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Power of personal example


AS Yoweri Museveni was declared winner of Uganda’s presidential poll over the weekend, making him a typical African big man, so good at his job, popular with his people, that he never loses any election, I was heart-broken by yet another typical African story.

Of course, no one had any illusion Museveni would not win this latest one as he had all the elections before. But given his idealism and promise after leading his National Resistance Movement/National Resistance Army to power, following the rebellion that toppled Idi Amin and, subsequently, Milton Obote, in 1986, his latest victory and, indeed, continued stay in office fits into the usual tragic African narrative of so much promise killed by one man’s ego and buried by his lack of vision.

I first met Yoweri Kaguta Museveni 14 years ago at a conference in Durban, South Africa. I became enamoured of him and his African nationalistic swagger when, with some leaders of Britain, Germany, United States of America and others seated on the stage with him, he spared no words in describing how ‘these westerners’ (right hand swung in their direction) had defrauded Africa, decimated the continent only to turn around to preach resource management and offer aid to their victim. After that, he turned to the largely African audience and said, wagging a forefinger: “Beggars are merely tolerated. Only bargainers are welcome at the table.” Then, for effect, he asked: “My brothers and sisters, even at this table (meaning that conference), are we really bargainers?”

Of course, I clung to every word he spoke and saw in him one of Africa’s potential saviours. At the end of one session, star-struck as I was, I did all I could to see him for more. The once pro-apartheid Zulu chief, Gatsha Mangosuthu Buthelezi, then a minister in President Nelson Mandela’s government, with whom I had shared a table at the session, did his best for me, I got to see Muzeveni but he declined an interview. It was, however, enough for me to adore the man and develop a keen interest in Uganda, especially against the background of his publicly held position that sit-tight leaders were the bane of Africa. Having already done 16 years in office when we met, his words were like a song to my ears and I was sure he would soon quit the stage. Alas! Here we are.

Whatever it takes to return probity and prudence to the management of Nigeria’s resources, Buhari must do. He must consistently prove to Nigerians, who craved a leader with a huge moral capital when they elected him, that they backed the right horse.

He may have won a new term but Yoweri Museveni has lost the moral high ground. And what Africa needs today are not just leaders with political power but ones with huge moral capital.

Which is why the story from Tanzania today provides food for thought, provokes a prayer that it may never change and should serve as template for other African leaders.

John Pombe Joseph Magufuli succeeded Jakaya Kikwete, who also had a fairly successful run in office, as President of the United Republic of Tanzania about two months ago. He has since gone about leading that country with such exemplary honesty of purpose and humility as make him a pride of the African continent. Shunning all appearances of ostentation and abhorrent of any form of waste, his no-frills presidency is now the stuff of unparalleled admiration. The Tanzanian Independence Day last December was cancelled because, according to Magufuli, it would be a shame to spend huge sums of money on the celebrations when Tanzanians were dying of cholera. Instead, the day was observed as a national day of cleanliness with all citizens out to clear out rubbish while the money earmarked for parties and banquets was sent to the state’s street-cleaning agencies.

According to reports, when he paid his first official visit to a state-owned hospital, and saw it in a bad shape, he ordered that money penciled down for “parliament parties” be used to pay for beds for people lying on the floor and sharing beds, 300 of which were eventually bought.

He also cut the cost of his own inauguration party from $100,000 to $7,000 and sent the extra money to the hospital.
Three days after taking office, Magufuli announced a ban on all foreign travells by government officials. Instead, they have been compelled to make regular visits to rural areas where they can help solve problems facing ordinary citizens. All tasks requiring Tanzanian officials to travel abroad would now be done by the country’s envoys in the host countries. Also, no more first and business class travel for all government officials, except the president, vice president and prime minister.

And there are no more workshops and seminars in expensive hotels. The government ministries’ board rooms will do.Magufuli himself rarely travels by private jet within Tanzania, driving across the country instead, so as to feel the pains of his compatriots even on pot-hole-riddled roads.

Of course, these may seem token steps, but the message is working, with incredible results! The Tanzanian President has succeeded in cutting public spending, fighting corruption and enhancing accountability in public service.
The story is also well told of Jose “El Pepe” Mujica, immediate past president of Uruguay, a leader who ignored the presidential palace and lived in his own farmhouse, donated the vast bulk of his salary to charity, flew economy class on his foreign travels, stayed deliberately in low-grade hotels and drove only his two decade-old Volkswagen Beetle car even as president.

With his style, Mujica redefined power and wealth.
“A poor person is not someone who doesn’t have very much, but the person who is poor is the person that continues to need more and more and more and desires more and more,” he once said.

His Presidential salary was about 12,000 dollars per month but by donating 90 per cent of this to widows and other women groups, his income came roughly to the average monthly wage in Uruguay, about $775 a month. Hear him: “I have a way of life that I don’t change just because I am a president. I earn more than I need, even if it’s not enough for others. For me, it is no sacrifice, it’s a duty.”

And he aptly illustrates the vanity of the appurtenances of power thus:“As soon as politicians start climbing up the ladder, they suddenly become kings. I don’t know how it works, but what I do know is that republics came to the world to make sure that no one is more than anyone else. You need a palace, red carpet, a lot of people behind you saying ‘Yes, sir.’ I think all of that is awful.”

On his watch, Uruguay’s economy boomed, incomes rose and unemployment fell to its lowest level in that country’s history.No doubt, Mujica lived by clear principles of service to the people, not self, and set a good example. In deeds and remarkable words such as earned him the description ‘Nelson Mandela’ of Latin America, his humility was incredible. “You don’t stop being a common man just because you are President,” he once said, adding, in a parody of Thurgood Marshal, the late eminent African-American jurist, that his attitude and actions were nothing more than ‘recognising something as old as humanity.’

But even at the point Marshal said ‘when you recognize the humanity of your fellow man, you pay yourself the highest compliment,’ he probably never imagined a man of power and influence such as Mujica would raise the bar to such heights.

As with Mujica, so with Magufuli.
Nigeria is big. With the enormous human and material resources at her behest, Nigeria should even be bigger, doing incredible, great things. But corruption has stunted the growth of the giant.

With Mujica and Magufuli as examples, however, it is a disease that must be fought with exemplary leadership, in addition to the institutions so charged. Nigeria may never grow unless the country takes care of little things, deals with seemingly intangibles even before the tangibles, cuts waste and banishes ostentatious living especially by those in office. Glossing over attitudinal corruption certainly makes fighting material corruption futile.

President Muhammadu Buhari has started well on this path with some good examples in lifestyle but he must make this a policy that permeates every strand of the polity. Lest he is goaded into changing tack by those who roundly deride his ‘body language’, by which is meant his personal integrity and discipline as compass for a nation or rule book for all citizens, he should be comforted or encouraged by Mujica and Magufuli.

Whatever it takes to return probity and prudence to the management of Nigeria’s resources, Buhari must do. He must consistently prove to Nigerians, who craved a leader with a huge moral capital when they elected him, that they backed the right horse.