LONDON – The world has stopped for a moment to focus its attention on Africa. This is not something that happens often.
No, they are not talking about senseless civil wars, crippling poverty, appalling HIV/AIDS statistics or blatant dictators. They are talking about a black man who freed his country from an inhumane regime; who dared to dream of a tolerant, united and poverty-free Africa and dedicated his life to the attainment of this dream.
In turn, God rewarded him with 95 years of a robust, purposeful life. If Nelson Mandela was from the Luo ethnicity like me, his death would herald two weeks of drinking, merry-making and dancing to the sounds of ffumbo drums in celebration of the resting of an honorable elder.
Seeing the glowing eulogies fills me with the same unsettling pride that gripped my younger soul as I listened to my high school African nationalism teacher talk about the struggle of great leaders to liberate the continent. She spoke of Mandela in the same breath as Kwame Nkurumah, Julius Nyerere, Daniel Arap Moi, Moammar Gadhafi, Yoweri Museveni and Robert Mugabe.
These are the men who stood up to oppressive regimes and dedicated their lives to fighting injustice and transforming the continent, she told us. The fiery way in which she spoke, and reading about the anti-colonial struggle from authors such as Chinua Achebe and Ousmane Sembene, made me want to leap out of my seat.
I was in awe of these great men and wanted to save a continent that, she informed us, was on the brink of sinking under the weight of endless social, economic and political problems.
Today, 10 years later, listing some of these names alongside Mandela seems quite odd. It is hard to imagine, for instance, that Mandela, Mugabe and Museveni all once sung the same song of liberty, equality and tolerance.
Mandela is one of the few African leaders who sang the song to the very end. The joke in my country, Uganda, is that Mandela was in prison for 27 years fighting for his country and served as president for five years before choosing to step aside, while our president, Museveni, who once ranked as a nationalist and freedom fighter like Mandela, fought the liberation war for five years and has ruled the country for 27 years, and still counting.
The trend has been that, unlike Mandela, African leaders who led their countries to independence saw the presidency as their deserved reward — a reward they had to hold on to for as long as possible, preferably for life. The implications for the development of the continent became secondary in the face of the need to reap where they “invested.”
It was hard to be Mandela. I never met the man but he still inspired me, through my television, the newspapers and the Internet, to desire a better Africa and believe it can happen.
The sound of his voice and the story behind his smiling, compassionate face make me want to play my own part in making the continent a better place. And if the continent is too big for me (and most times it is), well, Mandela’s story can give me the will to get out of bed and fix my daughter breakfast.
It is hard to imagine how African leaders, who have dined with such an infectious man, even won his admiration, have failed to draw from his legacy to inspire their own.
How can you have met Mandela, witnessed and supported the fight against injustice and still manage to go home, crackdown on all dissent, change your constitution and declare yourself the only person with the ability to lead the country? It does not matter that the facts in your country — the poverty, the hunger and lack of basic services such as health — tell a different story about your abilities.
Two weeks ago, the Ugandan government ousted a mayor for being uncomfortably loyal to the opposition on whose ticket he came to office.
Elias Lukwago, the mayor, was locked out of his office in total disregard of a court ruling that the government’s actions were unlawful. Like opposition leader Kizza Besigye, he has become the symbol of a powerless and resigned people. The opposition knows it has no chance of beating the president in an election. Not when he travels with sacks of money that he is ready to distribute if the need arises. Such leaders do whatever they have to do to retain power, regardless of the continent’s history.
Still, condolences from African leaders are already pouring in at the loss of a brother in the struggle and days of mourning and reflection have been declared. Africa’s pride as the birthplace of Mandela is tangible and it is a great feeling to have the world stop and pay its respects, recognizing that something good can indeed come out of Africa.
I have almost forgotten those times that I sat on the London tube and could not unglue my eyes from the painfully embarrassing pictures of African children beseeching Londoners to spare a pound for aid of one kind or another. For today, I choose to ignore the fact that Africa still struggles to look after her own population despite her resources. If the pictures of our leaders defending brutal security officials dare flash on my screen, all I will see is Mandela’s smiling face.
In my mind, I will be listening to his powerful words. I will pretend that it is not the same leaders who passionately fought colonialism and injustice who are now fighting their own people.
I choose to ignore the choking tear gas, the mothers giving birth on hospital floors. I choose to go into a deep trance of reflection upon the life of Nelson Mandela, believing that when I wake up, I will find that in death his spirit has moved African leaders to genuinely work toward making the continent a better place.
Patience Akumu, a Ugandan journalist, is a winner of the 2013 David Astor award.