Making Sense of Mubarak’s Mega-trial: Will Africa Learn Anything From It?

Everyone knew that those who had upheld his dictatorship were in military barracks somewhere nearby, miraculously transformed from being Mr. Mubarak’s foot soldiers to being the new guardians of the revolution without going through the very cage in which the accused now stood. Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been playing the long game of survival from the moment it promised this trial—BBC African Viewpoint Column by Farai Sevenzo.

By PaanLuel Wel, Washington DC, USA

August 12, 2011 (SSNA) — Like most folks across Africa who have been unbelievingly witnessing the tumultuousness of the historic Arab’s Spring revolution, I was lately riveted on to my television set trying to make sense of what I was seeing: the sight of the not-so-long-ago modern pharaoh of Egypt, in a cage like captured bird, answering to charges stemming from his conduct of, and response to, the Tahrir Square uprising.

Hosni Mubarak, the 83 years old ailing former president of Egypt, who reigned for over 30 years, is accused of masterminding the killing of protestors, amassing wealth illegally and abusing state powers. Each of the charges carries a prison term of at least 15 years behind bars or worse the death penalty itself.

Even after his unexpectedly swift ousting in the spring, few people, if any, really expected the Egyptian ruling generals (lead by his former defense minister and a long time colleague in the army where Mr. Mubarak was an Egyptian war-decorated hero, having been one of the most distinguished air-force pilots during the Israeli-Egyptian wars) to actually go ahead with the trial of Mr. Mubarak as had been demanded by, and promised to, the demonstrators, many of whom lost close relatives and friends during the protest.

Conventional wisdom had informed most African observers that Mr. Mubarak, having opted to settle in his own home country unlike President Ben Ali of Tunisia who fled to Saudi Arabia, would spend the rest of his few remaining years in peace at the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh resort. But as it turned out, nothing has been business as usual in that part of the world since the day a young Tunisian man, out of political and economic frustrations, fatally set himself alight—a fire that is yet to be smothered out in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

And there I was, watching the latest surprising twist of events from the hurricane of Arab Spring upheaval. What does Mr. Mubarak mega-trial mean to Africa, especially to the question and direction of governing the continent which has been an exercise in utter failure from the word get-go? What political lessons, surely there must be some, will African leaders and their political constituents learn from President Mubarak crashing political demise and embarrassing trial?

But most fundamentally, is Mr. Mubarak a grand symbol of the generic problem that has been persistently plaguing and dragging Africa down the path of economic destitute, political immaturity and sci-technological dwarfness? Or is his case an isolated incidence—an outlier—of bad leadership and grand corruption that has nothing to do with the wider problem bedeviling the Africa continent?

Two distinct interpretative views have emerged on the street from the trial of Mr. Hosni Mubarak. One view being advocated by the human rights activists, particular among the younger generation, is that the trial is a long overdue “shock-treatment for sick Africa” especially among leaders who cling to power perpetually. According to Maina Kiai, a long time human activist in Kenya, “the truth is that any leader who commits crimes and abuses is loath to leave office, knowing that they could be held to account. So the best and easiest way to avoid this is to not commit crimes and abuses!”

The lesson is that African leaders who have been in the same league with Mubarak or might be thinking of outshining him, both in the length of time in power and political brutality, must think twice and evaluate their policies if they want to avoid going down the same path that Mr. Mubarak went. Prevention, in other words, is better than cure. Avoid corruption, tribalism, mismanagement, political oppressions and allow democracy and the rule of law to prevail and flourish if you wish to be on the safe side of history.

According to this school of thought, what we are observing, therefore, is not a sweet revenge but a natural course of plain justice. Political leaders must always, in the discharge of their constitutional mandate, bear in mind that there will definitely be a time when they would be call upon to account for their deeds. In the opinions of the human right activists such as Maina Kiai, Mr. Mubarak trial is a needed wakeup call for the African leaders and their political sycophants who have long been entertaining the wrong thought that they are somehow immune from public persecution or ineligible for the house of correction.

But for the ruling elites and their authoritative godfathers, however, the trial is a preview of and the tip of the iceberg for their nightmarish days to come. Consequently, none of the current leaders in both the North and Sub-Saharan Africa have so far hailed the persecution of Mr. Mubarak as heralding the death of despotism and authoritarianism. On the contrary, some leaders like the former president of Nigeria, Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo, have actually come out decrying Mubarak’s debut in court, terming it as a big embarrassment. To the retired Nigerian leader, that Mr. Mubarak is being charged with murder and corruption is not as paramount and urgent as much as the dignity of the accused.

The thinking being championed by the African leaders represented by Mr. Obasanjo is that the trial is a counterproductive move that would undermine, and perhaps forestall, the Arab Spring itself. The argument, according to Mr. Obasanjo, goes like this: “the humiliation Mr. Mubarak was going through would make many leaders facing similar circumstances think twice about leaving office peacefully; it also makes the work of negotiating for such leaders’ peaceful exit from power difficult.”

In other words, instead of the leaders in such beleaguered countries as Libya, Malawi, Yemen or Syria to leave power peacefully and quickly, they would rather cling on to power calculating that that would save them from undergoing Mr. Mubarak humiliating departure and subsequent trial. If that sound like a political blackmail from our leaders who would rather be held accountable for their deeds, then it is. Indeed, it is one thing to ask for political amnesty in such time as it might be warrantable; but it is an insult to force that political amnesty down people’s throat: give me amnesty for my past and present sins or else we all go down the drain or they seem to be demanding.

It is evidently clear though from the two mains views expressed above regarding the appropriate kind of lessons to be learned from Mr. Mubarak trial: none of them seem to dispute the possible culpability of Mr. Mubarak. It is rather in the repercussions and the political lessons to be drawn from the drama where they disagree. For the record, Mr. Obasanjo is not insinuating that Mr. Mubarak is a mere innocence man to be arraigned in court. Somewhat, he perceives the trial as more of a sweet revenge meant to humiliate the old sick man than a genuine quest for justice.

As if reading from Mr. Obasanjo script, President Assad of Syria, Ghadafi of Libya, Mutharika of Malwai, Bashir of Sudan, Museveni of Uganda and the hospitalized leader of Yemen, have all intensified their brutal crackdowns on the peaceful protesters in the hope of evading going the Mubarak way. In their dealing with the demonstrators, these leaders have wholeheartedly embraced the Bahrain’s Model whereby that kingdom successfully crashed the revolt—with the backing of the Saudi might, of course.

The human right activists’ views and the incumbent leadership’s opinions aside, how about if Mr. Mubarak mega-trial is an indictment of both the African leadership as well as the African society itself? What if Mr. Mubarak is the embodiment of Africa as a continent and his predicament is the manifestation of what is wrong with Africa? Granted that Mr. Mubarak might be, or is, guilty of the charges brought against him, and thus, he is evil or what have you; granted that Mr. Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mr. Ghadafi of Libya, Mr. Museveni of Uganda, and Mr. Mutharika of Malawi, etc. epitomizes bad leadership and economic backwardness in Africa:

The question, which is very relevant to Mr. Mubarak case, still remain: are these leaders appalling as they are because of who they are as individual head of states, or because of the bad entrenched political system they inherited, or because of the kind of society they hailed from? Put it this way, would Egypt, and Egyptians for that matter, have been better off politically, socially, economically, technologically etc were there not have been someone called/born Mr. Hosni Mubarak? Would the economic and political situation have been totally or a little bit different and better had someone else succeeded Anwar Sadat in Egypt instead of Mr. Mubarak? Would Africa, as a whole, have been better off had the current leadership been different or would the situation have remained more or less the same?

I presume we would all concur that the pathetic situation on the Africa continent would have remained the same had different leadership been in power than the past and current ones. Nothing illustrates this point more than the case of President Yuweri Museveni of Uganda. Oblivious of the fact that he would one day be a president himself, Mr. Museveni of Uganda wrote a book before he came into power in which he bemoaned the endemic problems that were and still are impoverishing the African continent. His diagnosis was that the problems are bad governance and poor political leadership in which leaders cling on to power for life. Since 1986 when he assumed power, Mr. Museveni has been in power for straight 26 years and still counting. His book you ask? Either it is banned in Uganda or is gathering dust somewhere.

Many Pan-Africanists have been going berserk putting all the blames of Africa troubles squarely at the door of what they called bad leadership and poor governance as the plausible explanation for Africa backwardness and destitutism. Yet, how do one go about explaining the fact that President Museveni, the author of a book condemning the culture of president-for-life, is today the symbol of the very devil he disparaged yesteryears? Is it simply the typical case of preaching water and drinking wine?

One way to bypass the rhetoric of bad leadership is to go to the fundamental source of the African predicament: the African society that begets those bad leaders. There is no doubt that there is a big problem of bad leadership in Africa. But when every leader in Africa who started out by promising heaven invariably tend to end up delivering nothing but hell on earth, we better reassess our analysis and inquire the basic problem underlying their wickedness.

The problem lies within the kind of society that brought them up. This is why it would not have matter if different leadership had been or were to replace the current ones: they are all bird of the same feathers with their origin from the same decadence society that produce nothing more than bad leadership. Unless and until there are profound changes to the primary system—the society—there would never be shortages of Mubarak’s, Museveni’s, Khadafi’s and all the rest of their brethrens and sisters in crimes. That fundamental change must come from within the society, not from the leadership. You cannot expect salvation from the devil unless you mistake it for a God.

Of course, it would be tempting to blame the depravity of African society on the leadership but that would only take us to the repetitious circle of the egg and the hen: which one came first. If the argument is that bad leadership has corrupted the African society to the extent that it is now producing only rogue leaders, then the question is, from where did those scoundrels come first? Society is the spring from which leadership emerge. It is not the case that Americans have a great leader in President Obama; on the contrary, a great American society produces a great leader in Obama and not vice versa. It is reasonable to imagine that Obama would surely have been another Mubarak facing charges in a cage were he to have been a leader in one of the African countries.

Although the human right activists or the African leadership represented by Mr. Obasanjo have the right to make their opinions known on Mubarak trials, both of them seem to be missing the main point since they are only focusing on the symptoms rather than the illness. The persecution of Mr. Mubarak, though warranted, is meaningless and unhistorical since he embodies the only known kind of leadership that African society can produce.

He could not have been anything else more than what he has been because he was destined by societal forces and influences that gave him no any other alternatives. The same forces and influences would have still produced the same kind of leader in Egypt had Mubarak been born in the USA. Because of our broken society, a Mubarak born in the USA would automatically have been the present Obama of the USA. Similarly, an Obama born in Egypt or Sudan or Nigeria would undoubtedly have been the present day Mubarak of Egypt, awaiting execution.

The gist of the argument is that no amount of persecution would suffice to persecute all the bad leaders that our society is ready and willing to supply if indeed you agree with my argument above. Otherwise, political trials and persecutions would become our full time job since there will always be a ready supply of Mubarak and his counterparts. We would be persecuting eternally unless we reexamine ourselves and dig deeper for the source of the problem to stifle the flow of bad leadership. We might never have a shortage of Mubaraks!!

As for the old ailing man and his trial, whether or not he is convicted of the alleged crimes is not as much important and symbolic to the heroes and heroines of the Egyptians Spring revolution as the pitiful spectacle of him facing trial in a caged dock in front of international cameras. Who would have ever dream of witnessing such a scene!

You can reach PaanLuel Wël at [email protected] (email address), PaanLuel Wel (Facebookpage), PaanLuelWel2011 (Twitter account) or through his blog account at:

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