In journalism, as in real life, the anticipated or the inevitable seldom make big headlines. But the unexpected, like someone once wrote, often does. So it was when I left Lagos on Tuesday, October 2, 2012, on a week tour of the South East, specifically Anambra and Imo States. My main objective was to interview former Nigeria’s Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, who was then preparing for his 80th birthday celebration; his younger brother and traditional ruler of Oko in Anambra State, His Royal Majesty, Professor Laz Ekwueme; Owelle Rochas Okorocha, Governor of Imo State, who was celebrating the 10th Anniversary of his education foundation and his 50th birthday; as well as Chief Benjamin Uwajumogu, then Speaker, Imo State House of Assembly, now a Senator.
I couldn’t have been luckier. I got all of them. They all spoke to me. I started with the Ekwuemes in Oko, then, dashed to Owerri. What I did not anticipate was the possibility of a chance meeting with Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai, then Prime Minister of Zimbabwe.
But it happened during the grand finale of the celebrations by Okorocha at Heroes Square on Monday, October 8, 2012. It happened right there on the VVIP Platform that was crowded by a dazzling array of prime movers of events in Nigeria. I had broken through the tight security ‘wall’ around the platform to interview former Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, Special Guest of Honour at the event, when my eyes caught Mr. Tsvangirai who died of colon cancer in South Africa, on Valentine Day (Wednesday, February 14, 2018) and was buried on Tuesday, February 20, 2018. He was 65.
Knowing we will always have President Babangida with us, and believing I could speak to him anytime he approves, I let him be for a season. I shifted my focus to the Zimbabwean leader. Thank God, I did. The gamble paid off. Little did I know that would be the first and only time I would speak to the man.
At first, Tsvangirai was a little hesitant, looking briefly at Ibrahim Shema, then Governor of Katsina State, as if soliciting his approval. The Governor smiled, then nodded, saying: “Your Excellency, feel at home. He is one of the best in our country.”
That did it. That comment made me feel as if I had just won a million-dollar jackpot. It buoyed my confidence as I engaged Tsvangirai on the leadership problem in Africa. Tsvangirai began to speak.
Today, I pay a special tribute to Tsvangirai, a true son of Africa, Robert Mugabe’s Tormentor-in-Chief, and an indefatigable promoter of democracy and good governance in Africa, with a re-run of that encounter at Owerri.
BELOW IS MY NARRATION OF THE ENCOUNTER AS PUBLISHED IN 2012
You do not need to have the artistic spirit and exceptional literary verve of Wole Soyinka, or Chinua Achebe or Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Naguib Mahfouz, to write a classic on Zimbabwe.
For the past decade or so, Zimbabwe’s policy, politics, economy, even social landscape have been filled with such incredible stories of human sufferings that do not require any incredible talent to script a bestseller.
With an economy that has been shrinking progressively since 2000, yielding hyperinflation, an unprecedented 80 per cent unemployment rate, decimation of its human resource hitherto touted to be the best in Africa with a literacy rate of 90 percent, and a political turmoil that has consistently diminished the quality of life, Zimbabwe has, for years, been grabbing international headlines with unsavoury stories.
However, a ray of hope appeared on the country’s political horizon with the strong showing of Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, president of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, and a long-time political adversary of sit-tight President Robert Mugabe of ZANU-PF, in the 2008 general election. But that hope fizzled away when the election stalemated with Tsvangirai scoring a marginal lead of 47.8 percent over Mugabe’s 43.2 percent.
Tsvangirai, 60, on March 10, 2012, withdrew from the second ballot amid widespread violence and fears that the re-run would not be free and fair.
The eldest of his parents’ nine children, and the son of a carpenter and bricklayer father, Tsvangirai is hugely popular at home. Internationally, he enjoys hefty recognition by the international community as a result of his political sagacity, unwavering commitment to the cause of democracy in Zimbabwe, and, perhaps, his multiple arrests and brutalization by the police. In order to help his country solve the political impasse induced by the disputed 2008 elections, he gambled his political goodwill by forming a coalition government with President Mugabe, emerging as Prime Minister.
As a journalist, I enjoy meeting and talking to leaders, local and international, with unblemished public service record, and who place the love of country over and above self. I have been watching Prime Minister Tsvangirai from afar with keen interest, but never in my wildest imagination did I think our paths could cross so soon like they did on Monday, October 8, 2012.
The encounter with Tsvangirai offers a good food for thought in a week that African leaders, for the third time in four years, failed the Mo Ibrahim Leadership test. As was the case in the 2009 and 2010 editions respectively, the selection panel of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation could not find a worthy leader on the continent to win its US$5 million prize money for good governance for 2012. Pity. Big pity.
Anyway, as they say, it is better late than never. That is why I serve the Morgan Tsvangirai interview today. Enjoy it. Bon appetite.
Is this your first visit to Nigeria?
No, it’s not my first visit; but it’s my first visit to this (Imo) state.
Have you moved round? What is your impression of Imo State?
I have a very positive assessment. From the air, it’s (Owerri) very great. Very green. It’s actually more organized if you compare it with Lagos. Maybe because of the relative population, but they are also a very friendly people.
You came all the way from Zimbabwe because of Governor Rochas Okorocha. What is the relationship between you and him?
The relationship between Rochas and I goes a long way. We met in London…
What year was this?
About three years ago (2009). And he said ‘I want you to come to my state.’ I said ‘where?’ He said ‘Imo State’. I said I don’t know any of the states in Nigeria. About the beginning of this year, he wanted me to come but I couldn’t fulfill that appointment. But he didn’t give up; he followed that with another invitation. This time, I had no excuse to make. He said the occasion (Rochas’ 50th birthday celebration and graduation of students of Rochas Education Foundation) was about children, and he talked about 6, 000 children already. And I said that is impossible. Now, I’m here. And I have actually been proven wrong. The extent of his support to children is unprecedented.
He’s been on this for the past 10 years, without using the instrument of politics or political office. Does it surprise you how he has been able to achieve all these?
What I have seen here is amazing. It’s wonderful. But there is one thing we need to appreciate here, and that is: some people make money for themselves while there are some people who plough back into community for humanitarian reasons. I don’t think they set up humanitarian support as any political intention, like some people may have people believe. I think it’s just natural for him to give to the underprivileged. I don’t think that brings politics into this. It’s a genuine humanitarian feeling and service. You know, it’s one thing to have power, it is another thing to serve the people, which is a distinctive mark of somebody who has patriotic commitment to his country.
Talking about Africa, Africa seems not to be moving as fast as most Africans expect, on the economic front. In terms of political development, it would appear that we take two steps forward and 10 backward. What is the way out of this unprofitable roulette?
It’s really worrisome. Embarrassingly so. Africa’s problem is not resources. It is a leadership challenge. We are blessed with abundant resources-fertile land, good climate, versatile human resource, etc. We are a rich continent but we are very poor, and remain very poor, as a result of criminal mismanagement of our God-given resources. Our people are very poor because of bad leadership. Fortunately, there are so many countries that are making advances which may see a rejuvenation of the African dream. And for those states that will be two steps ahead, I think, they will become the pioneering spirit for an African renaissance.
I have also heard people talk about leadership not necessarily being our problem but also the followership…
(Cuts in…) No, it’s not the followership…
Most of the time…
It’s because it takes time to build an accountable base. It takes time to build a base that demands responsibility from the leadership; that demands nothing but selfless service from the leaders. As a result of that, a lot of our politics is defined by the leaders, and not by the people. That is a serious weakness. But with time, and with more roots in democracy accountability, with more people getting educated, I am sure, we will get a much more developed democracy than we have experienced in the last 50 years.
Most Nigerians and, indeed, most Africans, admire and appreciate you for standing for quality and accountable leadership in your country, Zimbabwe. How optimistic should we, Africans, be for your country to get out of the woods?
I think my country is getting out of a very serious economic and social crisis it has been mired for some time now. And I am very positive that the future is bright. We have put in place a mechanism that will make the current progress irreversible. So, I can only say we have laid the foundation for a very positive democratic future and, hopefully, Zimbabweans will again have hope and confidence in themselves. Because they have lost all dignity, and that is unfortunate.
The hope of most people who see you on TV, who are familiar with your leadership qualities, who admire you, is that you should emerge president in next year’s (2013) elections in your country. How optimistic are you?
About the election?
I can only depend on what we lay down for an outcome. It is possible, and I think that we have done a lot to make sure that there is no violence. We have done a lot to make sure that there are no shenanigans about subverting the will of the people and to ensure that there is commitment to constitutional government and civilian authority. That way, following that direction, I think we will lay the foundation for the future. Good enough, those who are hoping for chaos are a minority. And we are sure they will not get it.
What are your priorities if you emerge president?
Our country is emerging from a very serious economic decline. So, naturally, economic rehabilitation will be a very key factor. But above all, we need to sort out our governance. We have so much injustice; so much impunity against the people. That should be a thing of the past. So, governance is going to be focusing on infrastructure rehabilitation. For the last 10 or so years, we have never invested or reinvested in our infrastructures, our roads and railways, energy, ICT, and so on. We have fallen behind. Yet, without effective infrastructure, there is no economic growth. You need an effective infrastructure because that becomes the enablers for economic growth. Of course, we are going to invest in our social sectors, education, health, agriculture, and food security. We used to be the food basket of the continent, but we lost ground. We must regain lost ground in agriculture, food production and infrastructure. They are key to our economic revival, as a nation.
On a lighter note, your country has also not been making impact in football…
I can tell you, I used to be a very great fan of my team but I am very disappointed in its performance.
Then, your country has one or two lessons to learn from Nigeria…
Nigeria has always been a great soccer nation. But I think the last World Cup (2011, in South Africa) was a big disappointment. We looked up to Nigeria to be the first African country to take the World Cup.
Have we disappointed, then?
You have not only disappointed yourself, you have also disappointed the continent.
Shola Oshunkeye is CEO of Omnimedia Nigeria Limited and Founder/Executive Director of Sustainable Development and Transparency Foundation