Ab­sent pres­i­dents

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

News­pa­pers still need copy to hold the ads apart even when noth­ing much is hap­pen­ing. So I was quite pleased when I no­ticed that the pres­i­dents of two African coun­tries, Nige­ria and Zim­babwe, were both “miss­ing in ac­tion”: spend­ing most of their time in hos­pi­tals over­seas, while their spokesper­sons de­nied that there was any­thing wrong.

Nige­ria is Africa’s most pop­u­lous coun­try, with the con­ti­nent’s big­gest econ­omy. Zim­babwe is dirt poor and dead broke, but its pres­i­dent, Robert Mu­gabe, is Africa’s long­est-rul­ing leader. So you call the piece ‘Ab­sent pres­i­dents,’ you do a few arabesques around the themes of ab­so­lute power and ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity, and you get to go home early.

Un­for­tu­nately, it’s too sim­ple. It feeds into all the stereo­types about feck­less African pres­i­dents who cling to power too long and lead their coun­tries to ruin. In fact nei­ther Buhari nor Mu­gabe is a thief (although some of the peo­ple around them are), and Buhari’s ill­ness is a real mis­for­tune for his coun­try. Whereas Mu­gabe’s demise would not come a mo­ment too soon for his un­for­tu­nate coun­try.

Robert Mu­gabe’s life has been a tragedy. He led Zim­babwe’s in­de­pen­dence strug­gle, and in the early days he was some­times even com­pared to South Africa’s Nel­son Mandela, a wise and gen­er­ous man who re­lin­quished the pres­i­dency af­ter only five years in power to let the next gen­er­a­tion take over. But although Mu­gabe was clever, he was never wise.

Zim­babwe flour­ished in the early years of his rule, with high ed­u­ca­tion and liv­ing stan­dards, but he has now been in power for 37 years and his in­creas­ingly ar­bi­trary ac­tions have wrecked the econ­omy. Few peo­ple have real jobs, hy­per-in­fla­tion has de­stroyed the na­tional cur­rency, and about a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion has em­i­grated in search of work, mostly to South Africa.

Mu­gabe is now 93 years old, but he talks of liv­ing and rul­ing un­til he is 100, and is cer­tainly go­ing to run again in next year’s elec­tion, which will be rigged as usual. His wife, Grace Mu­gabe, says he should run “as a corpse” if he dies be­fore the vote (but she might just de­cide to run her­self).

So the fact that Mu­gabe is now in hos­pi­tal in Sin­ga­pore, for the third time this year, is not caus­ing wide­spread dis­may in Zim­babwe. Op­po­si­tion lead­ers com­plain about him “run­ning the show from his hos­pi­tal bed,” but they wouldn’t ac­tu­ally mind if he died. They think noth­ing could be worse than more of Mu­gabe — although they could be wrong about that. The scram­ble for power when he fi­nally goes could turn very vi­o­lent.

If Robert Mu­gabe is a clas­sic case of a good man gone bad, Muham­madu Buhari may be just the op­po­site. He first came to public no­tice as one of Nige­ria’s re­volv­ing-door mil­i­tary dic­ta­tors, seiz­ing power in a coup in 1983 and los­ing it to an­other coup in 1985. The one thing that distin­guished him from all the oth­ers was that he ac­tu­ally did fight the ram­pant cor­rup­tion that has kept the great ma­jor­ity of Nige­ria’s 180 mil­lion peo­ple poor.

Buhari, who calls him­self a “con­verted demo­crat,” ran for the pres­i­dency un­suc­cess­fully in 2003, 2007 and 2011 be­fore fi­nally win­ning in the 2015 elec­tion. There were high hopes that he would be the one who fi­nally brought cor­rup­tion un­der con­trol, and per­haps he could have been — but noth­ing ac­tu­ally hap­pened. In fact, it took him six months just to se­lect all his cab­i­net mem­bers.

In ret­ro­spect, it seems likely that Buhari fell ill not long af­ter he took of­fice, and has been se­verely dis­tracted by his health prob­lems since mid-2016. He has been in Lon­don for med­i­cal treat­ment more than half the time since Jan­uary, and has not been seen in public at all since early May.

De­spite his wife’s as­sur­ances to the con­trary, it is un­likely that he will ever re­ally run the coun­try again.

This is not nec­es­sar­ily a dis­as­ter for Nige­ria — the grave­yards ev­ery­where are full of indis­pens­able men. But it may rep­re­sent a lost op­por­tu­nity, for Buhari did re­ally sound like he meant it. Bet­ter luck next time.

There, you see. I did get an ar­ti­cle out of it af­ter all.

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