Sunday, December 8, 2013

African Reaction To Mandela: Threat to Despotism or Example to Emulate?

Nelson Mandela RIP
While tributes to the late President of South Africa and iconic freedom fighter Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela who died on Thursday December 5th 2013 continue to pour in from countries, international organizations and individuals all over the world, the reaction among the political class of Africa has been mixed.

While Africans all over the globe hail Mandela almost to the point of deification, many in the political class have been uneasy, as Mandela represents all the things that they are not. 

The African countries that were first to send condolences and tributes were those that were either democratic or had semblances of democratic rule, even if somewhat contrived.

President Ernest Koroma
Sierra Leone
President Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone, a country that has held multi-party elections since 1996 issued a very short press release describing Mandela as "a true nationalist, visionary leader, great Pan-Africanist and Ambassador of Peace, Nelson Mandela touched the lives of many. We will always remember him as a larger than life political figure who through his tenacious struggle for equality and freedom has left an indelible mark in the History of Mankind." 

President Ernest Koroma, always eager to burnish his declining democratic credentials, ordered flags to fly at half mast for three days.
President Ian Khama

The message from sub-Saharan Africa's beacon of democracy, Botswana, was more convincing. President Ian Khama described Nelson Mandela the South African icon as a remarkable leader. In a message to the South African People he stated, "I wish to convey to you and through you to the Government and people of the Republic of South Africa, our deepest sympathies and most heartfelt condolences. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, and in particular, the Mandela family,” Continuing, President Khama stated that, “His consummate belief and steadfast commitment to the fundamental principles of liberty, justice and equality were immense,” He paid tribute to President Mandela's deep understanding and intolerance of human suffering and his immense moral standing.

A new democratic entrant, Guinea's leader Alpha Conde made a very touching tribute. Of Mandela he stated, "He is comparable to a great baobab, this invincible tree under which everyone shelters. And when this baobab falls, we find ourselves exposed," This statement is poignant in a continent starved for good leadership, as Mandela represented an ideal towards which many other African leaders will be expected to strive.
President Alpha Conde Guinea

President Barack Obama, the first American President of African origin stated of Mandela that, "He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages," 

One of the most touching tributes came from President Mandela's country man and fellow South African liberation icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Talking movingly about Mandela Archbishop Tutu said, "God was so good to us in South Africa by giving us Nelson Mandela to be our president at a crucial moment in our history. He inspired us to walk the path of forgiveness and reconciliation, and so South Africa did not go up in flames."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

In a continent populated by tyrannical leaders, one party despots and other leaders who were dragged to democratic government only by threats of cut in Western aid, not every leader has been so quick to send condolences and tributes. 
Alhaji Yayah. A. J. J. Jammeh
President Gambia

President Yayah Jammeh who is currently in France, the leader of the small African country of the Gambia, has yet to make any official statement. President Jammeh recently withdrew from the Commonwealth upon Western criticism of growing oppressive tendencies, lack of press freedom, and suppression of the opposition and basic freedoms in the country of less than 1.5 million people. It would be difficult for Jammeh to have anything positive to say about Mandela as they are on completely opposite sides of the political spectrum.

While Mandela is forgiving, Jammeh is vindictive. Where 
Mandela is tolerant of opposing points of view, Jammeh views the opposition as avowed enemies. While Mandela strived for racial equality Jammeh strives for tribal domination. In the Gambia, it is the opposition parties and the ordinary people who have led the messages of condolence from their country.

President Robert Mugabe
Another leader that took a long time to send messages of condolence is South African neighbor Zimbabwe's President and Africa's oldest leader 89 year old Robert Mugabe, who only sent a message on Saturday, three days following the demise of Mandela. In a complete reversal of earlier statements about President Mandela's legacy, President Mugabe described Mandela as, "a champion of the oppressed." Mugabe stated that, "Mandela's renowned political life will forever remain a beacon of excellence." Writing in Zimbabwe's state paper the herald, Mugabe also said of Mandela, "Not only was he a great champion of the emancipation of the oppressed, but he was also a humble and compassionate leader who showed selfless dedication to the service of his people. The late Nelson Mandela will forever remain in our minds as an unflinching fighter for justice,"

Many Zimbabweans and others were surprised at Mugabe's late but touching tribute as he had recently been very critical of President Nelson Mandela, describing him as being too saintly and too soft on the white people in South Africa. In a documentary earlier this year Mugabe chided Mandela for being too good to other races in South Africa at the expense of the country's black majority.

I expect that in the coming months and years many African politicians and leaders will compare themselves to Mandela, most for the political capital that will bring them and I pray and hope that some will do so to emulate his example. Already many of my African friends on Facebook are using Mandela's picture as their profile picture in honor of the great man, though I have seen some unsavory characters who will make Mandela roll over in his grave if he saw his face attached to their profiles.

Of all African leaders I have encountered, the one that reminds me closely of Mandela was a former Paramount Chief of Njaluahun Chiefdom, Chief David Kekura Jimmy Jajua who died in the early 80s. Those of us who knew this chief were privileged to have known him. He was a model of good, of tolerance and of respect.

I remember when I was admitted to Bo School. After the first term holiday of form 1, I decided to go to Segbwema instead Freetown. Though I had left Segbwema in class 2, Chief Jimmy recognized me as soon as he saw me. He was walking with a group of chiefs, left them, came over to me and asked me where I was now, as my family was very close to his. When I told him I was in Bo School he was so happy he ordered one of his wives to cook a whole chicken just for me! From that moment I became a huge fan of his, I was just 12 years old. When Chief Jimmy died, he was mourned in Segbwema for close to two months and the people of the chiefdom practically begged his son who looked so much like him to become paramount chief, just to remind them of his late father.
Giant Among Men

The best we can do for Mandela as Africans is to follow his example. African leaders must stop the quest for power for powers sake. If Mandela could live and work with white people who took away his youth and his freedom for 27 years, why can't you be tolerant of your black brothers and sisters who just happen to speak a different languages. I hope Mandela's lasting legacy will be for Africans to see the futility of tribalism. In Sierra Leone for example there are supremely competent Sierra Leoneans who will never get any meaningful role in that country under the current dispensation as they fail Koroma's acid test: party, region and tribe. 

Our leaders do not need to listen to the President of France or the Prime Minister of Britain, all they need to do is listen to the words of Mandela and embrace his teachings. Mandela urges leaders to become partners with their enemies, to dwell on love rather than hate, to look not at the color of a man skin, but at the countents of his character. With Mandela, Martin Luther King, Thomas Sankara, Marcus Garvey, Fela Kuti, Kofi Annan, Chinua Achebe, Booker T. Washington, Milton Margai, Kwame Nkruma and now President Obama, Africans have all the leadership examples they need if that is just what they are looking for.
Our Leaders need to Wake Up

One day the Jammehs, Mugabes, Bongos and other African tyrants will hopefully be names only in dusty history books as we free the continent from their tyranny. For the youths of Today, Mandela's true excellence lay in the excellence of his mind. For any African youth to emulate Mandela you first have to learn. The problems of this world are just too complex to be tackled by commonsense alone.

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