• Orwell imagines a harsh political landscape characterised by a somewhat different scenario for political promises.
• Thousands of the vulnerable and desperately sick bought this false promise whose effects are yet to be known.
Ever read George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm (1945)? You should. After reading it you’ll be a little skeptical about political leaders.
Orwell imagines a harsh political landscape characterised by a somewhat different scenario for political promises.
Writing about the Russian Revolution’s inadequacies, he paints the image of a farm that overthrew its leader (Snowball) and replaced him with a leadership of “skilled” pigs.
The pigs then promised to reorganise society along populist lines with the animal workers being rewarded for their labour on a just and fair farm.
As was in Russia, where Stalin replaced Trotsky and Lenin’s vision with the Gulag camps and a system of brutal repression and corruption, the ruling pigs of Animal Farm gradually became human-like and their promises of change forgotten.
The book concludes with the leaders of Animal Farm maintaining and consolidating their power and riches; looting, raping and imposing an unbearable tyranny over the rest of the animal kingdom.
The novel clairvoyantly captures the human features that spell out the moral bankruptcy characteristic of the Machiavellian school of thought; the acquisition and retention of absolute power, wealth and privilege at any cost, which is symptomatic of political leadership throughout history.
Orwell, a brilliant political thinker of the twentieth century, predicted the phenomenon of rhetoric.
The historic Battle of the Cowshed, in which the animals captured the Kingdom from the humans, was told many times with lies to quell the pig’s displeasure.
And as time moved, there was need for a “spokespig” who would parse the absurdities of statements from the pigs’ administration.
One might argue that Cleon, a Greek strong man with popular support who often circumvented or dominated the normal avenues of power in an ancient Greek city-state offers a kind of precursor to the timeless story of Animal Farm.
Except that he often relied on brute force as much as rhetoric.
The novel may be a work of fiction which could have been written by William Shakespeare six centuries earlier or crafted into a tragic theatre play by Sophocles 23 centuries ago, but the substance of the story is relevant in modern times.
For two decades as the President, Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh succeeded in consolidating his political power by giving his people false hopes.
One memorable instance is when his office made the Gambians think that he had a miracle cure for terminal illnesses, a public declaration that left the scientific world and prestigious medical research institutions around the globe wheezing with dizzying suspicion.
Thousands of the vulnerable and desperately sick bought this false promise whose effects are yet to be known.
The lesson from the Gambian experience is that if problems of the citizens are enduringly hidden in politics, if a political idiom creeps in that no longer means anything to the people, then the time has come for the actor to take to the stage.
But not just any actors, actors who are prepared to step down from their personal stage and turn the real life of a nation into a stage.
The audience is from the outset dumbfounded, uncomfortable with the chutzpah, at that point enchanted and entranced.
For 22 years, Yahya Jammeh transformed the Gambia from the inebriated crowd into an inebriated country.
However, Gambia’s experience isn’t unique in a continent where leaders engage in strange acts to excite popular passions and foreclose reasoned discussion for self-aggrandizement.
In The Federalist, Hamilton warns against such leaders whom he says are paying an obsequious court to the people, thrilling their supporters by bucking the norms of political life, lie with impudence, and validate previously off-limits calumnies against the targeted “other,” and decline to follow rules and procedures.
There is also a growing consensus among political scientists that when a leader starts to appeal to the darker side of human nature, targeting the lowest common denominator in a culture, especially fear and anger, lashes out against every slight, “green lights” unproven redress by his/her supporters, and titillates his/her audiences by bluffs, then he/she is pursuing self-interests.
During elections, decision on social change and transformation is often polluted by fake promises.
Writing about mediocrity, Chinua Achebe recounts how the fabric of a country has been destroyed by banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery.
Political promises, he writes, tend to numb the mental faculties and make sure that mediocrity, banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery aren’t expelled behind the polling booth’s subtle pretence but shored-up so that a few powerful individuals continue with a powerful grip on almost all the institutions of society.
Achebe believes that this dishonesty thrives in many African countries because the system and political leadership make it “easy and profitable”.
Charles Onyango, Fellow at Moving Worlds Institute. [email protected]