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Justifying African State Leaders’ Decisions Through Machiavellian Realism
Safir Jamal
Copyright 2008 – All Rights Reserved

Safir Jamal
Ambrose Bierce defined politics as “the conduct of public affairs for private advantage” (Jansson 468). When this nineteenth century American journalist expressed such a sardonic view about the art of governance, he alluded to the inseparability of politics and self-interest. This inseparability forms the foundation of classical realism, a prominent international relations theory that attests that human nature is self-serving, sinful and wicked. Such traits ultimately help to explain why all actors endeavour to satisfy their individual intentions (Sens 14). While principles of self-interest are central to the classical realist theory, it is the importance of power that has become widely synonymous with the realist perspective. Defined as the ability to make other actors do what they would not otherwise do, the pursuit of power is an instinctive desire of all individuals (Singer 81). One individual in particular, Niccolo Machiavelli, had arguably the most profound understanding in history of the importance of power (Kuper 1). In his acclaimed treatise The Prince, Machiavelli, a 15th century Florentine diplomat, advised state leaders – or princes – on effective approaches to statecraft. As an extension of classical realism, Machiavellian views have proven to be timeless and universal, as they have been identified in many geopolitical contexts of the modern era. This essay will argue that African state leaders’ decisions from 1970 to 1985 were justified by Machiavellian realist principles, by examining the importance of preserving power, maintaining the national interest and the appropriate use of cruelty.

Machiavelli’s beliefs are best described as an extension of classical realism, for his works share many assumptions about human nature and power with the works of other classical realist philosophers. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the Florentine’s interpretation of

realism differs on enough fronts from the classical theory that it is warranted to regard Machiavellian realism as an individual branch (Whelan 4). The first point of difference is that classical realism is a descriptive theory; it provides a defined framework and approach to examine and model international events. By contrast, Machiavellian realism is a prescriptive theory; it serves as a set of guidelines based on experience and observations for state leaders to follow (Donnelly 9). A further distinction between the two realist approaches is that while the classical theory identifies man’s quest for power as the sole motive for action, Machiavellian theory also recognizes honour and glory as drivers of behaviour (Schaub 1). Lastly, classical realism does not address cruelty in its major assumptions, whereas Machiavelli asserts that cruelty is appropriately used if the act is short-lived and undertaken to ensure internal stability to secure the prince’s rule (Machiavelli 43). Machiavellian realism is therefore a theoretical approach rooted in classical realist assumptions, but has successfully distinguished itself by introducing key assumptions of its own.

A firm understanding of these key assumptions is essential before one can apply Machiavellian realism to justify African state leaders’ decisions. The basis of the theory is the cynical view it presents of human motives, complemented by an approach devoted to advancing the interests of the state (Donnelly 7). With regard to human nature, Machiavellian realism assumes that the premise of all political action is man’s natural desire to acquire (Machiavelli 16). Additionally, the theory assumes that men are wicked creatures who cannot keep their word, as they are ungrateful, hungry for profit, self-interested and quick to evade danger. Due to these ignoble traits, the Florentine philosopher concluded that “it is far safer to be feared than loved…because love is held in place by chains of obligation…but fear is held in place by a dread


of punishment, which one can always rely on” (Machiavelli 79). Furthermore, Machiavellian realist assumptions vis-à-vis the prince’s role affirm that he must always act to maintain both his position of power and his state’s national interest, survival and security. It is also assumed, however, that in doing so, a wise prince must do all in his power to avoid being hated by his people (Machiavelli 101). As a final assumption, the leading belief of Machiavellian realism is that a worthwhile end justifies any means necessary to obtain it. While Machiavelli himself acknowledged that honourable means are preferred, they do not always produce favourable ends and must often by replaced by evil means (Machiavelli 83). On the whole, the assumptions and major tenets of Machiavellian realism establish the theory’s significance and can be further explored to justify international events.

Firstly, Idi Amin’s economic war policy in 1972 was justified by his need to preserve presidential power in Uganda in the face of a possible overthrow. As head of state, Amin declared an economic war between the local citizens of Uganda and the 50,000 Asians that were born in the country but carried foreign passports. These Asians, mostly of Indian origin, owned large-scale enterprises that employed Ugandan workers and formed the backbone of the country’s economy. As a result of the declared economic war, Amin expelled the Asians from Uganda and expropriated their businesses to hand over to local citizens (Chua 87). Examining Amin’s motives through a Machiavellian lens identifies the preservation of presidential power as the driving force behind the leader’s decision.


The Ugandan prince’s motives to safeguard his power are better understood by first recognizing how he initially obtained his presidential might. It was through a military coup in 1971 that Idi Amin claimed the Ugandan presidency by overthrowing the country’s former leader, Milton Obote. Once in power, Amin always feared the threat of an Obote counterattack to reclaim the presidential rank. The prince thus needed to reassure himself that should such a counterattack occur, he would maintain power by having the support of both the army and the people (Danopoulos 328). It was therefore by expelling Uganda’s Asians that Idi Amin bolstered civilian and military support for his rule, by granting all Ugandan citizens ownership of the Asians’ expropriated possessions. The decision to expel was consequently justified by Machiavelli’s assumption that the prince must always act to maintain his position of power (Machiavelli 101). Expelling Uganda’s Asians secured the crucial civilian and military support to protect Amin’s rule, thereby ensuring that his power was not at risk. This case clearly illustrates how the worthwhile end of Amin maintaining his power was justified by the necessary means of expelling all Asians from the country.

While Machiavellian realists justify Amin’s economic war policy by his need to preserve power, idealists alternatively justify the policy by man’s natural desire for justice and social progress. The idealist perspective, based on an altruistic and cooperative human nature, contends that Amin expelled the Asians to liberate Ugandan citizens from economic oppression (Sens 13). This decision, they argue, was driven by a desire for social progress in facilitating the ownership of property for the local population. The idealist stance also rejects the upholding of power as one of Amin’s motives, for they insist that man’s natural affinity is toward the communal good (Sens 12). In rebuttal of these idealist views, Machiavellian realists maintain that justice is not


possible, as men are ungrateful, wicked and hungry for profit (Machiavelli 79). Furthermore, the expulsion resulted in an economic disaster which significantly harmed social progress in Uganda (Kransdorff 30). Lastly, man’s affinity, realists declare, is toward the individual good, for human nature is self-interested and lusts for power (Donnelly 7). It can therefore be reasoned that Machiavellian realism appropriately justified Idi Amin’s decision in 1972, using the preservation of power as its explanatory principle.

In addition to preserving power, a prince’s decision can also be justified by Machiavelli’s principle of maintaining the national interest. It is this principle which serves to justify Joseph Desiré Mobutu’s 1973 policy of Zairianization in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Zaire). As president of the country, Mobutu introduced a policy that would establish an authentic, nationalist identity for all citizens. The policy was initiated as an attempt to rid the country of its colonial past, during which Zairians were economically, politically and culturally exploited (Roberts 137). Under Zairianization, Mobutu renamed the country Zaire, introduced a new currency and flag, banned Western attire in favour of traditional African garments, and ordered all citizens to replace their Christian names with African names (Young 262). A Machiavellian interpretation of the Zairianization policy reveals that maintaining the national interest was the key motive for the state leader’s decision.

The policy of Zairianization was deemed necessary by Mobutu in order to unite the country’s exploited citizens under a single nationalistic identity. In essence, he considered the survival of a Zairian republic to depend on the state’s ability to create an independent cultural identity for itself. Doing so would prevent Zaire from further cultural exploitation from European


colonial powers (Young 262). As a result of this consideration, the president proceeded according to the Machiavellian realist assumption that a prince must always act to maintain his state’s national interest and survival (Machiavelli 101). One can thus understand how the Zairianization policy was surely introduced to maintain the state’s national interest, as Mobutu did not want Zaire to fall victim to further exploitation. Moreover, the prince viewed cultural exploitation as a threat to the country’s survival and it was this view that prompted his action to avert the threat. This case serves to exemplify how Mobutu’s decision to introduce a policy of authenticity was justified by his need to maintain Zaire’s national interest of state survival.

Conversely, neo-realists reject the need to maintain Zaire’s national interest and instead contend that Mobutu’s policy was prompted by the country’s diminutive role within the international system. The neo-realist perspective, concerned with the structure of the international system, alleges that colonial exploitation forced Zaire to be a small power on the global scale (Sens 17). Neo-realists further argue that domestic policy, namely Mobutu’s Zairianization, was undertaken to strengthen the state from the inside, which in turn, strengthened Zaire’s position in the external system. Given that systemic structure, and not a statesman, forces rational behavior, neo-realists believe that Mobutu himself did not initiate domestic policy in Zaire (Sens 17). Nevertheless, Machiavellians invalidate these views by believing that the prince had to act, for the system’s structure would have facilitated further exploitation and resulted in Zaire’s demise.


Equally important as maintaining the national interest, the appropriate use of cruelty is the closing Machiavellian principle that substantiated African princes’ decisions. This principle justified Robert Mugabe’s Gukurahundi massacre in 1983, by examining the role of cruelty to ensure internal stability within Zimbabwe. The historical context of the massacre lies in recognizing that two conflicting ethnic groups exist in Zimbabwe: the Shonas and the Ndebeles. Their ethnic strife significantly escalated when Robert Mugabe, a Shona member, became prime minister in 1980 and appointed a Shona-centric government. As Ndebele politicians were considerably discounted, insurgents caused intra-state turmoil by rebelling against Mugabe and seeking Ndebele independence from Zimbabwe (Chan 25). Ultimately, Mugabe collaborated with North Korea’s president, Kim Il Sung, to have North Korean militia train a Shona army brigade, called Gukurahundi. Zimbabwe’s leader then ordered the ruthless massacre of 20,000 Ndebele villagers by the Gukurahundi in order to prevent further insurgent attacks (Matabeleland Anger 16871). It is the Machiavellian realist approach to examining this carnage that deems Mugabe’s use of cruelty as appropriate and an effective statecraft tactic.

Mugabe defended his actions by proclaiming that the Gukurahundi massacre was necessary to eradicate Ndebele dissidents who wanted to topple him (Matabeleland Anger 16871). This stance by the Zimbabwean prince is in line with the Machiavellian tenets of acting to maintain one’s power and achieving a worthwhile end by any means necessary (Machiavelli 83). Mugabe notably maintained his power through fear, as future insurgents would be dissuaded to attack by the fear of cruel punishment (Machiavelli 79). Moreover, the tenet of appropriate cruelty is successfully demonstrated in Zimbabwe’s case, as Mugabe was prompted to pursue the cruel path of massacre by the need to maintain his charge and eliminate civil unrest. The


Machiavellian realist perspective thus justifies Mugabe’s use of cruelty, for it was not prolonged and most importantly, was undertaken with the aim of restoring state stability (Machiavelli 43). It is important to understand that the Ndebele insurgency was not only a direct threat to Mugabe’s individual power, but coupled with a quest for sovereignty, also imperiled the prospects of a united Zimbabwean state. It can therefore be established that by exerting military force – realists’ principal measure of state power - over the Ndebele people, Robert Mugabe’s use of cruelty was appropriate and his motives justified by a desire for state stability (Sens 14).

By contrast, skeptics of Machiavellian realism often adopt the idealist view that Mugabe’s orchestration of the Gukurahundi massacre was justified by a fundamental desire to eliminate the source of intra-state conflict. This view holds to the idealist assumption that wars, the main problem in international relations, can be prevented by eliminating bad institutions and the root causes of conflict (Sens 13). In the context of Zimbabwe, the idealist perspective is that Mugabe avoided a civil war by preventing Ndebele dissidents from committing future insurgencies. This is because such attacks were regarded as the root cause of intra-state turmoil and if eliminated, had a lessened possibility of contributing to a civil war outbreak (Chua 116). While the idealist argument is valid, Machiavellian realists are resolute in their belief that the root cause of Zimbabwe’s intra-state turmoil is a deep, ethnic conflict that is not a removable institution. As a result, the apt approach to prevent a civil war outbreak is not by eliminating root causes, but rather by appropriately exercising cruelty.


This essay addressed the importance of Machiavellian realist theory to understanding African state leaders’ decisions from 1970 to 1985 and argued that these decisions were justified according to principles of power, state interests and cruelty. The cases of Uganda, Zaire and Zimbabwe that were presented in this paper are sound evidence of the practicality of Machiavelli’s theory. Whether it is the prescriptive nature of his writing that compels state leaders to follow his guidelines, or the simplicity of his beliefs that are forcefully convincing, it is clear that the power of Machiavellian philosophy is incontestable. To return to Ambrose Bierce’s opening quote regarding political inseparability, it is the undying praise for Machiavellian beliefs that ultimately brings one to deem Machiavelli and politics as an inseparable pact for years to come.


Chan, Stephen. Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Chua, Amy. World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Danopoulos, Constantine P, et al. “The Military as a Distinct Ethnic or Quasi-Ethnic Identity in Developing Countries.” Armed Forces and Society 34.2 (2008): 309-362. Donnelly, Jack. Realism and International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Jansson, Ann Mari, et al. Investing in Natural Capital. Stockholm: Island Press, 1994. Kransdorff, Arnold. “Succession Planning in a Fast-Changing World.” Management Decision 34.2 (1996): 30-34. Kuper, Adam. “Machiavelli in Precolonial Southern Africa.” Social Anthropology 3.1 (1995):113. Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. Peter Constantine. New York: Modern LibraryRandom House, 2007. “Matabeleland Anger.” Africa Research Bulletin. 1 Nov. 2006: 16871. Roberts, Allen F. “Authenticity and Ritual Gone Awry in Mobutu’s Zaire.” Looking Beyond Turnerian Models 24.2 (1994): 134-159. Schaub, Diana. “Machiavelli’s Realism.” The National Interest Fall 1998: 1-6. Sens, Allen, and Peter Stoett. Global Politics. 3rd ed. Toronto: Nelson, 2005. Singer, J. David. “The Level of Analysis Problem in International Relations.” World Politics 14.1 (1961): 77-92. Whelan, Frederick G. Hume and Machiavelli. New York: Lexington Books, 2004. Young, Crawford. “Zaire: The Shattered Illusion of the Integral State.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 32.2 (1994): 247-263.

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...cross-cultural story by Patricia w. Kite) Even though Cinderella is a fantasy story it shows many meaning to the character that portrays Cinderella. In many cultures there are stories of Cinderella where every girl dreams of having a Prince charming. The story of Cinderella is a fairy tale that is told and read to children of very young ages (ALA American Library Association) Research shows that many versions have been found first in Europe and the story tale origins appear to date back to a Chinese story from the ninth century. (ALA American Library Association) The book Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah is a story portrayed by a very young girl who mother died giving birth to her. Cinderella lived with her family who thought she was bad luck to them, therefore she was discriminated against and treated very bad. In the Chinese culture many Chinese people prefer sons then daughters. In many cultures children look for the love of their parents. The book emphasizes that quote “how you should do your best in the face of hopelessness; to have faith in the end your spirit will prevail; to transcend your abuse and transform it into a source of courage, creativity and compassion.” (by Adeline Yeh Man) In the African culture they interpret Cinderella differently for example Cinderella was written differently and the name was changed to Rhodopis a Greek slave girl living in Egygt and was teased by the servants about her coloring and she......

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Compare Themes of Heart of Darkness and Tess of the D'Urbervilles

...Throughout the two novels, Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” the common theme of oppression by using psychological methods prevails. Tess’ parents and Alec can control her by leveraging guilt as a way of victimization which ultimately seals her fate. Mr. Kurtz in” Heart of Darkness” takes control over the weaker African natives to force them into submission. Both stories have this underlying theme of power and domination resulting in feelings of slavery and victims of fate. “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” is a tale of the tragic life of Tess that results when she accidentally kills Prince, the family horse. Tess’ parents use the guilt that she feels to exploit her and force her to work for the family. Therefore, she encounters Alec, who ultimately rapes and impregnates Tess. Instead of Alec being condemned for his actions, Tess is publically criticized and cast aside for this act, even though she was the victim. The cruel hand of fate hangs over all the characters and actions of the novel, as Tess’ story is defined by the bad things that happen to her. Thomas Hardy himself, as the author of the book, naturally causes the many unfair coincidences and plot twists that beset Tess, however as the person telling the story, he also manages to appear as her only champion against an unjust world. Tess's difficult situations are described as mere sport for the "President of the People who will never die," which is......

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