Death And The King’s Horsemanship – by Okey Ndibe
It’s good, I believe, that President Goodluck Jonathan and numerous Nigerian officials traveled to Ghana last week to attend the funeral of John Atta Mills, that country’s immediate past president. The death of any man of power always strikes me as an occasion for other powerful men (and women) of power as well as their would-be counterparts to contemplate the finiteness of their lives, and to come to terms with their ultimate feebleness in the grand scheme of things.
By media and eyewitness accounts, Ghanaians gave Mr. Mills a decent send-off. Reports in Ghanaian and foreign newspapers portrayed the solemn air of the man’s funeral. Ghana’s political class, including many prominent members of the opposition, offered a harvest of celebratory tributes. Numerous foreign dignitaries chimed in with statements that highlighted the deceased president’s quiet grace, intelligence and capacious pacifism.
For me, however, the most reliable measure of a leader’s stature must be taken, not from the predictable – and obligatory – plaudits that issue from the equally high and mighty. There’s often something inherently self-serving in the tone of sentiments that come from such exalted quarters. Few prominent politicians or public figures are willing to risk publicly professing their unflattering views of a peer brought low by death. To give vent to abusive (or plain frank) thoughts about a deceased leader is, for the politically or socially elevated, to court scandal and trigger a frenzy of repudiation and chastisement. It’s not in the nature of well-placed figures to speak with brutal directness about the foibles or flaws of their dead peers.
Luckily, the generality of the populace is not hampered by such strictures. Yes, there’s the ostensible convention that the living must refrain from unkind remarks about the dead. One wonders, however, if this so-called tradition is legitimate, or represents one of those myths that, left unchallenged, begin to resemble reality.
My own experience is that, on the death of any fellow whose conduct was widely viewed as unrelentingly sinister, people frequently intersperse emotions of awe with bold (even if whispered) references to the deceased’s record of infamy and contemptible life. My experience is that people hardly ever ascribe virtues to patently evil men and women.
My experience is that, when a so-called powerful politician passes on, the streets are apt to be infinitely more honest than those who haunt the rooms and corridors of power. So, last week, I rang a friend of mine who has lived in Accra for more than ten years. He testified to a marvelous, spontaneous outpouring of grief by the Ghanaian populace.
If Ghana were like North Korea, I would have suspected that my friend’s palpable portrait of bereavement was a choreographed performance, a feigned and overhyped display, a farce mandated by the state. As leaders go, Mr. Mills was far from a genius. But people hardly ever expect their leaders to rise to the stature of geniuses. It suffices that a leader be fueled by a vision of transformation, and lends himself, the best he can, to the realization of that vision. It is often enough that a leader tries his best, and is seen to do so. Mr. Mills failed to do many things as leader. Some critics assailed him for going to sleep as Ghana slipped into a kind of ethical doldrums, with the corruption index creeping up. Yet, he was hardly accused of pursuing self-enrichment through questionable means. Some within his own party found his style too uninspiring, and did not care for his reticent, self-effaced personality. He was a rare politician who seldom raised a voice to speak in anger, irrespective of the decibel of verbal abuse his opponents heaped on him.
I’d be curious to discern what lesson, if any, Nigeria’s President Jonathan and his delegation picked up from the funeral for Mills. As they viewed the inert remains of the former Ghanaian leader, did they reckon that this – that is death – is the destiny of us all humans, including the supposedly powerful? Did they have the eyes to behold the cloud of sorrow that had enveloped Ghana, the pulse of sorrow that had quickened the hearts of the Ghanaian people? Gazing at Mr. Mills’ stilled body, did they figure out that vanity is the sorriest, scariest bane of any human, but of leaders especially? Did it occur to them, finally, that they themselves – like the rest of us – will one day draw a last breath, and thenceforth be subject to the unscripted judgment of history?
The first draft of that judgment is always written in the hearts of fellow citizens, and our first intimation of its shape and content is glimpsed from the streets’ reaction to a powerful man’s death. Former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha spent several years in office engaged in depraved, primitive accumulation of riches. When he died – by many accounts, in the company of several young women, foreign and local, he was about to ravish – Nigerians exploded in a bolt of celebration. Anybody who today suggests that Mr. Abacha was anything but a knave would be arguing against the unambiguous verdict of history.
I always like contrasting Mr. Abacha with former Tanzanian leader Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. Unlike the Nigerian, Mr. Nyerere was an enlightened, visionary and articulate man. Deeply human, he made numerous mistakes as his country’s leader. Yet, for every mistake that Mr. Nyerere made, Mr. Abacha committed several crimes. Unlike General Abacha, whose central ethic was to gut and pauperize his country in order to fatten his own pocket (and his minions’), the Tanzanian’s missteps derived from policy and ideological choices that were well-meaning but – in hindsight – inhospitable.
After leaving office, Mr. Nyerere had to take out a loan from a bank to build himself a modest house in his village. Since he never stole from the people, he had no need to ensconce himself in a hilltop mansion, isolated from the reach of fellow villagers. No, he delighted in living among his people. Each morning, neighbors and other visitors would stream to his unfenced home to sit, drink, eat and converse with the man they affectionately called Mwalimu, Swahili for “Teacher.” When Mr. Nyerere died, with little in his bank account, Tanzanians did not take to the streets in orgies of jubilation, as Nigerians did when Mr. Abacha, our billionaire ex-dictator passed away.
Mr. Nyerere’s luck was to grasp an enduring truth, that a true leader is distinguished by the quality of his/her leadership, his/her impact on the lives of his people, not just the coterie of rogues that are called “stakeholders” in Abuja. When Mr. Nyerere heard that a tested leader should be invested in the L word, he knew that the letter stood for Legacy, not Loot. He knew that the quantity of a person’s loot, the size of ill-gotten wealth would not be reckoned with in the inevitable, final account. Today, no serious Tanzanian historian would suggest that Mr. Nyerere was less than a great leader.
The vast majority of those who pass themselves off as Nigerian leaders are puny crooks capable of prying open a baby’s hand to steal its bottled milk. Sold on the crappy creed that people are defined by the sum of their possessions, these men and women chase after lucre with such deranged zeal that they forget to ask the question: What, then? After looting all the funds they can get their hands on, buying all the expensive toys that there are – then what? Can money buy any magic to stay Death’s cold hand? And is there ever enough money to whitewash infamy, to deodorize a stinky legacy, or to bribe history?
Did the Nigerian delegation at President Mills’ funeral learn any chastening lessons? Or did they leave Accra as obsessed with indulging the desires of their vain minds as ever?
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Okey Ndibe was born in Yola, Nigeria, in 1960. After a career as a magazine editor in Nigeria, he moved to the US to be the founding editor of African Commentary, an award-winning magazine published by the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe. A visiting writer-in-residence and assistant professor of English at Connecticut College, Ndibe has contributed poems to An Anthology of New West African Poets, edited by the Gambian poet, Tijan Sallah.
He has also published essays in a number of North American, British and Nigerian magazines and writes a weekly column for the Guardian, Nigeria’s most respected daily newspaper. Arrows of Rain is his first novel. With it, he says: ‘I felt I was grappling with an important human drama that just happened to be set in Africa… I wrote it while I was out of Nigeria. It would have been a different book if I had written it while in the country more angry, less meditative.’