Dying to be President

Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia is only the most recent of a series of African leaders to die while in office. Prof. John Atta-Mills of Ghana passed away in July, and Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika before that. Rumors continually swirl about the health of other current presidents, including Zimbabwe’s octogenarian, Robert Mugabe. The health of leaders is often veiled in secrecy, which can make it difficult to plan for potential transitions.

In the days immediately following the death of Atta-Mills, many of those I spoke to in Ghana were sad, but also a little angry. How could he dance and jog on his return from a medical check-up in the US when he knew he was so sick? Former president Jerry Rawlings gave a frank, if rather callous, assessment on the BBC: “I think had he been advised and done something wiser, you know, earlier on, he could have probably survived, you know, for, I don’t know, for another six-seven months…” There was a feeling expressed by some people I spoke to that Prof. Atta-Mills should have taken time off, and taken care of himself. This calls to a more general problem — the secrecy enshrouds the health of leaders sets up governments for moments of crisis. Fortunately, Ghana and Malawi have both managed to pull through with successful transitions, but others may not be so lucky.

Songwe and Kimenyi examine this issue in their op-ed, “The Health of African Leaders: A Call for More Transparency” at Brookings:

As the number of ailing presidents increases, three major issues are emerging: First, the continent demands more transparency regarding it’s leaders’ health; second, democracies need clear term limits; and third, successful democratic transitions require transition processes outlined in the constitution, that are understood and familiar to all. With these safeguards in place, the risks of administrative paralysis, political tension, internal conflict and instability that characterize situations in many African countries could be mitigated. Unfortunately, in many African countries today there is a general lack of clarity around term limits and even less clarity and agreement on succession: Term limits are changed on a rolling basis, and constitutions are amended frequently.

In Memoriam: Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem

Road carnage claimed yet another victim today — this time a renowned Pan-Africanist, Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, who was rushing to Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi when he was killed in an automobile accident. Alex de Waal has an excellent in memoriam post in honor of Dr. Tajudeen:

Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, the most irrepressible Pan Africanist of his generation, died in Nairobi on 24 May 2009. His friends and colleagues are stunned at the loss of a man who was so full of life and humour, such a determined Afro-optimist, and such a devoted father to his children, Aisha and Aida. Africa is impoverished by his untimely death…

Tajudeen never allowed his critical sense degenerate into cynicism or disillusion. His confidence in Africa and Africans to resolve their problems, whatever the setbacks, was always undimmed. His untimely death leaves a vacuum of human energy and hope that will be difficult to fill.

Read on…

New Vision and Daily Monitor have also published articles and tributes in Tuesday’s papers.

Okello Oculi says Dr. Tajudeen was a true son of the continent in his tribute.

May he rest in peace. And may we find some way to prevent more of the many unnecessary and devastating deaths that occur on our roads every single day.

Not the First Lady I wanted in the news

Last week I noted the seemingly unusually frequent news stories related to First (and former First) Ladies around the world. I almost added at the end, “Who’s next, Mugabe’s wife?” Close, as it turns out. But instead it was Susan Tsvangirai, wife of the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe (Morgan Tsvangirai) who died in a car crash in Zimbabwe last Friday, March 6.

There has been some speculation that the crash was not an accident but a malicious attempt to oust the PM, but given the decrepit roads, poor driving and sky high car accident rates in the region, I would not be surprised if the official story (that the driver of the truck that plowed into the Tsvangirai’s car) was true. In any case, it is a great loss and tragedy for the Tsvangirai family (which includes 6 children and two grandchildren).

There have been a number of high profile road traffic deaths in Uganda as well, which has one of the highest road accident/death rates in the region. Yet despite the fact that nearly everyone I know has lost a loved one to the roads, there is little to nothing being done to improve the condition of roads or people’s driving. I don’t understand why. It wouldn’t seem to be a collective action problem, because everyone is suffering and I don’t think one group is disproportionately affected. Perhaps it is a fatalistic mentality when it comes to the roads? I have heard multiple people explain these deaths as “God’s will.” Others have told me they do not wear seatbelts because they would rather be killed than maimed for life.

While I do not consider myself very religious, I do generally understand the “God’s will” sentiment. I do not think it applies here however. It is not God’s will that people within the Ministry of Transportation are not doing their job. It is not God’s will that corruption eats up money meant for road construction so that in the end you have roads that have developed potholes before they are even completed (ahem! Northern Bypass). Submission to incompetence gets you nowhere at best and, evidently, killed at worst.

Levy Who?

This is my take on the death of Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa (published in a recent issue of The Independent). The Economist also had a interesting obituary.

Those familiar with the health of Levy Mwanawasa, late President of Zambia, may be saddened but not surprised by his recent death at the relatively young age of 59. He has been in a fragile state since the automobile accident in 1991 that nearly killed him, suffered a first stroke just prior to Zambia’s 2006 presidential elections and then suffered a second and final stroke on the eve of the African Union summit, held this June in Sharm al-Sheik. Though he has been in treatment since June, he never recovered, and passed away in a Parisian hospital on the morning of August 19, 2008.

His death may not come as a shock to those who follow news in the African community, but much of the rest of the world may be asking, Levy who? President of what? That is if they even hear word that the Zambian president has died. Most would struggle just to locate Zambia on a map.

President Mwanawasa never held the limelight in the way that so many African leaders have, including Robert Mugabe, Thabo Mbeki, Omar al-Bashir, Mwai Kibaki, Nelson Mandela, Mobutu Sese Seko, Kwame Nkrumah – the list goes on and on. Some of these men became famous, or rather infamous, for the sheer scale of corruption, incompetence, or violence over which they presided or directed. Others were revolutionaries in their own right, involved in historic struggles signifying the triumph over colonialism.

There are few African leaders that have taken the spotlight for their good leadership or commitment to democracy, Nelson Mandela being the major exception. At least, there have not been many who have taken this spotlight for long. In recent years, a string of leaders on the continent have been hailed as part of the “new breed of African leader,” including our own President Museveni. Others that have been included in this category at one time or another include Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki, and Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings. Yet surely and steadily all of these leaders fell out of favor with many of their own people and the international community at large.

Their fame however, did not reach its true heights for the successes of their early years in power (at least outside of the aid community) but rather for their sometimes spectacular slides into corruption and chaos. Perversely, their tendencies toward authoritarianism have actually brought them more fame than any of them ever had as part of the “new breed.” Kibaki did not become a household name outside of East Africa, for example, until the world watched in horror and shock as Kenya slipped into a violent chaos in early 2008 following the contested presidential elections. Even Rwandan President Paul Kagame is better known worldwide as an autocrat who has violently squelched opposition than for the truly remarkable transformation Rwanda has made under his rule. So it is not particularly surprising that Mwanawasa has slipped under the radar until his untimely death this month.

But towards the end of his presidency, the late Zambian President was beginning to make waves and perhaps could have begun to make an international name for himself. He successfully removed the immunity that had been protecting former Zambian president Frederick Chiluba from facing prosecution for corruption charges, and Mwanawasa was one of the few African leaders who did not mince words over Mugaba’s reign of terror (or at least terrible policy). In 2007 he accused Mugabe of turning his country into a “sinking Titanic” and this year described the results of the flawed Zimbabwean presidential election as “scandalous.” He seemed unafraid to step on the toes of those he caught with their hands in the cookie jar – or ballot box for that matter. Thus, Mwanawasa’s life was cut short just when he seemed on the verge of becoming part of the “new breed.” Would he have continued along this path or fallen to the doldrums of autocracy like so many who went before him? And was he as good a leader as his obituaries and eulogies now make him out to be?

At the beginning of his presidency, he was considered by many to be dull and slow. Not unlike U.S. president George W. Bush, though perhaps less notoriously, Mwanawasa had a tendency to blunder in public speaking, at one point even calling Chiluba “my elder sister.” He soon overcame this perception and the title “the Cabbage” that he had earned, becoming a formidable force against those he believed to be corrupt. Chiluba thought the scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours approach would work with Mwanawasa, but he was in for a nasty surprise.

Through Mwanawasa was handpicked for the presidency by Chiluba in 2001, he felt no obligation to protect his predecessor from facing the consequences of his crooked dealings while in power. Shortly after coming to power, after a final wrangle in which Chiluba refused to step down, Mwanawasa officially requested that the Zambian Parliament lift Chiluba’s presidential immunity. Parliament granted this request and Chiluba was charged and arrested in February 2003. Others who had worked in Chiluba’s government were also charged with embezzling public funds at this time.

In addition to his successes in fighting corruption, Zambia’s economy began to recover after its near collapse under Chiluba and Kenneth Kaunda. Mwanawasa was praised for his administration’s strict fiscal and monetary policies. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth has been around 5% per year, and inflation has been falling over the years. In response to his prudent policy, the IMF and World Bank wrote off a large chunk of Zambia’s debt, around US$3.8 billion. Several other of Zambia’s cooperating partners also wrote off much of the remaining debt, such that the country’s US$7.2 billion debt was effectively reduced to about US$500 million.

Under Mwanawasa copper mining slowly recovered, and its success helped to jump-start other industries as well, including stone-crushing, trucking, lime producing, cement producing and oil marketing, according to Zambian scholar Alex Ng’oma.

Despite the economic successes, however, many Zambians remain below the poverty line. According to the 2007/2009 Human Development Report, the average Zambian should not expect to live much past the age of 40, nearly one in five children die before the age of five, HIV/AIDS prevalence is at 17%, and some 46% of the population is undernourished. Some also criticize Mwanawasa for selectively fighting corruption – prosecuting some former government officials while simultaneously allowing others to continue working under him in the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) government.

These criticisms notwithstanding, late President Mwanawasa appeared to be forging ahead in the fight for democracy and against corruption up until the stroke that would cost him his life. It is impossible to know what path he would have taken had he lived on. Would he have continued to stand up against abuses of power, or would he eventually succumb to them himself, as so many have before? Did his premature death ultimately preserve his legacy as an upstanding leader? We will never know, and sadly, most of the world will never care.

His small victories were eclipsed by catastrophic blunders of his contemporaries. The world seems to acknowledge only the devils and revolutionaries on the continent. The names al-Bashir and Mugabe roll of the tongue, along with a host of opinions, concerns, and anger. But Mwana-what? Zambia does not make headlines with its small successes, but rather with tales of pain, death, starvation and hardship.

Perhaps Mwanawasa could have become part of the generation that changes the face of leadership in Africa – no more Big Men, no more revolutionaries, no more self-obsessed life-presidents. President Museveni himself once explained, “The main cause of Africa’s crisis is leaders who do not want to leave power. There is no reason why anyone should be president for more than ten years.” Unfortunately he was never given the opportunity to truly become this new face for leadership. The tyrants and would-be dictators in Africa are stealing the show from those who are making small in-ways in improving the lives of their people. It is about time that we acknowledge the triumphs of small men (and women), instead of giving the Big Men all the attention they don’t deserve.

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