Irrespective of how it is acquired, the belief is popular among many African communities that “power comes from God”. Around the continent, atheism is not a natural vote winner and when, at the end of the contest, they get installed into powerful positions, many politicians organize “prayers and thanksgiving”.
Since God gives power, it is only sensible to look to Him to keep it. As such, many African Presidents and their retinues employ the most able among the wondrous men who sell mysticism and magic for money and power. A powerful politician in mortal peril to loss of power through ill health is, naturally therefore, a boon to merchants of god.
In his 2015 study on Democracy in Africa, Oxford University’s Nic Cheeseman, explains that “from the pre-colonial period onward, the widespread belief in an invisible realm – which exists in parallel to the visible world and can act upon it – has conferred considerable power on those thought to be capable of wielding occult power.”
The belief that the African President needs such men to keep well in power is often deeply held. Instead of building hospitals, many of them and their retinues, therefore, cultivate sundry marabouts, shamans and charlatans hawking prayers in return for presidential patronage. In search of these grasping characters, Africa’s Presidents often abandon affiliations of faith or willingly cross lines of sect.
Nigeria’s Presidency has been an enthusiastic and serial beneficiary of such polytheisms. The presidential entourage of General Abacha reportedly had more than its fair share of shamans on retainer. In the years between 2008-2010 when former President Umaru Yar’Adua was ill in office, the official Registry in the Presidency was reportedly deluged with desperate offers of the mystical and miraculous from shamans of diverse denominations, many of them complete with exotic menus of ritual sacrifice and offering.
Few were as avid in this practice as former President Mobutu Sese Seko of the country now known as Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire. One of the tallest and most exotic skyscrapers near the Independence Square in Dakar, capital of Senegal, is “Immeuble Kébé”. It is part of the estate of El-Hadj Babacar Kébé, who died as one of Senegal’s richest and most influential men. El-Hadj Kébé’s claim to fame and fortune was that he was shaman to the man who promised Congo’s people through his name to “go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.” Mobutu, by the way, was Catholic.
From neighboring Mali, El-Hadj Kébé’s contemporary, Serigne Babacar Cissé, had an even more improbable career as Marabou to Benin Republic’s long-serving soldier-turned-democrat, Mathieu Kerekou. Disregarding differences in faith and nationality, Kekerou made Cissé his Minister and retained him as closest adviser for many years with a reach into every crevice of Benin’s Byzantine politics and government. In this role, El-Hadj Cissé orchestrated on behalf of Kerekou a myth of both spiritual invincibility and political longevity. When, following Benin’s transition in 1991 to multi-party democracy, the leading opposition candidate, Nicephore Soglo, took seriously ill, this was seen as proof positive of El-Hadj Cissé at work. Soglo survived this episode but not before his retinue recognized that his weak credentials in spiritual warfare needed to be bolstered. Not too long after he took office in 1992, therefore, one of Soglo’s first acts was to organize an international Voodoo festival. Spiritually fortified, Soglo, a Christian, promptly also elevated Voodoo to one of Benin’s “great” religions, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Senegalese and Malians do not enjoy a monopoly of shamans with trans-boundary capabilities. Nigeria’s Apostle T.B. Joshua is reputed to regularly minister to Kings and Presidents against the deadly designs of enemies known or imagined. Ghana’s late President, John Atta Mills, looked to him for deliverance from terminal metastasis. How much the ministrations of the founder of the Synagogue of All Nations helped President Mills must be a matter of conjecture.
John Atta Mills was by no means the only one of his peers who found time to arrange furtive Presidential assignations with T.B. Joshua. The Justice Elton Singini Judicial Commission of Inquiry established by the government of Malawi into the death in 2012 of President Bingu wa Mutharika, devoted considerable time to taking and sifting evidence on the relationship between President Bingu and T.B. Joshua. In its January 2013 report, the Commission wrote: “It was also well known that some few months prior to his death, the President travelled to Nigeria on unannounced visit. While the visit was kept under wraps in Malawi it, however, became clear that the President had indeed travelled to Nigeria. Due to the manner in which the President left the country…there were widespread speculations that the President had undertaken the trip to Nigeria to meet T.B. Joshua.” Among the pieces of evidence it collected, the Inquiry disclosed a letter written by the dead President to T.B Joshua on 24 February 2012 in which he reminded the “man of God” that “everything is possible with God” and requested him to “continue to pray for various countries and people” and to “please remember the nation of Malawi in your prayers.” 41 days later, on 5 April, President Bingu died.
The African pattern of Presidents in extremis turning to shamans, charlatans or foreign hospitals for reprieve must strike rational people as rather desperate and squalid or evidence that an unforgiving Karma exists. By contrast, when he confronted the inevitable eventuality of approaching mortality, Fidel Castro in Cuba ceded office in a prepared manner to be cared for in hospitals that he had built as President and by doctors whose training he had prioritized. Similarly, an ailing President Mandela trusted doctors in his native South Africa, for whose liberation he had sacrificed everything, to nurse him in his dying days. Both men avoided the indignity of having their mortal remains cleared through customs into the countries over which they presided.
Malawi’s late President Bingu suffered the unique indignity of having his dead remains exported out of his country to South Africa before being returned in advanced state of putrefaction all in an effort to subvert established constitutional channels of succession. The alternative of going in a chariot guarded by characters out of an episode of Africa Magic is only marginally less embarrassing.
As Nigeria grapples with the increasingly interminable uncertainties of what officialdom stubbornly insists on calling an extended Presidential Winter vacation, Africa holds lessons that we can look to, even when we choose not to recall our own recent memories of Presidential polytheisms.
*Odinkalu is a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of human Rrghts at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE)