Crocodile tears: The African presidents who need to learn from Madiba

By Simon Allison 11 December 2013

Among the assembled dignitaries at Mandela’s funeral were a number of African heads of state who have failed to live up to his legacy, even if they eagerly embrace his ideals in public. SIMON ALLISON singles out six of the most glaring hypocrites in the audience.

Along with all the genuine grief, there were plenty of crocodile tears shed at Tuesday’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Mandela was not universally popular among his fellow statesmen – his humble, inclusive approach to leadership had a habit of showing them up. This was especially true among African presidents and heads of state, some of whom were and are guilty of perpetrating the same injustices against which Mandela dedicated his life to fighting.

Drawing from tributes delivered by Mandela’s oldest friends and colleagues, we outline a few of his most important lessons – and identify the African presidents who could learn the most from them. This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor is it exclusive; plenty of the lessons could apply equally to more than one leader, and Robert Mugabe could probably use them all. We’ve tried to pick the most egregious offenders.

For Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, a lesson in tolerance

“Your self-confidence and absence of pettiness stands out still and is epitomised in your attitude towards opposition parties; they are not enemies but political rivals.” Mandela’s long-time friend Ahmed Kathrada.

Uganda is, superficially, a democracy. There are elections, and there is an opposition. And yet – President Yoweri Museveni has been in charge for 27 years (that’s as long as Mandela was imprisoned, as frustrated Ugandans keep pointing out), and he’s not going anywhere soon. Worse, he’s tightening his grip on the country by making sure that opponents to his regime, and there are many, do not enjoy the rights of freedom of assembly or expression that are supposedly guaranteed in the constitution.

The de facto leader of the opposition, Kizza Besigye, is under house arrest, and his colleagues are subjected to arbitrary arrest and sexual abuse. Most recently, Museveni’s party ousted the opposition-allied mayor of Kampala, Erias Lukwago, in a blatantly illegal grab for control of the capital. Subsequently, a court has ordered Lukwago to be reinstated, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be allowed back into his office.

Museveni has forgotten that an opposition is a necessary condition for, not a threat to, any stable democracy. The opposition are political rivals, not enemies, and he would do well for himself and for his country to treat them as such.

For Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, a lesson in knowing when the party’s over

“…he didn’t want to be president for more than one term. He wanted to set an example for South Africa’s politicians, and probably to those all over Africa, where presidents usually stay in for life. They say they believe in democracy, but in reality they became dictators.” Mandela’s lawyer and long-time friend George Bizos.

The curse of the president-for-life is a lament heard in a number of African countries, but none more so than Equatorial Guinea, which since 1979 has hosted the monomaniacal ambitions of Teodoro Obiang, Africa’s longest-serving dictator.

There are two fundamental problems with holding onto power for so long. The first is that it is exceptionally difficult, and requires supreme ruthlessness. Opposition must be crushed, political and human rights be damned, and competent officials side-lined in case they become too popular.

The second is that decisions must be made that put the president rather than the country first, condemning many of it its citizens to lives spent in poverty, with little hope of escape.

All this and more is true of Obiang’s brutal regime, which in more than three decades has achieved almost nothing in terms of real development and turned Equatorial Guinea into the president’s own personal fiefdom. This tragedy is compounded by the country’s not insignificant oil wealth, which is being frittered away on pampering a tiny elite, rewarding the president’s allies for their continued obeisance.

When Mandela stepped down, after just one term, it was to hand over to someone he thought would do a better job of running the country. Like so much in his life, it was a selfless gesture – he would have sailed to a second term in office, and would anyone have complained if he’d asked for a third? It was also a pointed message to South Africa’s future leaders that none of them are bigger than the requirements of office. Unfortunately, it was not a message that resonated in Equatorial Guinea – or in a disturbing number of other African capitals.

For Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, a lesson in reconciliation

“Madiba at times went against prevailing sentiments on the ground to advocate for peace. At the time when many of us had only one thing in mind to avenge the brutal killing of our hero Chris Hani, the leader of the SACP, he emerged as an indisputable leader even before the elections. Since that day Madiba was celebrated as a leader and a father of our land.” Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

There’s a war going on in Nigeria right now. In the north of the country, heartland of its large and vocal Muslim majority, Nigerian soldiers are fighting a ‘major offensive’ against militants belonging to Islamist group Boko Haram. It’s a hard, ugly fight that’s often heedless of civilian casualties or human rights. And it’s not going all the government’s way: Boko Haram is on the back foot, but is still strong enough to launch major attacks against army positions.

It is, however, an enormously popular war, especially among President Goodluck Jonathan’s support base: the largely Christian population of the south. Jonathan plays the strongman, taking the fight to the ‘terrorists’, and his electorate lap it up – even if he’s failing to address the root causes of the problem, namely the poverty, under-development and political marginalisation endemic to the north.

This approach may win Jonathan the next election, but it won’t stop the conflict or heal Nigeria’s deep wounds. For that, Jonathan needs to explore options that might make him less popular: forgiveness, reconciliation, and genuine reform of the Nigerian state. For those who say it will never work, that fire must be fought with fire – well, it worked in South Africa, because Mandela had the courage and the principles to give it a try.

For Cote D’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, a lesson in gender equality

“But he understood that women, and mothers in particular, were the guardians of our children and society. While he was of royal lineage, he fiercely defended the equal rights of women and never failed to confront cultural or traditional practices that undermined those rights.” Jay Naidoo, civil society activist and first secretary-general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Alassane Ouattara is relatively new to the presidency of Cote D’Ivoire, having taken office in 2011, so we should perhaps cut him some slack. The fact remains, however, that his country has one of the worst records in Africa when it comes to gender equality of treatment of women. In the gender category of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, Cote D’Ivoire comes second last, with only Somalia considered worse for women (Somalia did not send representation to the FNB Stadium).

The problems are legion: women struggle to own land in their own name; women struggle to get loans; women are grossly under-represented in parliament (just 10%); 75% of women live below the poverty line in rural areas; women are disproportionately affected by violence and conflict; domestic abuse against women is rarely, if ever, prosecuted; and the practice of female genital mutilation, although illegal, remains widespread.

During his short tenure, Ouattara has made some changes, including a controversial new law which legislates that (shock, horror!) men and women in a marriage should be considered equal partners. But this is nowhere near enough. “Even if there is equality on paper, the reality out in the world is quite different,” commented Agnès Kraidy, a leading journalist and gender equality activist. If Ouattara really does want to walk in Mandela’s path – and he does, described Mandela as “the conscience of our humanity” – then he needs make to make sure that what’s on paper translates to the real world.

For Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, a lesson in unity

“We all belong to the South African family – and we owe that sense of belonging to Madiba. That is his legacy. It is why there is an unparalleled outpouring of national grief at his passing. It is commensurate with the contribution he made to our country.” Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille.

Many of the major fault lines in Kenyan politics run along tribal and ethnic divisions. In Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence, supporters of incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and his deputy Uhuru Kenyatta fought against those of challenger Raila Odinga; but it could also be viewed through the lens of Kibaki and Kenyatta’s Kikuyu people against Odinga’s Luo and William Ruto’s Kalenjin (Between them, the Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin account for about half of Kenya’s population).

In the Kenyan presidential election earlier this year, Kenyatta and Ruto teamed up to forge a Kikuyu-Luo alliance which proved irresistible at the polls – despite both men having been charged with crimes against humanity for their roles in the post-election violence.

South Africa is similarly divided, although race tends to be the primary marker of difference – and certainly was when Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994. One of Mandela’s greatest contributions to the new South Africa was to show that these differences can and should be overcome, to create a single ‘South African’ identity to which everybody could subscribe. When Mandela donned that Springbok shirt at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995, he was saying that the old divisions no longer existed, and that we should all stand united, regardless of race, ethnicity or language.

Of course, South Africa has a long way to go until this dream is fully realised. But Kenya, ruled by politicians who shamelessly manipulate ethnic tensions to get ahead, has yet to meaningfully begin its own nation-building project.

For Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, a lesson in humility

“Mr Mandela showed his greatness in his willingness to acknowledge mistakes.” Agang SA leader Mamphela Ramphele.

It’s no secret that Robert Mugabe and Nelson Mandela did not get along particularly well. Their personalities clashed, as did their ideals, and then there was the little matter of Mandela knocking Comrade Bob off his perch as the poster-president for African liberation. In the 23 years between his death and his release from prison, Mandela only visited Zimbabwe three times.

If only it had been different. Imagine, for a moment, that the pair had been friends; that Mugabe did not feel threatened by Mandela but took advice from him instead. Imagine, too, that Mugabe had Mandela’s humility, which allowed him to accept when he was wrong and change course accordingly; rather than Mugabe’s obstinacy which has sent Zimbabwe go down the wrong path, and then forced it to keep heading in that direction.

The greatest fear of many South Africans, and concerned international onlookers, is that South Africa will “become another Zimbabwe”. There, but for the grace and strength of Mandela’s legacy, go we. Alas, it’s already far too late for Mugabe and the country he rules – dogs as old as him don’t learn new tricks. DM

Photo: (L-R, clockwise) Robert Mugabe, Uhuru Kenyatta, Alassane Ouattara, Teodoro Obiang, Godluck Jonathan, Yoweri Museveni. (Reuters)



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