By Field Ruwe
Last night I had a vicarious conversation with Prisoner 46664. He goes by his clan name Madiba. He is the man celestial species call “Intrepid,” the ethical guide I need in search of the Holy Grail. In youth he was valiant, in prison he was hard-wearing, in leadership he was magnanimous, and in retirement he is sacrosanct. On earth he is a planetary star from a Third Word continent where strongmen perpetuate themselves eternally in power. In Africa he is the symbol of democracy and egalitarianism; the fountain from which all present and future presidents should draw if our continent is to get out of the doldrums. In our discussion he was thoughtful and gracious.
After we had discussed his time in prison, I posed the next question.
“It looks like prison is the baptismal tabernacle for every future president in Africa. Almost every president has served jail time. This is not the case with the Western world or is it?”
“No it is not,” he responded. “But it is them, the colonizers who set the precedence. They threw freedom fighters in jail and African presidents have emulated them since. In African politics an opponent is not a competitor but a bitter enemy, a nemesis of the worst kind—a kingdom snatcher.”
“What do you exactly mean?”
Suave and articulate he explained. “When African presidents assume power, the country becomes their personal property. Political tyranny sets in and suddenly every critic and opposition leader is a threat to their possession. That’s African power for you. When I became president I came face-to-face with African power. I saw how easy it was to enrich myself and my family. The treasury vault was right there before me and in my hands I held the key. I could not imagine anyone taking it away from me.”
“And yet you gave it away.”
“Yes,” he replied. “Because the key is the reason for misguided leadership, systemic corruption, economic mismanagement, vandalism, and flagrant violations like throwing opponents in jail. Look, when I walked to freedom I was as poor as a church mouse. As president I became the people’s servant, the keeper of the key. I had a moral conscious to know that the money the people of my country had labored and died for was to be used to their benefit and not to turn myself into a millionaire, that’s theft.”
“By people you mean all people, including the opposition.”
“Of course,” he said. “Not only the opposition, but also my worst enemies.”
“You actually embraced your rivals.”
“Yes, I did. I brought them to the table and spoke with them. Some had committed heinous deeds. Others had stolen millions of dollars. I looked them in the eye and trusted their deepest sense of humanity and honor, and appealed to them to confess their crimes and return stolen property if they were to avoid prosecution, and it worked.”
“What then would you say about my president who is rounding up people believed to have stolen property?”
“Well, each leader has a different way of handling such cases,” he said. “Your president is right if someone stole then the law must take its course. What bothers me though is when it is simply personal vendetta, a motive to destroy a person for political gain. If he is targeting only the opposition then it’s political and wrong. He should not discriminate. Every plunderer should face the wrath of the law, including those in his party.”
“Let me ask you this, you served a term and opted to retire, why?”
He smiled. “First, age is an inexorable enemy. I was over seventy when I became president. I had reached a point where it was difficult to duck selinity. I truly thought it was time for a younger leader to take us into the future. Africa needs young leadership and we have to give it to them. Second, I had achieved my goal. My fight was not for power, but for liberty for all.”
My brief imaginary encounter with Madiba was as a result of the email I received from The Right Reverend Dr. Musonda Trevor Selwyn Mwamba. Bishop Mwamba is a Zambian-born Anglican cleric who is the current Bishop of Botswana. His siblings include Zambia’s songbird Muriel and journalist Jay. Growing up in Lusaka’s Northmead the bishop incarnated an exemplary adolescent leadership and an increasing commitment to education. A holder of a PhD, he has studied theology, law, and anthropology. It is his compassion and humility, I believe, that have led him to serve God. Knowing him personally, he is the ideal leader.
Bishop Mwamba wrote to me as a friend: “Your article was brilliant in analyzing the political landscape with an insightful understanding of what is needed- viz, inspired leadership. This is vital in developing the country and uplifting the welfare of the people.” He did not end there. He sent me a copy of his address on leadership development made in Hertfordshire last June entitled: “The Art of Leadership: Revealing God to Others.”
It was the quote in the Bishop’s speech that prompted my imaginary talk with Madiba. Written by Alfred Lord Tennyson and used by President Quett Masire when he announced his retirement to Parliament, the quote reads: “The older order changeth, yielding place to new; And God fulfills himself in many ways; Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” It is a quote that our leaders need to heed at a time when we are facing a long century of poverty, hunger, and disease. And as Madiba says goodbye, we urgently need our own man called Intrepid to carry us into the future. That man should come from a new generation of young brilliant minds. He should surround himself with a new breed of young Zambian ministers, Permanent Secretaries, and governors.
“Rubbish!” I hear the big men of Zambian politics exclaim. “This chap Ruwe must be rebuked. Young people can’t give Zambians qualitative leadership. We won’t let them ruin our sacrifice.”
How selfish! Vernon Mwaanga, Alexander Chikwanda, Rupiah Banda, and Sikota Wina entered politics as young men. They were the “new generation of young Zambian nationalists.” The old of the time allowed them to run the country with KK only forty-years-old at the dawn of independence. These now senior stalwarts are assiduous. When the term “new generation” reappeared in the late 1980s they showed up, muzzled the Young Turks and hijacked their idea. Last year when the “new young generation of cadres” rallied behind the 74 year-old King Cobra, they popped up again.
For forty-seven years these conservative men with their archaic ideologies have refused to go away. Their past forked-tongued contribution to the country (good and bad) is well-known. What is not clear is their obsession for power at the expense of a sloth-paced sclerotic economy and a changing world.
In his speech Bishop Mwamba narrates how one day President Julius Nyerere woke up and decided to retire. He quotes the 1980s Vice Chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe Professor Walter Kamba during the conferment of an honorary doctorate on Nyerere: “In an age in which life presidents are proliferating, whether by constitution or other means, it is only a man of courage, confidence, foresight, wisdom, and humility, like our grandaund, who can say it is now time for me to lay down the burdens and responsibilities of State and go into retirement and become part of the citizenry.”
Let me be perfectly clear. I am not insinuating that King Cobra should retire. Elected at the height of public disillusionment, he earned our vote and therefore must rule us accordingly. But along the way he must move away from nurturing senior politicians to playing an essential role in the grooming of young leaders. Let me borrow an Emerson quote contained in the bishop’s speech: “A [great president] is one who embodies the consciousness of an era, one who perceives things in fresh lights and new connections, one who exhibits unsuspected possibilities of purpose and action to his contemporaries.”
But King Cobra aside, the onus is on the educated youth. Sadly, it is in this group that nothing is happening. The demise of the Young Turks is a contributing factor. In the late 1980s the men and women of the university refused to cow beneath KK’s might. Aka and Derek aggressively and courageously organized a movement of academic clout and we all thought they were the panacea to our political sludge. But it turned out that they had no teeth. They lost their grip and we lost their talent, skills and contribution. It is at this juncture, I believe, that the educated youth’s confidence level waned and inertia set in.
For over twenty years there’s been no heroes, no man called Intrepid—no young Madiba, young KK, not even Aka or Derek with the courage to initiate change. The youthful educated are locked up in self-aggrandizement. They are lost in preposterous nostalgia and hence unable to think creatively. When Kaponyas and miners elected King Cobra they stayed away: “Why should I vote?” “Who cares?” “I’m happy with my life.” “Politics is not for me.” “Nothing will change.” “HH will never become president.” “Elias is a snob.” “Tilyenji better forget it.” “Edith who?”
When King Cobra appointed Guy Scott as vice president in clear violation of our constitution (he can’t act or become president), our diaspora and home-bred political scientists and lawyers remained desensitized, totally oblivious of the consequences. They tucked their heads in the blanket. “Let’s give King Cobra a chance!” they cried. That’s the Zambian educated youth—scoffing, unenthusiastic, cloistered and complacent. They are not interested in politics and hence remain uninformed about the precise nature of our system’s malady. Because they are exasperatingly naïve it allows senior politicians to manipulate the process and shape the country to their advantage. For as long as the educated youth are lethargic our country shall be led by the same prominent political families.
It is 2012, where is the man called Intrepid, the protagonist of the new progressive epic. The awakening of the educated youth is now. Although the political scene might offer few immediate chances for optimism, it’s time for the “new generation of the educated youth” to be joined at the hip and reimage Zambia in conformity with the cyber age. Mark my words if we don’t refashion our country, our children will blame us for the state they shall found it in. As for the senior politicians: “You have served us. After King Cobra we shall serve you.”
Note: If you are a skeptic don’t insult me. Make a strong case for your doubts. Good ideas get wasted when they are trivialized. At least allow your heart to beat for the future of your children. Remember; I am not a stormy voice that breaks the calm. I am a peaceful voice that’s creating hope.
Field Ruwe is a US-based Zambian media practitioner and author. He is a PhD candidate with a B.A. in Mass Communication and Journalism, and an M.A. in History.