Dyer: Absent presidents

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.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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