7 December 2012

Africa: Portraits in Leadership - Mandela, Mobutu and Sall


Lynne Duke, a most talented, bold and industrious African-American woman foreign correspondent of The Washington Post newspaper plied her craft when Nelson Mandela and Mobutu Sese Seko Kukubendu Wazabanga blazed across Africa's political firmament. She worked with a rare passion for Africa as its peoples bled, sang and sat wrestling with inherited poverty across the continent. Her insights are lush, illuminating, searing and ruthlessly frank. We can pick some for the benefit of joining in the din of worries about leadership in Africa's development and anti-development.

My favourite starter is her focus on Mobutu's evolution from a man who protected his power by dropping opposition politicians to their death from helicopters; seducing Pierre Mulele to return from exile and be beaten to death in jail; assassinating his visitors by poisoning their food at a banquet in their honour, to appointing and dismissing officials in cynical repetition. In seven years he appointed nine prime ministers; one of them was on his third round when in 1997 Mobutu fled and met death in Morocco. His most enduring tool for keeping power was corruption (or 'eating- with- a- government- job'). Immigration officials loved to grab visitor's bags or passports; lead them into a dank room lit with a low voltage electric bulb, and encouraging them to see that only parting with dollars will get them out of the silly and tiresome questions they were being subjected to. Spies for the regime sold hot information to foreign journalists; while unpaid soldiers with torn uniforms fed their families by robbing market women of live chicken, yams and money. A carryover of that culture was recently exhibited the Chief of Staff of the national army caught selling weapons to M23 rebels who were chasing government troops out of Goma and Sake towns in Kivu.

Mobutu loved to ruin the moral standing of individuals with appointments to jobs around him. Rejection of an offer was met with severe beatings by goons. Being outside the circle of stealing public funds with impunity was a treasonable threat to national security. Corruption was a tool of governance because it kept the population wretchedly poor and without hope of change towards another and better country. It denied them alternative leaders and directed loyalty only to the person of Mobutu and not to nationalism and the welfare of the people. Fighting it is like giving a fish an injection inside a lake.

Mobutu ensured that the body of the President of Rwanda who died in the April 1994 plane crash was taken to him. Before Rwanda's Tutsi-led troops captured Kinshasa, he had Juvenal Habyalimana's body exhumed and cremated so that his dead body would not be subjected to humiliation. He knew the value of loyalty.

Whereas Mobutu valued himself over and above his country Zaire, Nelson Mandela gave priority to the moral integrity of the ruling African National Congress and the people it led. This merit can be teased out of his sacrificing his marriage with Winnie Madikhizela-Mandela. And he did it with a shock-filled act of drama inside a court room. For a man who valued personal restraint and guarded very personal details of his life, he startled millions by stating that although he had sought sex from Winnie on returning from 27 years in prison "not once has she ever responded". With the power of a boxer's killer punch he told the court:"Ever since I came back from jail, not once has the defendant entered my bedroom whilest I was awake". Winnie did not deny it.

Yet shocking his people must have been a secondary goal. The real target was to shatter Winnie's 'terror-charisma'. After years of brutal harassment, detention in isolation, being banished out of Soweto, and banned from receiving visitors to her home or leaving her house, she had suffered intensely. She seemed to have tripped mentally. She formed her own so-called "football team". It became a terrorist tool. Out of 38 murders in Soweto the team was known to have committed 18. Leaders of the ANC "sent word to Nelson in prison telling him of the strange doings ... and he personally urged Winnie to disband the so-called football club". Winnie disobeyed him and the ANC's committee of elders who contacted Mandela. The party was forced to publicly "express (our) reservations about Winnie Mandela's judgement". In mid-1988 angry members of families that had lost a member "set fire to Mandela's home". Their bitterness had overflowed the cup of regarding her as the wife of their national hero.

Mandela could not accept that the presidency for which millions of South Africans had been murdered, tortured, starved inside Bantustans, and fought bitter battles, would be morally contaminated by association with a woman who had both defied the party and joined the moral depravity of the apartheid government. He had heard women whose children had been brutally murdered say with Dudu Chilli that Winnie "seemed to be a person who didn't have a sense of conscience, of guilt, of shame". Yet he recognised the significance of the political role she had played when he was in prison. A woman of rare beauty, she had sacrificed its sensual and monetary exploitation to remain loyal to the political freedom of her people. She remained a leader of the party and contested elections as an ANC candidate. Moral integrity is possible in Africa's leadership.

Macky Sall, the elected president of Senegal, merits mention for arriving at meeting hundreds of media workers from all parts of Africa on 9th November, 2012 without screaming sirens and a retinue of men of dark eyeglasses who define citizens as assassins and vipers waiting to strike their captive leader. When a film showed him and Abdullayi Wade threatening violence if each lost the election, he modestly retorted that it is easier to claim that you are a democrat when your bone is not on fire. He was 'Mr Easy Access'.

Professor Oculi is a member of Daily Trust Editorial Board.

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