I am a great admirer of Kenya’s PLO Lumumba, who is often on the speaking circuit in African capitals, preaching the gospel of African unity and good governance. The gist of what he says is that, divided, Africa will remain an economic backwater. To illustrate this point, the former law professor cites Lesotho, one of the smaller economies in Africa, which, he contends, will never be able to compete against behemoths like China and the big economies of Europe and the Americas. For him, a key condition for Africa’s economic prosperity is continental integration.
Lumumba also doesn’t shy away from speaking truth to those African leaders who are doing a very bad job of governing their countries. In a recent speech, he expressed frustration at African Presidents with a penchant for the high life who show very little regard for the people they lead.
Lumumba said something to this effect: “Who are these people? Where did they come from? How can they travel the world, receiving 21-gun salutes in the countries they visit, while their people starve at home?”
One would think that, with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on health systems and economies worldwide, and disrupting life as we know it, Lumumba’s words would be taken to heart even by the most travel-happy heads of State. One recent event seems to suggest there are leaders who would rather prioritise foreign junkets, and that was the inauguration, on March 21, of Hage Geingob for his second term as Namibia’s President.
Three African Presidents – Botswana’s Mokgweetsi Masisi, Angola’s Joao Lourenco and Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa – attended the shindig, which was held in Windhoek, the Namibian capital. Both Lourenco and Mnangagwa had imposed international travel bans on their Cabinets, including on themselves, as part of measures to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. But the opportunity for a jaunt to Windhoek proved too tempting for these gentlemen.
From what I read in the Zimbabwe press, the country’s Air Force does not have an aircraft that is good enough to ferry the President on his international travels, and neither does the national carrier, Air Zimbabwe. So, each time Mnangagwa travels abroad, a jet has to be chartered from the United Arab Emirates. This means Zimbabwe’s cash-strapped Treasury had to cough up serious money to enable Mnangagwa to have a nice time with his old pal, Geingob, for a couple of hours in Windhoek. That money would have been better used to bolster efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
Another irresponsible decision in the context of the raging pandemic is the decree by Mali’s President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, that long-delayed Parliamentary elections proceed on March 29. That was only a day after the West African country had recorded its first coronavirus fatality. Some African countries were already on partial or complete lockdown.
Even the most uniformed person should know by now that human contact is the key – if not the only – facilitator of coronavirus infection. How on earth did Keita expect scores of people standing in queues to cast their ballots to maintain the so-called physical distance to minimise the chances of infection?
Besides, what was the hurry? Mali, which last held elections for Parliament in 2013, when Keita’s Rally for Mali won a substantial majority, had been trying unsuccessfully to elect a new Parliament since 2018, owing largely to security concerns. Waiting a few more months – until the coronavirus disease was firmly under control – would not have caused any harm.
Indeed, Lumumba was right when he wondered where “these people” – the Mnangagwas and Keitas of this world – came from. As Africans, we are supposed to display ubuntu, or humanity towards others. This is not evident in their behaviour.