Last week, I was criticised by a reader for accusing President Robert Mugabe of ruining Zimbabwe’s economy, rigging elections, destroying his opponents, and refusing to let go after 37 years of sustained misrule. My critic wondered why no African journalist had seen it fit to upbraid Queen Elizabeth II of England for reigning over her subjects since her coronation 65 years ago.
Of course I argued that the comparison could not work because the queen is a constitutional monarch with limited political power and she has never jailed her opponents or butchered her people to cling on to power. In the end, I lost the argument when I was reminded what murderous fellows the queens, kings and emperors of yore used to be, yet we are always ready to ridicule African leaders.
Maybe the gentleman has a point. But this is not about Mugabe or the Queen Elizabeth II. It is about the reasons African leaders have failed their people so miserably since most of the continent gained independence from the colonialists. It is about the leaders failing to uplift the living standards of their people even as they put up spurious arguments about sovereignty.
These thoughts were prompted by the news that for the last 11 years, only four retired African leaders have won the prestigious Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, although more than a dozen have retired after the end of their terms. Why should this be?
The Ibrahim Prize was set up by a Sudanese mobile technology businessman, Mohammed Ibrahim, and is run by a foundation run by a board of eminent personalities. The main aim of the prize is to nurture good governance, ensure that the leaders strive to develop their countries to reduce poverty, and then hand over power peacefully when their terms are over.
But of course there is more to it than this. It is one thing to develop a country, ensure that nobody ever goes to bed hungry or dies of sickness, but it is entirely another to guard jealously human rights and the freedoms of expression and association, secure the country from threats of any nature, and make democracy flourish.
There are countries in Africa that have made giant strides economically, but the people are still in chains. There are leaders who can only stabilise their countries through oppression, and there are those who conveniently believe that without them, their countries would crumble. It is such people who the Ibrahim Prize meant to attract.
Unfortunately – this is the reason the prestige associated with winning the prize will not work in this continent – such people will laugh derisively at the sums of money going with the prize (roughly Sh500 million spread over 10 years and Sh20 million per year until the winner dies), for they will have plundered much more than this from their countries. The prize is a good idea, but it will never change the way many African leaders behave.
The outrage that greeted the announcement that there will no longer be government advertisements in private newspapers was, to me, quite justifiable. The move was really puzzling considering the timing, five months to an election that promises to be extremely tight. What could have informed it?
Granted, the government has a right to decide with whom it should advertise. This is purely business. But to claim the decision was taken to save money does not wash. This administration has always been deemed hostile to the media, and many see the move as punitive merely because some people are unhappy with the coverage given to its failures.
No government has ever been given obsequious praise by independent media anywhere in the world. Governments must expect criticism, for the role of the media is to act as the people’s watchman. Those who advised this course of action must be suffering from tunnel vision. Why don’t they ask themselves why the media have consistently been adjudged to be the most trusted institution in this country?
Advertising revenue is the life-blood of the media. If this decision succeeds in killing the mainstream Press, all that will happen is that anti-government criticism will go underground. An ignorant citizenry is not in the best interest of any government except those of a totalitarian bent. It is not too late to reverse this unfortunate decision.