It was box office material; the oldest head of state, Africa’s youngest Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a Hollywood star. What a way for the World Economic Forum on Africa to kick off.
As a fellow human being, I hated watching President Robert Mugabe shuffle to the umpteenth world stage for his umpteenth appearance in his 94th year. It seemed to take an age for the ruler of Zimbabwe, for more than 37 years, to struggle to his seat; it looked painful.
In my mind was the President Mugabe, then 72, who bristled physically and verbally in a tough interview I held him to at State House, in Harare, in 1994, when Zimbabwe had a thriving economy. On that long sunny autumn day he had the clipped eloquence and mental agility of a university professor. Even as an open-minded new arrival, it was clear he was spinning his answers to questions about the economy and opposition, but at least he did it with polish and a dash of mischief.
“Who told you that?” he asked professorially whenever I caught him out.
For a moment forget the criticism surrounding Mugabe; here was an elder of Africa, who spent 10 years in prison, dropping off now and again, before a thin crowd at WEF Africa on an early panel on fragile states.
First question: did he consider troubled Zimbabwe a fragile state? Mugabe mentioned his country’s vast resources, 14 universities and a 90% literacy rate.
“Zimbabwe is one of the most highly developed countries in Africa… We are not a poor country, you can’t call us fragile, I can call America a fragile state,” says Mugabe to chuckles from the audience.
“And yet my people back home are crying!” says one of the hundreds of Zimbabweans working in Johannesburg’s petrol stations when we discussed the story a few days later.
Mugabe blamed rival political groups for conflict in his country and had sharp words for Islamic states.
“If you look into the Islamic world and talk about Isis and various other groups, it will appear the belief is the more violence you inflict on the population the greater the people will listen to you and join your side. That is a dangerous one and I do not know how it is still to be remedied.”
At the other end of the age spectrum was idealistic fellow panellist 35-year-old Victor Ochen, the youngest African nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The former cobbler and charcoal burner grew up amid war in Lira, in northern Uganda, a fiefdom of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. In FORBES AFRICA, in April 2015, the year he was nominated, Ochen told us how he wept and threw stones at soldiers as they tore up charcoal beds that he hoped were going to pay for his education. The shocked guerrillas let him live to speak truth to power at WEF Africa 2017.
“When young people complain it is called a protest; when leaders speak it is called an excuse,” he says.
“Every year, hundreds of Africans die in the Mediterranean Sea trying to escape Africa. Why do they leave, what is wrong? It is because of the lack of integrity of power.”
Sharing the stage was Hollywood star Forest Whitaker, a UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation, who played former Uganda President Idi Amin in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland. Unlike other Hollywood stars, he helps African children on the ground, rather than adopt them.
“The people of South Sudan are resilient, they want to stay in their country, they don’t want to leave but they are forced to leave their crops because of the conflict.”
Whitaker, born in Texas and bred in California, has been working quietly in the dust of warring South Sudan where 50,000 have been killed and more than half the people have no food. No one knows him there, he says, which helps in his work. This includes helping child soldiers lay down their weapons, giving them a sense of purpose, by teaching them how to deal with conflict instead of perpetuating it.
“The youth are now negotiating conflicts in their communities. They are dealing with everything from negotiating with the army to stolen cattle,” says Whitaker.
Many African leaders could do well to listen to the passionate voices of Ochen and Whitaker.