MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 9 – (Sharing Power and Passing It On)

(Lessons from the first (mis)steps following modern Africa’s independence)

History is the teacher of the wise. The irony of the squandered momentum of African independence is that many of our first generation independence leaders, like Nyerere, like Nasser, like Nkrumah, like Selasie, Senghor, Houphouët-Boigny, Kenyatta and the list gets longer, were unquestionably deep-thinking, patriotic, well-meaning, ideologically clear, passionately driven and courageous personalities and leaders, conscious of their calling and fired by a sense of mission. Their gravest mistake, however, was the one that Nelson Mandela was determined not to make. They disobeyed a law best expressed by a very simple African proverb: A tree does not make a forest. No matter how deep, great, and whatever other superlative you are, you alone cannot move your country forward. Everybody must be involved. Their deepest error was not economic, ideological or military – it was political. Politically they became, at best, one-sided; at worst, unilateral. But you cannot build upon a divided house. Especially when it is your calling to be the first in a new time. You must chaperone the building of the foundation for the future and lasting peace and unity of your country’s peoples. The most important first step for a newly dependent African country is unification, not divide-and-rule; reconciliation, not vindictiveness; healing of wounds, not continuation of ancient feuds. Like a practised reverse parker, the first duty of anyone who gets into power is – almost contradictorily – to prepare to relinquish that power. Only then will such a one wield that power wisely in all its poignancy and brevity. For power is always brief in the end.

In such a tribal kaleidoscope as Africa is, the primary light filter is unity. Politics derives its strength from unity and solidarity. But the leadership style of practically each of the first and second generation nationalist leaders and regimes in power almost invariably was a one-man or one-group show, authoritarian or dictatorial, forcefully exclusive of all opposition and adversary. Most of them stayed on in power endlessly until either they died there, were killed, overthrown or forced by events to hastily stage-manage a belated exit. The few who were able to avoid serious civil unrest, did it largely by their own mercurial powers of diplomacy, or sometimes by economic policies that uneasily delayed the effects of political disenfranchisement. Economic progress without political integration is a game of Russian roulette. Every downward swing simply reminded the people that they are not united – and each time, they placed the blame on their long-winded leaders. Ultimately even the most devoted, apparently successful leaders also had to make way in order for the democracy experiment to take their place. Democracy’s joke on those who wish to bring progress is that it requires of them, above all, simply to get out of the way. And thereafter to join in and participate in the building and maintaining of a system that ensures that others too, in their own turn will get out of the way also. Politics is not kind to permanent guests.

Re-enter Nelson Mandela, in South Africa – ten years after Zimbabwe, thirty years after the euphoric year of African so-called independence – a sadder and a wiser man. And a more determined one too. If ever, in the wilderness of history, the right person was at the right place at the right time, it was Nelson Mandela. History’s quiet thoughtful student. He knew what needed to be done, and he had the heart, the intellect, the character and the experience to not just do it, but also to inspire his people to go down that road with him. The road of inclusion. The path of reconciliation. The anchoring of democracy. A bold attempt at Peace, unity and democracy. The historical chance that Mugabe, despite the benefit of hindsight, had been unwilling or unable to grasp, Nelson Mandela hungrily and wisely did. Africa needs peace, not war. Upbuilding and liberty, not oppression and suppression. Unification, not fracturisation. Reconciliation, not vengeance. Because if we go down the path of vengeance, there will be no exit from its downward spiral – for everybody has also wronged somebody else irreparably somewhere down the line. But while Africans squabble with one another, the rest of the world is rushing ahead, not waiting for them to get their act together. And now they are encroaching back on Africa, economically, politically, militarily.

Che Chidi Chukwumerije.

… continued in Part 10/11:
MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 10 – (Jasmine Revolution and repeated mistakes)

Preceding chapters:
MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 3 (Tunisian Troubles, Libyan Losses, Ethiopian Woes)
MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 5 – (Ghanaian Black Holes & Ivorian Time Bombs)
MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 6 – (Nigerian Nightmare & Congolese Chaos)
MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 8 – (Angolan Angers, Zimbabwean Tragedy and a host of others)