Somehow I was taken aback by the somber posturing of Africans on the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. It took a while before I understood what Chavez meant to many people living today in Africa and other Third World countries. It happens that Chavez was to them what Gaddafi was to me living in the 80s Africa.
As kids growing up in Nigeria in the 80s, Gaddafi’s greatness was so huge in our minds then that the Gaddafi that was killed like a chicken in 2011 had no semblance to the Gaddafi that we grew up holding in awe. The tale then was that Gaddafi was the best fighter pilot in all of Africa. When he travelled he was surrounded by these daredevil all female soldiers who were invincible to any radar. As kids, we were told that Gaddafi’s planes could summersault from one star to the other. The myth began to wear off the day in 1984 when cowboy Ronald Reagan sent in fighter jets to bomb Gaddafi’s home in Tripoli. We were told then that American pilots were tracking Gaddafi’s underwear right from Washington DC.
You can forgive us for believing all that nonsense. Those were the days before we could read the real stories in newspapers ourselves. Those were the days before the internet when we could not google UN reports and find countries indexes of development. Those days we could not read tweets from Tripoli or join Facebook groups that could provide us with real information in real time. Those were the days when we measured achievement by the noise a country’s leader makes rather than the people’s standard of living and levels of freedom, life expectancy, education achievements and income differences. At the very formative age, when it came to leadership the default position was for most people to like the little guy who poked his fingers at the big guy.
Chavez’s claim to fame was that he challenged the United States. That he told truth to power. I must confess that I too enjoyed his theatricals, but I managed to separate it from the reality. His performance at the United Nation where he called then President George Bush a devil who left a smell of sulfur at the podium was probably the most hilarious. Unfortunately, I never considered how that performance would be seen and interpreted by people in Africa.
The African reaction to his death tells me that some people still confuse platitude with substance. Some people confuse showmanship with accomplishment. Don’t get me wrong: Chavez delivered some fundamental changes in Venezuela. In 14 years he was able to transform the order of things in his country by overthrowing U.S.-backed neo-liberalism. With a population of 29 million, GDP of $375 billion dollars and a per capita of $10, 610 and oil selling at over $100 a barrel, the quality of life of the poor improved significantly. But at some point replacing one order with another is not enough. The jury is still out as to whether the people of Venezuela are comparatively better off today than they were 14 years ago and whether the changes he made are sustainable and as such enduring. That question I must leave for Venezuelans to answer.
What concerns me is the image of Hugo Chavez as the fighter who challenged the West on behalf of the oppressed poor peoples of the world. That character has been a permanent fixture on the international scene for a long time. Fidel Castro once headed the group. Gaddafi also played that role in Africa and beyond until he reduced himself to an aspiring King of Africa. Saddam Hussein gave up being the puppet of the West to a challenger, like an overfed Nza bird.
These comical figures have since stopped impressing me. I agree wholeheartedly that the West could be self-preserving and self-righteous. I will be first to acknowledge that the West is primarily interested in pursuing its own interest, most often, at the detriment of others. I also realize that it doesn’t take a lot for a leader, in the service of his people, to find himself in the bad books of the West, as in the case of Kwame Nkrumah. Where I part ways with Chavez and Castro and Gaddafi and Hussein and Ahmedinajad is on how best to take on the West. Since Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba failed to get his Belgian pilot to fly his plane to Katanga, all opposition to the West should have learned the lesson in fighting for Land without a tool and re-strategized.
For over 40 years, Gaddafi was in power in Libya. He spent the years firing verbal missiles on the West. However he did not develop his country to be independent of the very West that he blamed for oppressing poor countries like his. Instead, the more he bought one token weapon after another, the more he ran his mouth. Even as Saddam Hussein foamed in the mouth and expired, Gaddafi still maintained his posture as the rescuer of the weak nations of the world.
Nothing is as foolish as fighting those who make the plane you fly, the cars you drive, the phones you use, the liquor you drink, the perfume you wear and the noodles you eat. Whose plane was Chavez flying? How much of what was in the plane did Chavez know? If there were listening devices planted on the plane would Chavez know? It is the same with the cars he drove, the gadgets in his offices down to the marbles on the grounds of his presidential palace.
In the case of a country like Nigeria, you add the designer clothes and shoes our leaders wear, the hospitals abroad that they go for treatment and the college roommates of their children abroad. Never mind those leaders who own homes in the West – homes that are bugged by spy agencies of these foreign countries. These are potential avenues to compromise a leader and destroy him if the enemy he is attacking wishes to. Imagine Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe ranting about the West but every now and then flying to the West to service his plane and his aged body.
The only people who can take on the West- China- are not making noise. They are taking their time. And China has legitimate reasons to. There is Taiwan, Tibet, and disputed territories with Russia and Japan. But China is not rushing out to take on the West. China is not firing the weapon of the mouth on the West. China is working hard to be fully independent of the West. It is not just building its own planes; it is also building its own aircraft carriers. It is not just preparing to take on the West militarily. It is also working hard to tie down the West economically. Now that is smart politics... not mouth gunning.
Africans and other Third World countries would do better if they stopped idolizing the likes of Chavez, Gaddafi, Castro and the rest. Before you start ‘making mouth’, show me your homemade drones; your fighter jet assembly lines; your aircraft carriers; and your homemade air-defense system. What am I saying? Just show me the factory making uniforms for your soldiers, noodles for your citizens and baby milk for your children. Can your country survive six months of severe international sanctions or will it crumble like Iran in the face of sanctions?
Compare to most Africans leaders, especially his Nigerian counterparts, Chavez should be on Mount Rushmore. But whatever it is Chavez achieved, what is clear is that Venezuela is not yet Luxemburg. And it is not even on the path to becoming one. Rather than the noisy revolution that Chavez could not finish, I prefer the quiet revolution that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva set in motion in Brazil. Lula didn’t need to be in power forever to keep the revolution going.
For all his demagoguery against America, including calling President Obama a clown, Chavez continued to sell crude oil to America. With a GDP almost twice that of Nigeria and a population that is about one-sixth of Nigeria’s population, the human development index of 73 in the world is nothing to write home about… unless you compare it with Nigeria’s ranking of 156 in the world.