African leadership challenge and Mandela’s sainthood

Share Bookmark Print Rating
By Asuman Bisiika

Posted  Saturday, December 14  2013 at  02:00

In Summary

Nelson Mandela is no saint and to that effect, he declined saintly deference.


The institution of canonical sainthood is clearly a European creation; the result of Judeo-Roman interaction. Otherwise, the Abrahamic faiths of Islam and Judaism don’t believe in sainthood and intercession.

Nelson Mandela is no saint and to that effect, he declined saintly deference. “I am no saint; even by the earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps repenting,” Mandela once said. We forgive US President Barak Obama who misquoted the man as saying: “I am no saint, unless you mean a saint is a sinner who keeps repenting”.

Nelson Mandela, like the canonised saints of Christianity, lived a normal life and made what he personally deemed normal and humanly responses to circumstances that obtained in his environment.

It is the impersonal way the canonical saints made very personal responses to the circumstances they lived in that made them objects of adoration. These saints conditioned their ego (ego, in the Latin sense of ‘the self’) to respond to situations in a manner that surpassed other people’s expectations. Ditto for Nelson Mandela.

There are two contemporary voices that call us to reflect on the challenge African leadership into sharp focus. These voices are, 1: the celebrated life of Nelson Mandela and 2: The Mo Ibrahim Prize.

The post WWII revolutionaries who fought against colonialism and brought us leaders like Kwame Nkuruma of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Sekou Toure of Guinea Conakry, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Ben Bella of Algeria and some others.
Then came the Coups d’etat era of the late 1960s through to the mid 1980s and brought the Nigerian Military Oligarchy, Jean Bedel Bokassa of Central Africa Republic, Mobutu Sesse Seko of the Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Iddi Amin of Uganda and a host of others.

From mid to late 1980s, Africa had leaders who came to power through armed struggles. Presidents Museveni of Uganda, the late Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and some others fit in this category.

These leaders were viewed and hailed as a new crop of leaders that would bring new meaning to African leadership. However, it is ironical that most of these leaders are also sit-tights like the life presidents of old.

It is ‘abnormal’ that an African leader voluntarily leaves power either as a result of an electoral defeat or respecting the constitutional limitations. And beyond this ‘abnormal’ is the fact that an African leader chooses not to seek re-elections when he is still popular and without any constitutional limitations. Only a saint would do that.

That’s why former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere (now the subject of pleas for canonical sainthood in the Catholic Church), Joachim Chissano of Mozambique and Nelson Mandela of South Africa, have been lionised. They voluntarily offered not to seek re-election even when they were still popular and not constrained by any constitutional limitations.

Their decisions tell us that the act of voluntarily stepping down from power takes more than ideological actualisation or institutional need to offer leadership but depth of character and courage.
Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Abdou Diouf of Senegal left power gracefully when they were defeated by the ballot.

Although Obasanjo, Chiluba and Muluzi’s bids to change the constitution in order to seek a third term of office were curtailed by a strong civil society and a steadfast Parliament, they are said to have heavily influenced the process of choosing their successors.

Former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has pioneered a new category as the first African leader to change the constitution in order to seek another term in office, only to be defeated at the poll!