Levy Mwanawasa, R.I.P.

By the low standards of rulership we have unfortunately had to get accustomed to in Africa, Zambia’s just-deceased president Levy Mwanawasa was a cut above the norm.

Whatever his faults, he seemed a genuine ‘man of the people’ in a way we no longer even expect anymore. He was down to earth, he spoke plainly, one could imagine sharing a drink and jokes with him in a way it is difficult to do with most of the continent’s stiff, self-important despots.

Morgan Tsvangirai was quick to do the right thing and issue a statement of condolence immediately after news of Mwanawasa’s death. There is a level on which this is not surprising given the late president’s expressed sympathy for how Zimbabwe’s opposition has been abused by Mugabe, and Mwanawasa’s abortive attempts to help to mediate the political impasse in his neighbouring country, incurring Mugabe’s wrath in the process. Mwanawasa’s description of Zimbabwe as “a sinking ship” would not have endeared him to Mugabe, and there were the usual hints of his (Mwanawasa) being in the employ of a Western conspiracy against the ‘revolution’ in Zimbabwe.

Despite what must have been bad blood between Mugabe and Mwanawasa, it is still shocking that Zimbabwe’s despot has not had the good grace to personally express his condolences to the people of Zambia on Mwanawasa’s death. It is not good enough for the first and so far  (more than 24 hours after the announcement of the death) only statement from the Zimbabwean government to be one by the minister of information somewhat unconvincingly calling it, “a real tragedy for the entire continent.’ Surely such a sentiment needed to come from the head of state, no matter how disputed Mugabe’s holding of that title currently is.

Sikhanyiso Ndlovu’s statement that, “Mugabe will issue a statement later Tuesday after a weekly cabinet meeting” only worsened the impression of callous indifference by Zimbabwe’s despot at the passing of a colleague who rightly was alarmed at the events in his neighbour to the south. It gave the impression of a Mugabe who was ‘too busy’ to immediately say something about the death, which is absurd. To add to the boorishness of the behaviour, no such statement was forthcoming “later Tuesday” from Mugabe

Mugabe probably did not have warm feelings towards Mwanawasa. Indeed, there was not even a perfunctory statement from him wishing the ailing Mwanawasa a speedy recovery after his recent stroke in Egypt. So perhaps it is entirely consistent of Mugabe to not now cry crocodile tears for a man he did not forgive for daring to criticise him, no matter how gently and obliquely. But Mugabe’s behaviour shows his smallness, his pettiness. It would have cost him nothing to say something, and would have shown him to be capable of rising above his personal feelings on the occasion of the death of a neighbouring head of state. More shame on Mugabe, although he seems incapable of feeling any.

African  presidents have often justifiably been accused of corrupting the essence of democracy in various ways. It is therefore ironic when those who most frequently point this finger then go on to write, “Mwanawasa did not groom a successor.” In a democracy individuals should come and go without the system collapsing. No matter how good somebody is, when he or she goes, no matter how unexpectedly, the laid down process of succession should be able to produce a successor from among the political ranks.

That is what is going to happen in Zambia as various politicians fight it out for the top job in the elelction to be held in the next 90 days, as is stipulated by the country’s constitution in the event of a sudden vacancy of the office of president such as has just happened. And that is how it should be.

Amongst MWanawasa’s achievements are being cited his fight against corruption, including calling his mentor and predecessor Frederick Chiluba to account fr his thieving ways in a manner that is quite unprecedented. He got debt relief which allowed Zambia to use more of itsforex earnings on “development” than on paying off debts. He managed to keep good relations with both the West and China at a time when some Westerners alarmed at the loss of influence over “their” Africans seem to suggest Africa must choose one ’side’ or the other.

But as some astute African observers have pointed out, for some in the West, and particularly Britain, all of Mwanawasa’s achievements on behalf of his own country pale in comparison to his role as the good African who criticised the bad African Mugabe!

That obsession with categorising Africans on the basis of such crude boxes not only cheapens Mwanawasa’s legacy, it is an attitude that also illustrates why despite the aid and attention lately lavished on Africa by the West, much of Africa is so disillusioned by the whole tone of its relationship with that West. In Africa, the West seems to have very little idea how to win friends and influence people. Perhaps this is partly why they are being beaten at their own game by the Chinese.

Mwanawasa represented the beginnings of southern Africa’s move away from being beholden to liberation-era ‘founding fathers,’ as if we were slaves who owed something to new masters.

Levy Mwanawasa, may you rest in peace.

Mr Makunike is a renowned Zimbabwean social commentator and some of his work can be found at http://zimreview.wordpress.com/