Should we draw comfort from the assertion by EFF leader, Julius Malema, that he is not a dictator? Malema’s remark came after some apparently bitter politicking at the EFF’s elective conference this weekend in Bloemfontein. At least two of the EFF’s bright young stars, Andile Mngxitama and Khanyisile Litchfield-Tshabalala apparently disagree with his position, declining nomination to the EFF’s Central Command Team.

Malema – Commander-in-Chief of the EFF – says that everything has been smoothed over and that no blood was spilt. And, once again, the fledgling party has grabbed the headlines, not only with the walkouts at the conference, but also with calls by delegates for the reintroduction of military service and for the invasion of unoccupied land.

What is of much greater long-term concern is the militarisation of both the EFF and Malema himself.

Of course, the red berets and overalls are brilliant political strategies. Even the party’s name – the Economic Freedom Fighters – speaks volumes. And now we have a Central Command Team, at the very centre of which sits the Commander-in-Chief, Julius Malema himself.

The problem is that words and costumes take on a life of their own, as any actor will tell you. If you play the part of a Commander-in-Chief long enough, pretty soon you’ll come to believe that’s what you are. Sadly, African history is littered with any number of clowns in camouflage. Most rose to power through military coups and clung on year after murderous year. Nearly all started out with – apparently – good intentions: “The nation needs me…we have done what we have done for the good of the people.”
Opponents are fed to the crocodiles or just executed after dodgy show trials, like Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who dared to oppose General Sani Abacha. Nigeria has possibly the longest list of gruesome military leaders – Generals Gowon, Babangida and Murtala Muhammed all spring immediately to mind, but add in Ghana’s Ignatius Acheampong or Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, Field Marshal Idi Amin of Uganda, the C.A.R.’s Emperor Bokassa I, who also started life as a General, or even Burkina Faso’s General Blaise Compaoré. Don’t forget Colonel Muammar Gadafi and quite a few North African generals of one or other shape.

The list is far, far longer than the brief paragraph above but the conclusion is inescapable: African generals and good government do not go hand-in-hand.

In fairness, it’s not an exclusively African problem. South America and both the Middle and Far East have had their fair share of military coups and dictators, as have parts of Europe. So let me adjust the comment: military power gained through the barrel of a gun and good civilian governance rarely, if ever, appear together.

As I have written before, the military dictator of whom Malema most reminds me is the late Venezuelan, Hugo Chávez. Chávez was, of course, a colonel in the army before being jailed in 1992 for leading a failed coup. He served two years in prison, but you can’t keep a good revolutionary down and he was elected President of Venezuela in 1998, serving in that position until his death in 2013.

Chávez’s fans would point to the fact that he was democratically elected – true enough – but his opponents would say that he then used the entire machinery of the Venezuelan state to keep himself in power. Under his presidencies, crime in Venezuela rose dramatically, as did corruption, with public debt increasing by more than $50 billion. Some sources say at least $22.5 billion of that was transferred out of Venezuela, with at least half completely unaccounted for. That’s the kind of sum that Nigeria’s Abacha would have been proud of.

By all means, let’s encourage the EFF to mount an effective Parliamentary opposition – the ANC’s hopeless incompetence needs as much of that as it can get. But let’s discourage the Cult of the Commander-in-Chief.

Neither Africa nor South Africa needs another General as President.