Sunday, September 27, 2020

Sitting presidents won’t learn from former presidents’ mistakes

I have always wondered why leaders, especially African presidents, never learn from the past mistakes of other leaders.

This exclusive group of people is responsible for copycat crimes, including the hoarding of state money and hoarding it in foreign bank accounts, killing citizens and opposition leaders and violating human rights to the point of making us wonder if they are human at all.
I am astounded that presidents, particularly African heads of state, always try to outdo past disgraced presidents in raining hardships on their people.

Few presidents strive to do better than previous dictators in terms of caring for their subjects.
As a journalist, I have had the privilege of meeting many world leaders.
Some of them looked so benign and ordinary that they belie the notorious reputation attributed to them.

In the 80s, I was most impressed by the late charismatic Captain Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso who, true to form, was overthrown and murdered on October 15, 1987 during a bloody coup staged by his deputy, now president Blaise Compaore.

The unassuming Sankara looked just like the ordinary naughty boy next door one would be hanging around with.

The late General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan had an innocent-looking avuncular face, adorned by piercing eyes, giving an overall appearance that could pass him off as a harmless old grandpa.
Coming face to face with Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat was an experience on its own.

Here was Castro, in fatigues and revolver on the hip, bulky upper body but frail looking.
One could never have thought the man is the very one who has outlasted several US presidents and survived numerous CIA attempts on his life, not to mention fighting international crusades, angering more than half of the world, the so-called “free world”.

Always looking suspicious of everyone and everything, Arafat, revolver on the hip, with his darting eyes and the ever present five o’clock shadow, gave the impression of a victim ready to fight before the first punch is thrown.

Then there was Rajiv Gandhi, Muammar Gaddafi, Yoweri Museveni and others.
Meeting them in the flesh, what struck me most about these people is that their notoriety or popularity seemed deceptively exaggerated when looking at perpetrators of some of the world’s most heinous crimes.

It was difficult to believe that the men I was nervously chatting to, standing in front of me, had done those deplorable things I had been reading about for years and years.
At the Nonaligned Movement Summit held in Harare in September 1986, our very own Robert Mugabe could hardly hide his disdain for fellow dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was hogging all the limelight, having just survived bombings of his house by the Americans.

But then, looking at both Mugabe and Gaddafi, one could not be awed into a tremble. They were, and still are, ordinary mere mortals who have chosen extremities to assist them achieve immortality at whatever expense.

I did not find anything physically imposing about Castro, Arafat, Gaddafi and others yet their mere existence and presence turned milk into yoghurt for some people.
There was nothing particular about Robert Mugabe, except for the time he was reported to be using steroids.

When he started into politics, he was just an average school teacher who ended up also teaching in Ghana, which had just become the first sub-Saharan country to attain independence from Britain in 1957. For that reason, he was believed to have stories to tell. Struggling fellow politicians wanted to hear about the experiences in an independent African country where a black man was actually ruling a country that also had whites.

Those who knew him at that time say he was a quiet and humble, reserved man.
When ZANU was formed in 1963, Robert Mugabe was not even present as he was in Tanzania.
ZANU (which was later to be renamed ZANU-PF) was formed as a splinter organization from PF-ZAPU.
It put more emphasis on the armed struggle than other political parties before it had done.
Just before independence, Mugabe made his move.

Out of nowhere, ZANU found itself with Mugabe as its president. People started dying around that “quiet and humble, reserved man”, starting with General Josiah Tongogara, the man who had single-handedly kept the fighting forces together as politicians fought for party leadership.
Tongogara was extremely popular and was clearly expected to be independent Zimbabwe’s first President with Mugabe as Prime Minister.

He died in a mysterious road accident a day after Christmas in 1979, just four months before Zimbabwe became independent.

Slowly, Zimbabweans started to see a side of Mugabe that they had never known before.
He is vindictive and self-centered and never forgets or forgives anyone who crosses his path.
At independence, because ZANU-PF was ruling by consensus, the government received accolades from just about everywhere in the world. This was crowned by some over-enthusiastic people who put forward Mugabe’s name to be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize for declaring the policy of Reconciliation.

Slowly, these accolades started getting to him and he started to believe that he was the real brains of the nation.

One by one, he started pushing away former comrades, harassing and abusing others in the process.
One by one, people started to die in mysterious road accidents.
It appears as though Mugabe was afraid of his own advisors because they were the first to be pushed away.

Left to his own, surrounded by people who told him what he wanted to hear, things started going wrong.

There has been a lot of acrimony within ZANU-PF and Mugabe has remained resolute as he runs the party according to his whims.

Mugabe, like many African presidents, thrives on patronage and there are many takers.
Today, ZANU-PF has at least three distinct factions.

ZANU-PF, the party that brought independence to Zimbabwe, is now a pathetic conglomerate of greedy bootlickers and businessmen whose sources of wealth will keep judges and lawyers busy for decades after ZANU-PF is dethroned.

Mugabe has destroyed the party almost beyond repair. Instead of listening, he gave orders.
Instead of understanding the concerns of his followers, he issued decrees to silence and punish them.

Instead of working for the people, he made himself master when he was the servant.
Instead of treating the arguing party members as equals, he sided with one faction against the other, further polarizing the party faithful.

The MDC boasts of many former ZANU-PF faithful who just had had enough of the selective justice applied not only to the nation but within the party.

Now Mugabe’s blue-eyed boys can do no wrong; they do as they please with nothing befalling them.
State media only exists to praise Mugabe and only reports about the opposition when the news item is negative.

Those who had wanted the party to be faithful to its own constitution ended up being sidelined. Some were dropped from the cabinet. These are the people who were there when the party was formed; these are the people who never wanted to know any other home other than ZANU-PF.
But the party president, who still remains state president, has shown retrogressive bias towards bootlickers who have hidden the truth from him for years.

But Mugabe is mostly to blame because he allowed a buffer to be erected between him and the people.
With all the intelligence organizations at his disposal, he has no excuse and should shoulder the blame for the party’s disintegration.

Why am I saying all this?

I worry about this trend in this part of the continent.
South Africa’s oldest party, the ANC recently split into two after bringing independence to South Africa.

Botswana’s oldest party, the BDP, which also brought independence to this country, has just split into two.

Then, of cause, there is the mayhem within Zimbabwe’s political parties too.
If ruling parties are not stable with declining popularity, how can they bring stability to the nations they govern?

It is time Africa gave us one exemplary leader, just one.
Are there any parents in Africa today who tell their children to grow up and be like any one of the over 50 heads of state we have?
We are starving our children of role models.

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.