In two days, the 74th United Nations General Assembly will open in New York.
One week later, on September 24, the general debate, the ritual at which the heads of state and government empty into that city to say what they please about whatever they please, will commence.
The fifth speaker on that first day, taking the microphone right after the likes of Brazil and the United States which customarily open the event, will be Nigeria.
Muhammadu Buhari will also be addressing the assembly for the fifth time wearing his new garb of a “reformed democrat,” and the first in his contested second term. It will be interesting to see if he demonstrates a democracy of performance and accountability, as he normally speaks only the language of promises.
His speeches have also lacked the heights of eloquence and magnificence of the frontline speakers, such people as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who died 10 days ago.
Mugabe was your quintessential orator, particularly at the General Assembly. For most of two decades, I circled his performance on my calendar to ensure I did not miss it.
I call it “performance,” deliberately. Even as an octogenarian, he always arrived fully prepared. Refusing to look anything like his age, he always arrived with his hair dyed teenage-black, his suits sharp, and his wits even sharper.
Most speakers at these events little know what they are talking about. Their speeches are the work of layers and series of officials and consultants trying to make him sound good and intelligent and maybe, even empathetic to their own people.
Not Mugabe, who needed absolutely no help to define or express himself, and often spoke without reference to his prepared text, mustering a controlled, provocative mastery of language, occasion and substance.
You did not have to agree with him at all; that is not the point. He simply was a delight to listen to, and each year, he made his case with such cadence and delivery he was irresistible.
In 1980, Mugabe had taken the reins of the new nation of Zimbabwe, having led the fight to end minority rule in what was then Rhodesia. He would keep the job for 37 years, ruling with an iron hand and guided by his own arrogance. Only God, he swore, could separate him from his throne.
In the end, it was not God who intervened, but the man nearest to his right shoulder: Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s current leader who had been his vice-president and closest ally. Two years ago, after he supported a military-led effort to bump Mugabe from power, Mnangagwa took his place.
Last Wednesday, Mnangagwa was at the airport in Harare to receive Mugabe at the end of his final flight. The ironies could not have been more obvious: nobody lined the streets, and the crowd at the airport were in the hundreds, a world away from the 100,000 in 1980 when he had returned from exile, just months before he was then elected president.
As it turned out, everything was downhill from then on. Mugabe was a fine orator, but he was widely accused of muzzling political dissent and violating human rights. And he mismanaged the economy into obsolescence, Zimbabwe under his tenure ravaged by unemployment, shortages, hyperinflation and corruption.
Much of the country’s economic decline is traced to the early 2000s, when Mugabe began to seize farms which belonged to whites. Perhaps originally motivated by the best of intentions, it spiraled into a corrosive witch-hunt that was bad for the farmers but even worse for Zimbabwe. The agricultural sector collapsed completely; under Olusegun Obasanjo, some of the affected farmers ended up in Nigeria under an initiative he hoped would boost the sector.
Zimbabwe deteriorated. Mugabe made his speeches and sprayed his witticisms. By last week, when he returned from exile a dead man with few to cheer him back into his beloved Harare, the economic shortages were no better: people were queuing for fuel and in places, for well water.
And yes, Mugabe—like many a fine African leader—had not sought treatment in Africa, and therefore found death abroad in Singapore. As is normally the case in Africa, there was no hospital of the highest quality that he built at any point in 37 years that was worthy of him.
As last week ended, speculation was rising again about whom Mugabe had really been: “the poorest president the world over,” as his wife Grace Mugabe once described him, or the man portrayed by Wikileaks in a United States cable in 2011, a fabulously wealthy one.
In a cable, the US Embassy in Harare had declared that while the full extent of Mugabe’s assets at that time were unknown, they were rumored to exceed $1 billion in value, and included “everything from secret accounts in Switzerland, the Channel Islands, and the Bahamas to castles in Scotland.”
The family also owned a property in Hong Kong valued at over $5 million. Following his resignation in November 2017, The Guardian (UK) noted that Mugabe’s wife, known in Zimbabwe as the “First Shopper,” was said to have bought several properties in Sandton, an affluent Johannesburg suburb, with further reports of property purchases in Malaysia, Singapore and possibly Dubai.
In Zimbabwe itself, the Mugabes were reported to own several farms and six residences, “including a multi-story mansion.” That monument to opulence was known as The Blue Roof, with one authoritative account describing it as featuring “25 bedrooms, a large outdoor pool, two lakes, a massive dining room that can seat more than 30 guests, a large master bedroom with super king-size bed and a multimillion-dollar radar system.” Price tag: over $9m.
And as usual, all of that was being owned and cornered while Zimbabwe descended into economic hell and its currency collapsed. The irony is that Mugabe had Zimbabweans weeping for joy at two historic moments: in 1980 at his coming, and last week at his departure from earth.
Mugabe’s voice will not be heard at the UN next week; just as it had not been for a few years. But many African leaders, completely insensitive to the wilting economies of their people, will be there. Propped up by large delegations, they will arrive for an invariably hypocritical speech of 15 minutes, for which that country will burn hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In this regard, the UN is far more form than function, and the poorer countries are the biggest losers.
I propose two changes. First: no more written speeches at the general debate. True leaders should have no difficulty speaking about their nations or their world.
Second: let African nations change their laws so that at their inauguration, leaders declare their family assets. When they leave office, those—and any undeclared assets discovered to belong to them anywhere on earth–should be forfeited to the state which, in return, would give them two homes: one each in their village and their state capital, as well as an emolument and other suitable provisions for security, travel and medical care for life.
Because to paraphrase a famous man, if Africa does not kill corruption, corruption will kill Africa. If Africa does nourish selfless service, self-service will kill Africa.