February 11 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster Prison. Truly an African hero, the late Mandela, who became South Africa’s first president after the fall of apartheid, was a man of indefatigable determination, steely courage, indomitable spirit and unbending will. He endured great hardships and personal sacrifices to bring freedom to his people – 27 years of imprisonment with hard labor. Yet, his heart was big enough to forgive and reconcile with his tormentors and oppressors.
Morally, Mandela stood head and shoulders above most other African leaders. First, he did not declare South Africa a one-party socialist state and proclaim himself president-for-life or emperor. He served only one term, whereas others serve 10, 20, 30, and even 40 years in office — and groom their wives, sons, cats, dogs and even goats to succeed them. The presidency is their family property.
Second, Mandela died peacefully in his own country. Most of the other African heads of state die violently. Gaddafi of Libya was shot in between the eyes. Abacha of Nigeria was murdered with poison. Samuel Doe of Liberia bled to death after his left ear was cut off. Mainassara of Niger was shot to death as he fled the country. Many die in exile or in foreign hospitals.
Third, Mandela never had a Swiss bank account or a mansion in foreign capital. He retired to a humble Spartan life in his ancestral home in Qunu. Most of his counterparts are the richest people in Africa, having looted their treasuries clean to build huge fortunes and mansions abroad. The net worth of each of Africa’s richest dictators easily dwarfs the net worth of every U.S. president from Washington to Obama combined.
Fourth, Mandela never arrested anyone who disagreed with him. Most of the others label critics as “terrorists,” “saboteurs,” “counter-revolutionaries,” “colonial stooges,” and the like – a precursor to liquidation. Ethiopia routinely labels journalists and bloggers as terrorists. Some African government even jail citizens for saying that their president is in poor health. Freedom of expression exists in fewer than 10 of the 55 African countries, despite its being guaranteed by Article 9 of the African Union’s own Charter of Human and People’s Rights.
Fifth, Mandela could sit down and reconcile with his tormentors and enemies. Most of the others have a heart as cold as ice. Their idea of reconciliation is confrontation with a bazooka, multiple grenade launchers, and heavy-duty firepower ready for battle.
Sixth and more importantly, Mandela was not intellectually blind. Many African leaders railed against apartheid in South Africa while standing on the necks of their own people. They never saw the de facto tribal and religious apartheid regimes they had established in their own countries.
These despots have been responsible for the deaths of some 21 million Africans since 1960. In Congo DR, 6.4 million have perished in conflict and war-related diseases; 4.6 million in Sudan; 1.5 million in Angola; 1.3 million in Mozambique; 1 to 3 million in Nigeria (the Biafran war); and 1 million in Rwanda. Within a space of 50 years, African dictators caused the deaths of about the same number of people Africa lost through the international slave trade.
There have been exactly 229 African heads of state since 1960, but one would be hard pressed to name just 10 good leaders among them. Had the continent produced just 10 Nelson Mandelas after independence in the 1960s, the history of post-colonial Africa would have been vastly different. Failed states and tens of millions of Africans would have been saved.
The problem today is that Africans can’t remove many of their bad leaders without also destroying their countries. Had Muammar Gaddafi, Charles Taylor, or Laurent Gbagbo been willing to step down or share political power, their countries would have been spared massive bloodshed. In 1986, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda declared, “No African head of state should be in power for more than 10 years.” He is still there – 29 years later. And 90-year-old Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe – in power for 35 years – now chairs the African Union.
Clearly, Mandela’s work remains unfinished. Oppression is oppression irrespective of the skin color or race of the oppressor. Africa is still not free. Only 13 African countries are democratic. Africa needs a second liberation to sweep away the black neo-colonialists, Swiss bank socialists, Jaguar Marxists, quack revolutionaries, military coconuts, crocodile liberators, briefcase bandits, and the other predatory species.
In fact, Mandela was well aware of Africa’s political obstacles. In 2000, he urged Africans to take up arms and overthrow corrupt leaders who have accumulated vast personal fortunes while children have gone hungry. On October 30, 2014, the people of Burkina Faso rose up in rebellion and sent their long-term dictator Blaise Compaore packing after 18 years in office. It would be a fitting tribute to the great Mandela if more followed suit.
George B. N. Ayittey, a native of Ghana, is president of the Free Africa Foundation and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Oakland, CA. His latest book is Defeating Dictators(Palgrave/MacMillan, 2011).