Some years ago, I visited Zimbabwe. I was invited to make a presentation at a training programme on public information. I still remember that visit because I was nearly denied a visa to enter the country.
At a time when Zimbabwe was going through a dreadful economic situation with most journalists seen as foes, I had journalist written in my Sierra Leonean passport as my profession. My destination? The five-star Rainbow Tower Hotel in downtown Harare, the country's capital. To the security, my destination was suspicious in that it was the same venue where Robert Mugabe and the then opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai were meeting to strike a deal on forming a government of national unity.
Upon arrival in Zimbabwe in 2008, I immediately became a billionaire. At the time, the country was in dire straits with hyperinflation estimated at 79.6 billion percent month-on-month, the worst in the world. To buy just a loaf of bread, one needed billions, it was as bad as that. Ever a lover of eyewitness report, I joined the queue in a shop that had completely empty shelves and used some billions to buy a loaf of bread.
During my visit, I was returning to my hotel room one day when I came face-to-face with Mugabe. He was just coming out of the meeting hall and was about to enter his ZIM 1 black presidential car. At one point, I wanted to go over and put to him just one question. "Sir, why are you still fighting to stay in power?" Before I could finalize the thought, the embattled Mugabe drove off.
After some days in Zimbabwe, as the people were experiencing a nightmare in real life, I left the country in a very old, rickety Zimbabwean airline, a replica of the country's situation. Appalling. I prayed throughout the flight to the Zambian capital, Lusaka. The plane was the scariest I have ever used; it was as if it was falling apart. Thanking the Lord as I landed in Lusaka, I was delighted to continue my journey via South Africa on other airlines with Zimbabwe on my mind.
In the first part of this article, I stated that on 6 September, the world woke up to the news that former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe had passed on at the age of 95 not on his home soil but in Singapore. Passing on in a foreign hospital speaks volumes of the state of the health system itself in his own country where there has been little grief for someone who has divided opinions regarding whether he was a liberator, a dictator or both.
Like controversy that largely characterized his life, controversy has continued even in his death. At the time of writing this piece, the latest from Zimbabwe is that the former Zimbabwean president will be buried in 30 days, as the government is building a monument at the heroes' acre in his honour.
Now the question. What can Sierra Leone's President Julius Maada Bio learn or not learn from Mugabe? Bio and Mugabe are two generations apart. Both of them are African leaders who have fought battles.
When late Bob Marley once sang the song Zimbabwe and that "every man gotta right to decide his own destiny... ", he must have done so with a lot of love for Africa as countries were engaged in liberation struggles.
Sierra Leoneans did not take up arms to fight for independence. But we fought nonetheless and it was bloody and tragic. Basically, brothers and sisters took up arms to kill each other. We had the right to decide our own destiny, unfortunately, most of those who came to power after independence betrayed the trust of their people. Before independence, we blamed slavery for our woes. Next? We blamed colonialism. With the two behind us, we effectively became our own enemies.
Fed up with a very corrupt system, some young army officers in 1992 decided to make the ultimate sacrifice and would overthrow a rotten All People's Congress (APC) administration. Our largely gullible people danced themselves lame. The outcome? The excitement soon turned into mourning. The so-called National Provisional Ruling Council liberators somewhat became oppressors and rogues.
Mugabe may have led his country to independence, but did he really do it for his people or for himself? Many people have no doubt that while Mugabe fought against white-minority oppressors, he sadly became one himself.
I honestly find it bizarre when I hear Mugabe's family members say that Mugabe died a bitter man because of the way he was ousted. After 37 years in office, what should Zimbabweans have done? Continue to applaud Mugabe whose wife, Grace, wanted to succeed him at all costs? Reports indicate that the controversy over where Mugabe should be buried is because Mugabe's family members fear being tormented by the president's vengeful spirit if they ignored his wishes about his final resting site.
Although Bio and other young military officers took over power to liberate the people and Bio would later hand over power to a democratically-elected government, the truth is that some military officers greatly opposed and did their best to interrupt the peace process.
Like Mugabe who fought to set his people free, Bio has returned to power to set his people free with education as one of his priorities just as Mugabe. Like Mugabe, who struggled to fix the economy, Bio is also contending with the same challenge after he inherited a monstrous economic mess from the kleptomaniac APC government.
Some months ago, I was in South Africa during which I visited the Nelson Mandela Foundation, as well as the home where Mandela spent his last days. Unlike a controversial Mugabe, there is no doubt that Mandela, who spent 27years in jail, remains a global icon.
As a relatively young African leader, Bio should continue to focus on changing the culture of corruption which is systemic and get the economy back on track. Like in Zimbabwe, where I became a billionaire, today we have many weeping millionaires at home. These days, whenever out of the country, I have to look around and look again to see who is listening when talking about the Leone vis-à-vis the US dollar.
Like Mugabe who fell out with his own ZANU-PF party, Bio's administration has to ensure that the unity of the Sierra Leone People's Party is maintained. The SLPP has always lost power as a result of greed and divisions.
Mugabe served for 37 years. He has gone amid controversies. Mandela served for one term and went to be with ancestors a global icon. It is not how long but how well. It should be noted that the quality of President Ernest Bai Koroma's leadership was abysmal and is the main reason for our country's economic predicament.
As I prepare to return to mainstream journalism, let me end this piece by pointing out that Mugabe spent most of his years blaming the West. Like Zimbabwe, in Sierra Leone, instead of accepting the responsibility that we are very corrupt ( from primary school to public office) and make a conscious effort to change our narrative, we always look for someone to blame: slavery, colonialism, the West, the Chinese etc. Let us always remember that we are not yet failures until we start blaming someone else. Whether APC, SLPP, PMDC, NGC etc, I am not interested in partisan politics. Our interest should be to become better individuals, families and a better nation where services work and a country of peace for generations yet unborn.
About the author: Sulaiman Momodu is a former editor of Concord Times newspaper. He has also worked for United Nations peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.