station in life.” Daouda admits that, “I’m not really a politician. I found myself in this position without having sought it”.
Lacking political stamina, burdened by ethnicity and devoid of brilliance of mind, Daouda becomes the best pawn in Leon Mignane’s Machiavellian schemes.
As Fanon (1967) posits and Iliff cited in Davidson (1992) intimates, tribalism and factionalism are weapons that African leaders inherited from their erstwhile colonisers, which they use to divert the people from the socio-economic issues affecting them and cause them to concentrate on trivia, instead of uniting against a common enemy.
In the post-colonial nation state, the rivalries for executive power between or among the elite stoke national conflict, while downplaying socio-economic issues that affect the people. Tribalism, therefore, becomes just a smokescreen that politicians use for political expediency and material gain.
It is because of the quest for power that Daouda finds himself locking horns with Mam LatSoukabe. Mignane supports this and even encourages the fights, while keeping tabs and control over them because he knows it will benefit him ultimately. The open hostility and “rivalry between the two men had split the government, the administration and the ruling party. At every level, each had his followers”.
The leader “fostered this climate of rivalry between his two ministers. He promised each that he would succeed him, the better to retain his power of them”. With the tussling for political space intensifying, splitting the government into two camps, Mignane plays Godfather, pacifier and unifier, because only he alone can calm the raging storms.
His exit, therefore, is bound to bring anarchy to the nation state, so the belligerents would rather have him for as long as he lives, thus fostering dictatorship and deification. With both camps singing for supper, praise-singing and flattery become the order of the day as the Machiavellian leader dangles the carrot.
Mignane also keeps “spiritual leaders” who “acknowledged him as their one and only leader, above elected representatives and the Constitution”.
As politics takes precedence over the economy, the people’s patience begins to wane as they realise that they are being taken for a ride. The elite, with Mignane’s support, become indecently rich as the majority wallow in abject poverty. As Fanon (1967: 154) notes: “The people come to understand that wealth is not the fruit of labour but the result of organised, protected robbery. Rich people are no longer respectable people; they are nothing more than flesh-eating animals, jackals and vultures which wallow in the people’s blood.”
There will always come a time that the dialectical forces keeping the oppressed people will come to a cirque, which makes it possible for those people to cast their individual differences to fight for the common good against tyranny. According to Marx, the oppressed will, at one point revolt if the conditions are in their favour and they will put their differences aside for this.
But the people should be wary of falling into nefarious individual traps.Held (2006: 119) points out that: “The pluralist Marxist position makes many telling points, including that, if not all differences of interest can be reduced to class, and if differences of opinion about the allocation of resources are for all practical purposes inevitable, it is essential to create the institutional space for the generation of, and debate about, alternative political strategies and programmes.
“To prevent those who hold power — let us say at the pinnacle of the pyramid of Communes — from transforming themselves into an immovable political leadership, there must always be the possibility of removing this leadership, with its policies, from office.”
There should be open debate on the way policies are implemented, but in the absence of free debate, which is usually the case in the post-colonial state where the leader centralises power as what happens in “The Last of the Empire”, and elections are always rigged through violence, intimidation and chicanery, conditions must favour revolt. It is precisely at this moment that the military appears.
The people will begin to see through the folly of their leaders. Events leading to the disappearance of Leon Mignane after 20 years of rule reveal the impatience, despondency, disillusionment and frustration that grip the masses, especially the youths. What they only want is inspiration and a rallying point for them to put a halt to the madness by “a set of individuals engaged in legalised plunder of the national economy, who constitute a privileged elite”, as Doyen Cheikh Tidiane says.
He rants: “They came to power with empty hands, but privileged through their education. They soon constituted a gentry that rapidly grew rich on public funds, making populist speeches to conceal their embezzlements . . . This younger generation is more corrupt, and 10 times wealthier, than the small pre-independence political groups.”
Madison (1788) cited in Held (2006) concedes in Hobbesian tradition that politics is rooted on self-interest because individuals are oftentimes drawn in for material gain and not to serve the people. With the people already in combative mood, the disappearance of Leon Mignane in what turns out to be a coup, exposes the fissures in both government and the Constitution.