What can Julius Maada Bio learn from Robert Mugabe?

September 9, 2019

By Sulaiman Momodu


On 6 September, the world woke up to the news that former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe had passed on at the age of 95 not on his home soil but thousands of miles away in a foreign hospital. He died in Singapore.

Mugabe, the world’s oldest president before he was ousted in 2017, was the only leader Zimbabweans had known since independence in 1980.

I was mildly shocked when some people expressed shock that he has gone to be with his ancestors. At the ripe old age of 95 years and ailing, in my view, Mugabe, who far exceeded three score and ten, lived an eventful life so his passing on was not particularly surprising but expected.

As a founding father of Zimbabwe, some people are naturally caught up between political correctness and speaking from their heart on whether Mugabe was a true liberator, a dictator or both. President Emmerson Mnangagwa, not surprisingly, paid a glowing tribute describing Mugabe as “an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten”. President Mnangagwa chose to reflect on the positive aspects of Robert Mugabe’s life, despite ousting him in a coup two years ago.

As someone who follows world events with keen interest, I have been closely following Mugabe for many years and believe many African leaders have something to learn from his 37-year reign as leader of Zimbabwe.

Following his passing on, the world has been reacting with tributes and condemnations of a man who some will remember for standing up to the west with sayings such as: The only white man you can trust is a dead white man; Blair keep your England, and let me keep my Zimbabwe.

Controversial both in life as in death, some people believe that the bad things Mugabe did actually outweigh the good. Clearly, I see some similarities between Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio and Mugabe as well as differences.

If you are a lover of reggae, you may recall that another Robert, this time a Jamaican, Bob Marley once sang about Zimbabwe. The title of his track which goes by the same name – Zimbabwe says – Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny… so arm in arms, with arms, we’ll fight this little struggle cause that’s the only way we can overcome our little trouble.

History tells us that most African countries had to fight for their freedom, their independence. As Bob Marley sang – we will fight this little struggle. Robert Mugabe, the bush war guerrilla, led Zimbabwe to independence. He will be certainly remembered for spending years in jail in his desire to liberate his people from oppression. Assuming power with a promise to change the fortunes of Zimbabwe, the question is – did Robert Mugabe derail from the vision of the liberation struggle?

Mugabe was ousted when his wife Grace eyed the position of president and her speed to achieve her desires was uncontrollable.  Emmerson “Crocodile” Mnangagwa, who was Mugabe’s deputy, was sacked, a development that did not go down well with the military who stepped in albeit rather respectfully as Mugabe later said he was forced to resign. In the run up to the last elections, Mugabe rather mischievously supported the same opposition he had been persecuting for years against his own ZANU-PF party something that was quite telling to me about the true interest of most African leaders.

It is said that a good dancer knows when to leave the stage and not wait to be booed off the stage. Mugabe was booed off the stage because he danced and danced until Zimbabweans really got fed up with him and celebrated when he was finally ousted. Remember video clips going viral of civilians and soldiers both united against the founding father of their nation?

While it is a fact that Sierra Leoneans did not take up arms to fight for independence, most of those who came to power with a promise to make the lives of people better sadly abused the opportunity with deadly consequences.  Barely two decades after independence with the country’s political space full of violence and intrigues was the country plunged in to full scale civil war. This time though, arms were not taken up against colonial masters but brothers were fighting against brothers and sisters against sisters. Young men who had taken the oath to defend the territorial integrity of their nation were made the sacrificial lambs as they were ordered to fight a war they did not create with almost their bare hands. In what they apparently considered a suicide mission, some young military officers entered Freetown to teach then President Joseph Saidu Momoh and his government some lessons on how not to treat the military and how not to fight a civil war.

Julius Maada Bio and other young military officers subsequently took power as they people danced themselves lame thinking that they had been liberated. But were they really? Of course not. A few months after coming to power through the gun and not the ballot box, some young army officers started investing their time and energy in wild fair-complexioned women. Dark skinned women who also wanted to benefit from the looting that had effectively commenced pathetically took up to recklessly bleaching their skin to become light skinned at all cost.

After a few years in power, the so-called liberators had become an embarrassment to Sierra Leone just like Mugabe was a big disappointment to Zimbabwe. I vividly remember these events as if they were yesterday because I had just entered the noble and risky world of journalism with a commitment to speak the truth and would later spend my youth covering a bloody civil war which could have been prevented if we were truly committed to our vision of making a new nation and not focused on selfish ambitions and greed.

Like Mugabe who fought to set his people free, Maada Bio has returned to power to set his people free with education as one of his priorities just as Mugabe. Like Mugabe, who struggled to fix the economy, Bio is also contending with the same challenge after he inherited a very problematic economic mess from a very corrupt All People’s Congress government of crooks.

Join me again next week for the final part of this piece as I reflect on my visit to Zimbabwe, how Bio is faring, and what could he possibly learn and not learn from Mugabe.