The death of Zimbabwe’s independence hero and former president, Robert Mugabe last week dominated national, continental and global news.
Mugabe’s admirers emphasized his enduring fight against colonialists and denounced attempts to define his legacy by western writers while his adversaries highlighted his cruel treatment of opponents at home and driving his country’s once thriving economy down the drain.
That was as expected.
Mugabe who ruled his country from independence in 1980 up to the coup of November 2017 staged by his former comrades-in-arms was a larger-than-life guy who united his country in his early years in power but resorted to dictatorship when faced with fierce opposition; factors that invited admiration by some and condemnation by others.
What wasn’t discussed however is why a liberator who had ruled his country for 37 years was unable to build even a single hospital at home or nurture doctors to look after him and his family or comrades when sick?
That Mugabe had to die in a Singaporean hospital attended to by foreigners rather than his fellow countrymen and women whom he liberated tell a bigger story of where Africa’s liberators lost their mojo and why the idea of liberators and liberation should be redefined away from chasing colonialists and “homegrown” dictators out of power to fighting and ending our underdevelopment.
For Mugabe’s predicament, unfortunately, isn’t isolated. Other African “liberators” and leaders have gone to seek treatment in and die in western hospitals; effectively dying in the hands and beds of their former colonizers! And many serving Presidents today, including Presidents Muhammadu Buhari of Nigerian, Zambia’s Edgar Lungu, Gabon’s Omar Bongo Jr and others still seek outside treatment; for they haven’t built hospitals at home they can trust to treat them or their families.
In the past, Africa’s leaders who have died in their former colonizers’ beds are many. They include Omar Bongo of Gabon who ruled his country for 42 years and died in a Spanish hospital; Zambia’s Michael Sata who died in the United Kingdom in 2014 and his fellow countryman president Levy Mwasawasa who died in a French hospital on August 19, 2008. Others include Guinea Bissau’s Malam Bacai Sanha who died in France in 2012; Ethiopian Premier Meles Zenawi who died in a French hospital in 2012, etc.
Seeking foreign treatment has also included families of presidents and their close officials. In 2003, President Museveni of Uganda was accused of spending $70,000 (government said only $20,000 was spent) of taxpayer’s money to send his daughter to give birth in Germany. He defended his deed by claiming that “he was a constant target for assassins, who would not hesitate in using local doctors to breach his security” and therefore, he said: “When it comes to medical care for myself and my family there is no compromise”
Of course, the compromise Museveni didn’t say he had made is seeking medical care abroad for himself and his family at the expense of taxpayers who lack similar facilities at home! The reason? Because he fears his own people; the people he says he “liberated”!
Besides fearing their own people, most of these “liberators” also send their children to European and American schools; they and their families shop in European and American shops; beat up the opposition and imprison opponents! They also welcome foreign investors with open hands while trampling on their home investors who don’t sing their praises; some are corrupt and steal from their taxpayers, etc.
Interestingly, even colonialists took their children either to exclusively white schools or hospitals within colonies or to their home countries─especially for university education. The difference with our liberators is the same; except, on hospitals, the latter completely run them down.
What’s common in most “post-liberated” countries on the continent is the blinding sense of entitlement for veterans and generals of the liberation; the brutal treatment of the opposition; punishing dissent and ownership of the economy by a few families directly connected to winners of the war.
In Uganda, for example, military generals are often heard asking judges and MPs who chair numerous accountability commissions investigating their corrupt ways “where they were when they were fighting”. In Zimbabwe, veterans of the anti-colonial struggle are untouchable and remain the power behind President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government, etc.
So, what’s liberation if one form of oppression is removed only to be replaced by another? Is oppression by fellow Africans a better form of oppression?
To me, oppression is oppression regardless of who carries it out and must be defeated and replaced by freedom, democracy, dignity and liberty for all.
This behaviour─of, on one hand, liberating one’s country from colonialism and brutal rule only to launch another form of oppression and running down the country’s infrastructure and economy calls for Africans to rethink the concept of “liberators” and “liberation” away from running colonialists out of Africa to liberating the continent and African countries from underdevelopment.
By underdevelopment, I mean a situation where a country does not only lack material and institutional capabilities like industries to meet basic needs and wellbeing of its citizen, but also lack a functional socio-political structure that’s consensually owned by all citizens and that can sustainably reproduce itself.
That isn’t to downplay liberation from colonialists or the role of independence heroes and post-independence liberators; but to say liberation is and should have been a first-step; not an end in itself.
In other words, the 21st liberators shouldn’t be only those who were prepared to shed blood to send colonialists packing nor those who run dictators out of office as was the case in countries like Mozambique, Angola, S. Africa, Namibia or Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Eritrea, etc. That should only have been a first step.
Instead, liberators of our time should refer to those who help the continent and home countries fight and overcome endemic poverty. The liberator should be one who ends political oppression and therefore treats political opponents not as enemies but worthy challengers.
The liberators of our time should be those who build industries; create jobs for the continent’s youths and work to solve unemployment bedeviling the continent.
Liberators should be those who help to connect Africa by roads, railways, seas and air transport while working to open up borders to enable free movement of goods, services, people and capital.
Our time’s liberators should be those who help to redefine the continent’s education system away from colonial stereotypes, cramming and “cut-and-paste” education, to free and independent thinking, innovation, entrepreneurship; discovery and problem-solving.
The liberators of our time should be those who fight and defeat tribalism, ethnic divisions and other forms of xenophobia like that we are witnessing in South Africa currently.
Liberators, in simple terms should be those who put in place inclusive socio-economic and political systems that advance collective well-being, peace and economic success for all; for Africa’s enemy today isn’t from the outside but from within just as the enemy for each country on the continent isn’t external but internal.