Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version“Mo Ibrahim’s prize for a retired African president which was awarded to Joachim Chissano of Mozambique was in my view an insult to the African people.” Issa Shivji raises a number of questions around the award such as how and what is “good governance” and why is it only applied to Africa? And most importantly “for which and whose democracy they are getting a prize”.

Punishment is to deter; often to take revenge. Reward is to encourage. Rewards can also be a recognition for outstanding, usually, individual achievements. Which acts are liable to punishment and which are rewarded depends on the dominant values of society. These can differ from society to society and from time to time within same society. Issues of democracy and dictatorship, of war and peace, of governance and state administration, do not fall within the realm of a system of punishment and rewards.

Of course, victorious powers recognise their war heroes and vanquished bury their martyrs with honour. But then heroes of the victor are mercenaries for the vanquished and the martyrs of the vanquished may be terrorists for the victor. In other words, the issues of war and peace are contentious issues and can only be understood in their historical and social context. And so are the issues of democracy and dictatorship. Therefore, it is naïve, if not mischievous, to award a person – moreover with a cash prize – for bringing peace or democracy to his country.

It is even worse to cite “good governance” as an achievement for awarding an individual president of a country. What is “good governance”? Who determines what is good and bad governance? What yardsticks are applied? And why are these yardsticks applied only to Africa? Why doesn’t any one award a Norwegian prime minister for good governance or include “good governance” conditionality to lend Mr. Bush assistance or fund Martin Athissari to advise Bush on good governance? (Remember Martin Athissari, funded by the World Bank, came to Tanzania to advise President Mkapa on good governance.)

The point about these rhetorical questions should be obvious. Mo Ibrahim’s prize for a retired African president which was awarded to Joachim Chissano of Mozambique was in my view an insult to the African people. First, it is belittling African people. Dictators and undemocratic rulers exist all over the world, including the West which has arrogated to itself the right to judge others as “good man” or punish them for being dictators (Saddam Hussein).

Despots and dictators are not a monopoly of Africa. African people, like other people elsewhere, have always struggled against them. If they have attained some success in these struggles, it is their collective achievement. Their success is not due to particular qualities of any single leader. Good leaders are as much a product of our societies as are the bad ones. It is for the people to decide who is a good or a bad leader and how to award a good one and punish a bad one. I certainly cannot imagine Mozambicans (or any African people for that matter) awarding a 5-million dollar prize to Mr. Chissano. First because Chissano’s goodness itself is, I am sure, a contentious issue in Mozambique. Secondly, Mozambican people, if at all, would have awarded their leader by including him in a list of honour or putting his picture on a postal stamp. And if they had 5 million dollars to spare, they would have probably built secondary schools to produce future good leaders rather than give it away to Chissano to “live a better life” and invest in business (which is what Chissano said in a BBC interview he would use the money for.)

The worst disappointment in the prize saga has been its uncritical and unqualified celebration by scribes and even academics and intellectuals. Since this prize to a retired president was for stepping down from power or “good governance’ or bringing democracy and peace to his country, it was expected that analysts would go beyond the superficial and the obvious to a deeper understanding and explanation of issues of war and peace and democracy and dictatorships in Africa. Before we celebrate, we must understand what it is that we are celebrating. Before we applaud this prize to Chissano we must understand the history, politics and forces which underpinned war and peace in Mozambique.

The people of Africa have been involved in a long struggle against war and for peace and democracy and the struggle continues. In this struggle, they are pitted against not only their own immediate rulers but also against the erstwhile colonial and imperialist powers supporting them. Our dictators were not simply made in Kinshasa (Mobutu) or Central African Republic (Bokassa) or Entebbe (Idi Amin) but also in Washington or Paris or London and Tel Aviv. The vicious war in Mozambique was not simply waged by RENAMO but fully supported and instigated by apartheid South Africa backed by the US and western powers. Apartheid South Africa also claimed the life of the liberation leader Samora Machel and his leading comrades.

Chissano took over from Samora and under the tutelage of Washington steered the neo-liberal course. It is under this new direction that the former freedom fighters like Chissano’s family and Gebuza and others (with some honourable exceptions) began accumulating wealth and became businessmen. Chissano’s son Nyimpine, a businessman, was implicated in the murder of a journalist Carlos Cardoso who was investigating the fraudulent disappearance of 14 million dollars from the Commercial Bank of Mozambique in 1996. The story of wealth accumulation by political leaders in Mozambique is not that different from what we have been witnessing and debating in Tanzania. It is even on a larger scale. In Tanzania Mwalimu’s ghost has had greater restraining power on vultures of wealth than Samora’s in Mozambique.

As with economics, so with politics. The opening up of space after one-party authoritarianism did not just come about on a silver platter. People in Tanzania, Mozambique and the rest of Africa struggled for it. But as usual the rulers and their imperialist backers pre-empted the struggle for real democracy by imposing their own truncated version of neo-liberal democracy

So, when our leaders receive prizes for their democratic achievements we should ask ourselves for which and whose democracy they are getting a prize. Are they getting the prize for a neo-liberal democracy under which the World Bank and “development partners” (read: developed predators!) impose privatization of national assets and resources; under which their diplomats pressurize our ministers and governments to sign utterly one-sided contracts with the likes of golden sharks; under which the parliament is literally ordered to pass laws which have been drafted by their consultants like the Mining Act, under which our political leaders in a free-for-all pandemonium overnight become “wajasiria mali” and bankers and big miners? Is this the democracy for which the peasants, workers, youth, and wamachinga fought? In short, before celebrating let us ask ourselves what are we celebrating and whose music we are dancing to.

Without such critical understanding, I am afraid, we can end up celebrating and legitimizing the shaming and ridiculing of the democratic struggles and achievements of our people.

Mr. Mo Ibrahim: you have made millions of dollars from the sweat and blood of the African people. If you want to return a few million to the people, build schools, dispensaries, and water wells in the south of your own country rather than giving them to Chisasanos of this world. Do not add insult to injury by robbing (poor) Peter to pay (rich) Paul.

© Issa Shivji.

* This article was first published in THE CITIZEN (Tanzania) in Saturday Palaver and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

* Issa Shivji is one of Africa’s most radical and original thinkers and has written frequently for Pambazuka News. He is the author of several books, including the seminal Concept of Human Rights in Africa (1989) and, more recently, Let the People Speak: Tanzania down the road to neoliberalism (2006).

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