A tale of two Africas
On the eve of South Africa’s transition to democracy, Nigerian journalist Dele Olojede – then Africa correspondent for New York newspaper Newsday – was faced with a tough decision. Global icon Nelson Mandela was about to become democratic South Africa’s first president and the world was lapping up the story of this incredible South African “miracle” like a vagrant eating chocolate ice cream at the homeless shelter’s Christmas lunch. In Rwanda, the slaughter of Tutsis by Hutu militias was escalating into a full-blown genocide.
Olojede’s editors in New York asked him to “keep an eye” on events down the road in Rwanda while he was covering the South African transition. With Rwanda not exactly being “down the road” as the American folk might have imagined, Olojede had to choose between two hectically critical assignments: one a historymaking event and the other a ghastly tragedy.
After much mental anguish, Olojede chose to stay in South Africa and pick up on Rwanda after the new republic had been born. In his own words, he decided to prioritise the story of what Africa should be – a continent of progress – over the chaos and tragedy that had come to symbolise postcolonial Africa. Today he partially regrets the decision because by the time he arrived in Rwanda, the genocide was in full swing and he believes his reportage may have in a small way helped sway the lethargic decision makers at the UN’s New York headquarters to react differently.
In the past fortnight, we have witnessed another tale of two Africas: one wanting to go forward and another being dragged backwards. The Africa that is looking forward is exemplified by the concession speech that Ghana’s outgoing president John Mahama gave after losing to Nana Akufo-Addo.
In an address to the nation, he thanked Ghanaians for giving him a chance to do his bit to make “a contribution to the political, social and economic development of our country”.
“We believe that only one person can emerge as the winner. And while it is true that only one person can be elected president, in reality, and certainly in a democracy such as ours, every election is an opportunity for the people of this nation to express their will, to have their say in who will lead them in the shaping of Ghana’s future.
“In this way, each victory belongs to the people. And the true winner is always Ghana.”
He said he “would have cherished an opportunity to do even more, but I respect the will of the Ghanaian people”.
Just up the coast from Ghana, a disturbing picture was playing out. In Gambia, a man who represents the worst face of Africa is trying to subvert the will of the people. That country’s president, Yahya Jammeh, whose official title is His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa, is rejecting the outcome of the election and calling for a poll rerun.
After initially accepting the result of “the most transparent election in the whole world” by saying as a true Muslim who “believes in the almighty Allah, I will never question Allah’s decision”, he flipped just days later.
“After a thorough investigation, I have decided to reject the outcome of the recent election,” he said last weekend.
“I lament serious and unacceptable abnormalities that have reportedly transpired during the electoral process. I recommend fresh and transparent elections that will be officiated by a God-fearing and independent electoral commission,” he said, indicating that Allah had changed his mind.
Jammeh has held power for 22 years since he led a coup as a 29-year-old soldier and legitimised his leadership through sham elections. In that time he has turned into one of Africa’s cruellest leaders. His rule has been characterised by political suppression, murder, jailings, massacres, torture and disappearances. He has cracked down mercilessly on the media, which is arguably one of the worst crimes any leader can commit. The extremely eccentric Jammeh has claimed to have found cures for various diseases, including HIV/Aids, high blood pressure and asthma.
Jammeh is now defying the AU and other international bodies by refusing to give way to Adama Barrow, who was declared the winner by that country’s electoral commission. What is worrying is that, being a soldier himself, he may have the support of significant parts of the military. This factor may lead to violent conflict and more of the images of bloodshed that Africa wishes to get away from.
The AU’s prompt action is welcome, but unless respect for the rule of law and democracy becomes second nature to African power brokers, the organisation will always be fighting fires. A way of promoting this respect is by entrenching international norms that Africans themselves have played a key role in formulating. One of these is the International Criminal Court, which was designed to deal with monsters like Jammeh. But African leaders, including the government of the continent’s most advanced democracy, are rejecting the only existing mechanism for enforcing these norms. The result will be a culture of impunity that will take our continent backwards.