By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 14 February 2010
On Thursday, the world marked a day on which -- 20 years ago -- the icon of Africa’s final “independence” struggle was released from detention.
On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison by the apartheid regime, and began his final push for a true “rainbow nation” free of discrimination of any kind.
This poignant moment resonates with Kenya’s situation 12 years later, when the Kanu kleptocracy was shown the door and a new era under the National Rainbow Coalition was ushered in.
The amount of hope invested in the new regime in Kenya paralleled the optimism of the South Africans in the early nineties.
That is the point at which any similarities between Mandela’s moment of triumph and Kibaki’s rowdy inauguration end.
As the world celebrates the legacy of a man who ruled for one term, groomed his successor and gracefully waltzed into retirement, Kenyan talking heads are agog with the recent declaration by one government minister that President Kibaki may vie for a third term at the next General Election.
Some pundits point out that this would be quite in character, and it would be in keeping with the tradition established by his predecessor, Daniel arap Moi.
Whereas Nelson Mandela will be hailed into the future as the man who saved South Africa from a post-apartheid implosion with his decent and thoughtful leadership style, our current president risks being dumped into the dustbin of history as the man who presided over the bloodiest period in our history since the Mau Mau uprising.
Should he follow his minister’s advice and vie in 2012, he will most likely retire a damaged man and, whatever good he has achieved for this country, will be buried in an avalanche of ignominious accusations.
Nelson Mandela should serve as the beacon that sets the standard in African leadership, and not the exception that proves the rule.
As a leader, he presided over a divided country, with many survivors of apartheid era atrocities baying for the blood of their tormentors while some extremist whites agitated for a separate homeland.
Mandela formed a government of national unity to manage the transition, and embraced his erstwhile foes from the National Party and Inkatha Freedom Party in order to bring on board a sense of national belonging.
Unlike his modern Kenyan counterparts, he did not need any external prodding to do so. Once he perceived the danger facing his country, and the real risk of disintegration through a civil war, he did the only thing he considered natural – reaching out to his fellow leaders from across the political divide to reunite the nation.
Extremists on both ends were silenced by his reconciliatory gesture, and he eventually formed a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission to allow everyone to tell their story in relative safety.
South Africans may appear to have been “lucky” to have had a leader such as Nelson Mandela at their moment of crisis in the early 1990s. A closer examination of the circumstances will indicate that luck had nothing to do with it.
Mandela made a conscious decision to unite the country and, in so doing, sacrificed many of his own hopes and dreams as well as those of his supporters.
The lesson we learn from this great African is that a leader chooses his moment, and not the other way round. Whenever a nation is in crisis, the leaders present at that moment in time may choose to do the right thing and save their country, or to continue in belligerence and selfishness and destroy it forever.
Leaders who are remembered long after they are gone are often those that forego their own interests and choose to follow the path offering the greatest good for the majority.
It is in this light that the current low-grade push for Kibaki’s third term must be seen. The President can today choose to start working on his legacy, totally ignoring the plaintive cries of the rent-seekers in his entourage.
Such a legacy, like Mandela’s, would necessarily include a new constitutional dispensation accompanied by respect for the rule of law by all.
Simple actions like punishing those closest to him whenever they break the law, would serve to send a strong message that the days of impunity are over and done with.
President Kibaki’s legacy must include a governance structure that allows for healthy competition without unnecessary antagonism between communities after every electoral contest. The President could still craft a succession agenda that will raise him higher than any of his predecessors.
Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine