A philosopher said there are two kinds of suffering: one leads to more suffering; the other brings an end to suffering. Nothing distresses one more than running away from poverty and misery at home and meeting miserable death abroad. The lot of Nigerians in South Africa is not unique to that branch of Nigerian refugees. If it is the loudest, it is because the beat of suffering is danced to differently by the afflicted. In South Africa, they suffer, shout and attempt a fight-back. In Asia, Europe and America, they suffer, sob and flash consolatory smiles on Facebook and Instagram. In the arid deserts of North Africa and Saudi Arabia, they cluster in shivering cold, muttering silent, ambiguous prayers. They must not sob and shed tears and be seen doing so by their Arab owners. They are lower than lower animals – check the internet; it has stories to tell. The Diaspora Nigerian suffers humiliation and sometimes death everywhere Nigeria has chased him to. And yet, he won’t come back home. He cannot. If there is certain death abroad, there is equally certain shame at home. And is it not stubbornly said that death is better than shame?
It doesn’t take long for luxuriant rivers to dry up in Africa, killing off all their fishes. Rich, proud Nigeria that chased Ghana out in the 1980s now begs for menial seats across the world. Black lakes don’t grow larger; they get silted, they shrink and foul the earth. The world has always noted and anticipated this. Most times they assist in quickening the descent. August 16, 1985, apartheid South African President Peter Botha addressed 1,800 whites in Durban’s City Hall at the opening of the Natal Provincial Congress of his then governing National Party. He looked his people straight in the eyes and said, look, if blacks were allowed to take over the country, it ‘’will drift into factions, strife, chaos and poverty.” He was a prophet. Chaos is the first name of that country today. It has gone so pitiably steadily wrong in leadership and off the radar in direction. South Africa has climbed down from the heights of iconic Nelson Mandela and mercurial, calm Thabo Mbeki, to the lows of rotten Jacob Zuma and xenophobic Cyril Ramaphosa. The country is yet to finish with itself. Its focus is ground zero, and it must get there whether the world likes that or not. If you are in doubt, listen to the very loud incompetence and arrogance of its present leaders. They sound exactly like 1980 Nigeria and its Ghana-Must-Go cries.
Yet, it is an African problem. It is a great thing to be born; it is greater to know why and live that why. The black man continually seeks to paint shadows in the dark. He is a mismanaged patient drifting from one infirmary to the other. He cannot get well unless he gets the right attention at the right time from competent care givers. Is it not funny that even lazy, lousy black South Africans work very hard to set themselves apart from the other ‘blacker’ parts of Africa? They say they are South Africa, not Africa. They say this repeatedly in cryptic figures of speech and with ugly, bloody body languages. And is it their fault? Blame that ‘destiny’ that has repeatedly given dark Africa bumbling leaders – cooks who get handsomely paid for preparing watery, tasteless soups.
In a 2010 article, Greg Mills, then director of the Brenthurst Foundation based in Johannesburg, South Africa, noted that sub-Sahara African countries suffer because they have refused to grow and think since independence. They grieve and do nothing and would rather blame their gods or the old, ugly colonialism and new colonialism for their ailments. He said: “while other developing countries and regions have grown over the past 50 years, much of Africa has stagnated. African leaders have become adept at externalizing blame, holding others responsible for Africa’s failings. Yet, African leaders—not a lack of capital, access to world markets, or technical expertise—are to blame for the continent’s underdevelopment.”
Before you shake your head and say he was wrong, please pause and consider South Africans’ excuse for attacking their African brothers; think of President Muhammadu Buhari and his predecessors; remember Robert Mugabe who died on Friday and his descent from good to bad. Think of all the ugliness around and about the confused rent seekers and takers pretending to be running your country.
Look at Robert Mugabe who died last week at 95. He made 200 hefty heaps with his youthful hands, but once in power, he, with his strong legs, scattered them all. He was a hero. He was a villain. He was god. He was human. His life was a mirror image of Africa and its leadership. In Africa, we aim high and shoot low – almost always. Now that Mugabe is dead, maybe we should use his death to ransom Africa out of its life of sit-tight misfortunes and contradictions.
When he turned 93 in February 2017, I mused on Mugabe here and linked his trajectory to that of his country. Elegies are therapeutic sometimes, especially when strung with surgical refrains. I repeat myself here and push the old, cold points about Africa and its never-ending dreams. Mugabe was Africa, full of promise and potential at the beginning. He was celebrated and venerated. He was selfless and was a real patriot. He did well and was well accepted. He was his people’s own Mandela until he sold his soul to the gods of greed. Out of his 95 years, he spent 11 in jail fighting for his people. Of the remaining 84 years, he was in power for about 38. His wife announced in 2017 that if he died before the next election, his corpse would contest and win! Same with the next and the next elections. But for his friends who yanked off his fingers from the honey pot, the grand old comrade did not say he was tired of eating. It is the black man’s curse.
What have we not seen? Every messiah has turned out a more sinister clone of the devil displaced. In Nigeria, they always come in sprightly but would always run out under hails of insults. A journalist, Heidi Holland, gave Mugabe a dinner when he was released from prison in 1975. She saw a shy, tense, fiery freedom fighter with audacious ideas. Thirty years after, she met him again and came up with a sad, scary close-up picture of a “freedom fighter who became a tyrant.” She came up too with a conscience burdened by the fact that she, like other journalists in the continent, helped nurture the monster that wrecked her country. No lesson has been learnt –even now.
We don’t believe we are limited by the choices we make in polling stations, in boardrooms, and on the streets. We get shocked, rather, by evil spirits as they seize the soul of our messiahs. In Nigeria, we always manage to deceive ourselves, walking into the ambush of power. We celebrate the sack of our Lucifer and end up handing over to Satan. Mugabe’s wife suggested to us two years ago that African presidents don’t die; a corrupt or corrupted populace frames their effigies and sits them on the throne. Dynasties of misfortune inhabit palaces of power to the black man’s eternal damnation. Mugabe was an African. Africans don’t climb down from a horse – any horse – even after the deed is done or the road is closed. In Africa, it is a misfortune to become yesterday’s horseman. Even when death yanks the African off the saddle, he climbs back like a Joseph Kabila did after a Laurent Kabila left in the Congo.
Mugabe was Africa, a consummate contradiction. An immensely gifted, well read man with seven genuine university degrees, Mugabe came a long way just like the story of the black man. He represented promise and disappointment; hope and hopelessness; hero and anti-hero. He saw good and bad times. He was in and was out of jail. He became president and started flinging his ‘haters’ into and out of jail. He saw poverty, then riches. Power is sweet, especially if you live all your life wielding its sword. Mugabe represented the very affliction that has wrecked Africa.
There was a time Robert Mugabe described South Africa’s Ramaphosa as a “black white man” who was “really putting on (his) master’s cap.” Recent revelations may prove him correct. But the Mugabe the people deposed sometime ago was also the very white man he helped them chase out. His people saw in him that detested Ian Smith who held sway before he (Mugabe), the messiah, came. But because the street lacked the kind of fire Comrade Mugabe had, they could not give him a mirror to look into; they chose instead to wet his furnace with waters of derision. They set him up as an object of laughter. They put in his mouth words of unseriousness and scorn. Mugabe’s name was in use in all seasons – including for festivals of love and hate. His name was made to release words that gave his enemies and friends reason to laugh and seek more life. From Kenya through Nigeria to his native homeland, dedicated websites still salute words manufactured for the veteran’s mouth. Sometimes deep, sometimes sublime, sometimes downright lewd and raw, the (fabricated) words tell tales of a life lived from the serious to the banal. They signpost his climb-down from a cult figure to a comic character.
I asked two years ago whether Nigeria, with all the pains, shouldn’t have its own morbidly comical Mugabe; someone to make us laugh and forget the sorrows of our political misadventures; someone who would pronounce painful xenophobia as sweet semolina; someone who would feed his hungry countrymen with his own photographs of meals and toothpicks. We need someone with potent painkillers like the Mugabe analgesics; someone to tell us as ‘Mugabe’ bid you to: “check your girlfriend’s body, if she has more tattoos or piercings, you can cheat on her; she is already used to pain.”
Mugabe died last week at 95 with his extravagant life of demulcent jests and anodyne hoaxes. The story has not ended – never will end. There are worse, less endowed Mugabes, here and there, jostling for his throne of swindle and jokes and hurting failure. I pray that someone in Nigeria hasn’t taken his place already. Mugabe was a hero. He was a villain. He was god. He was human. He found his reason for living – and tragically lost it. He was Africa. He was a fallen angel.