When Zimbabwe’s former President Robert Mugabe passed away, he was referred to as the founding father, an honorific title that many of Africa’s first presidents have come to be identified and revered by. A title that has somehow erased much of their crimes, and has been propped in the school syllabus, where history is entrenched into generations of young boys and girls who end up thinking of the founding fathers as saints, unquestioning acceptance of their problematic and ought to be contested legacy.
Probably a result of colonialism, the founding father scourge, in all colonized parts of the continent, has made self-righteousness, out of otherwise, individuals whose history and politics should be questioned. While there is more justification for interrogating colonial statues that leave room for more popular conversations around the relics of colonialism, and the effects colonialism has wrought on the continent, many shy away from conversations surrounding problematising the legacy of the founding fathers and leaders.
The founding fathers, who are celebrated as those who fought and brought freedom and independence to their countries, further have their legacies cemented within political parties they either helped form or played a huge part in supporting. This long history of politicking that many African countries found themselves in quickly led to one party systems, repressions, dictatorships, and in some instances coup d’état and civil wars.
School children with waving flags welcoming founding fathers was part of a continued tradition of how the Queen of England or leaders of European and Western countries were welcomed in various African countries. Kenya’s first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was referred to as the Father of the nation. All hopes and aspirations for the wananchi (common men) was cast on him. Mzee Kenyatta would go on to rule Kenya for 15 years. He would place opposition leader Oginga Odinga under house arrest. And the lands confiscated by the British during colonialism would be shared chiefly among him and his men. Baba wa Taifa ate the national cake, but when Mzee Kenyatta’s legacy is discussed, it is on a nearly clean slate full of idolization and gratefulness for freedom gained from the British. The national television plays old tapes during independence day, a repeated message that never changes.
The mourning of President Mugabe was interspersed with accolades, mostly because of his perceived Pan-African stance, and also because he was a founding father. While the injustice Mugabe committed against his people stands as a testament against him, and Zimbabwe’s economy stands as a testimony against his economic policies, for some, the atrocities Mugabe committed have been whitewashed under the tag founding father.
Greater scrutiny has not been paid to these men we’ve been brought up to cherish and see as the yolk of our nations. While Kwame Nkrumah is praised for his stance in fighting for the liberation of Africa, a 1964 article by The New York Times shows he lost touch with democratic ideals and became a dictator. While one can’t miss the absence of women in many of Africa’s republics, one can’t entirely put away the fact that if a woman was president in most of these countries, the likelihood that their legacy would be different is a far-off thought.
And now one must ask, what did the founding fathers really stand for when some of their actions were divisive? Some of them reinforced tribalism, and used it as a tool against their countrymen and women? While some are quoted often, for some, like Nigeria’s first president Nnamdi Azikiwe, a fierce nationalist who was in constant loggerheads with Chief Obafemi Awolowo, “a socialist-inclined leader of the Yoruba,” Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, in his book The Trouble with Nigeria, points out how these two founding fathers promoted mediocrity and tribalism. The culmination of which became the Nigerian Civil War.
The shaky rock upon which many African countries have built their nation states has created nothing other than a cycle and recycling of theft. For countries such as Botswana, blessed enough to have a leader like Sir Seretse Khama, who handed over to Quett Masire, a visionary who led for 18 years and left office, theirs is a society one can say really had founding fathers, whose leadership was based on important values including respect for human rights, diversity, and equal opportunity. Senegal’s current state as one of the most stable democracies in West Africa can easily be traced to Léopold Sédar Senghor, a statesman in the true sense of the word, and an intellectual who managed to waive his country away from political instability and military intervention.
For other countries ruled by “madmen and specialists” their fate is readily known, and no matter the number of times a dice is thrown to change their fate, theirs is tied to the actions and inaction of their founding fathers, unless they cut themselves off.