ast week, ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa travelled to Uganda to grace the inauguration ceremony of President Yoweri Museveni, who was sworn-in for his fifth term. It could have been a bitter sweet moment for MR, who like his host, dreamt of being the President for life and amended the constitution to that effect, but, alas, then lost the election to his former health minister. MR was among an illustrious gathering of African leaders, including Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, the last named is implicated by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Some Western envoys at the event reportedly walked out in protest after the host made disparaging comments about the ICC. If the Ugandan President- who unlike our local politicos has not forgotten his old friend in his bad times -- is just another tin-pot dictator, that would not make much news. After all, Africa has bulk produced such individuals over the decades. On the contrary, Museveni was earlier feted as a new African statesman and a pioneer of a new generation of smart African leaders, who had a vision and a drive to bring stability and relative prosperity to a region ravaged by kleptocratic despots, warlords and cross-dressing cannibals.
Under Museveni, who first came to power in 1986 ending a long running civil war and later elected to presidency in 1996, Uganda has recorded steady economic growth, investment has flown in (So did some Ugandan Indians who were early kicked out by Idi Amin) and the country has introduced free primary education. However, over the time, Museveni, like his Sri Lankan counterpart succumbed to the temptation of power, amended the Constitution to remove presidential term limits, and now rules the country for his fifth term. Vigour and drive that defined his earlier decades have now withered away and a gradual political decay has set in. However, this temptation for presidency for life is not exclusive to Messrs Rajapaksa and Museveni, a whole bunch of African leaders have either removed presidential term limits or are considering to do so. They include another African leader, Paul Kagame of Rwanda who envisions to turn his genocide-ravaged country into a Singapore and some other less salubrious and less competent individuals such as the presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo Josep Kabia. Another, the president of Burundi who ran and won a third term against public protests has brought the country to the brink of a civil war.
Our own ex-President holds both similarities and differences to those African strongmen who succumbed to the perpetuation of power. Like Museveni or Kagame, MR was a competent leader, who was called into serve the nation at some decisive juncture of the nation’s history. Also the different social political culture he came from, limited his room for manoeuvring even after he accumulated near absolute power and finally he lost the election.
We, in South Asia, especially in the Indian subcontinent, were saved from the prospect of Sani Abachas and Bokassas, or the other worst of human evils that ruled Africa. Instead, rather ironically, our independent leaders, or at least the most consequential of them, from Nehru and Gandhi to Bandaraniakes were sleepwalking idealists. The difference was in part due to the different legacy of the British colonialism in this part of the word, as much as different elitist dynamics in our countries. Our independent leaders were shaped by the very values of social justice, democracy, liberty and equality which were increasingly dominant ideas of the latter half of the British Raj; the British empire, by all account being the world’s first liberal empire, promoted those values. Our leaders went to Oxford and Cambridge universities or exposed to those ideals at local schools affiliated to British schools. Even socialism, they learnt, not directly from Stalin’s Soviet Union, but from Harold Laski’s London School of Economics. That moderating influence might have saved us from the mass murder that ravaged China to Cambodia in the name of social engineering. (Even then, we were rather unlucky; one Lumumba-dropout tried his luck in Sri Lanka, waged two insurrections and took hundreds of thousands of young men and women to the grave with him).
Our independent leaders were not despots (though Pakistan and Bangladesh were later ruled by military strongmen). Nor were they kleptocratic leaches of public money. In fact, late PM Sirimavo Bandaranaike gave away thousands of acres of family land under the Land Reforms Act passed by her own government. (You won’t expect that from the Nigerians). Dudley Senanayake, three-time Premier had only a couple of hundred rupees in his bank account by the time he died.
The problem was while our leaders were principled statesmen and women, they were abysmal failures of economic management. They believed their beliefs and policies were far superior to the West. They, among them Nehru stood out; had a penchant to sermon the foreign leaders of the virtues of non-alignment and anti-imperialism. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was called the ‘Silver tongue’ in Asia. , Nehru’s Defence Minister, V.K. Krishna Menon (also called Laski’s best student of all times) held the hitherto unbroken record for the longest speech of marathon eight hours, delivered at the United Nations. They were all good talkers, but they had real troubles feeding their own people.
Finally, we need to have less idealistic J.R. Jayawardene to salvage us from the economic perils that Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government primarily and all other post-independence leaders collectively responsible for creating through their lack of a practical economic vision.
Still we had a second problem: A terrorist war waged by a megalomaniac, which developed over the years to become an existential threat. Like the leaders of the early decades of independence, who lacked a pragmatic economic vision, the leaders of the recent decades lacked what it takes to end the war. The way to end terrorism, we learnt over the decades through our failed peace negotiations, was through war. That required political will to withstand international pressure and to accept unavoidable collateral damages, and also perhaps turning a blind eye to some deplorable counter terrorism measures, as long as they produced results. MR accepted the challenge and ended terrorism, though that might have caused a higher collateral damage, largely due to the ruthless nature of the enemy, we encountered. Like late President JR who unshackled economy held hostage by Statist dogmas, MR freed the nation long-held a prisoner by terrorism. If dispassionate Sri Lankans are to rank their leaders based on their performances, those two are the leaders whose policies have helped country achieve a greater good for all of its people.
But, having won the war, MR was consumed by power. Perhaps he might have been taken over by the successes of Museveni and et al. in perpetuating power. It did not go well for MR, he lost the election.
However, there is largely a consensus among 2.2 million people of this country that we as a nation are better off thanks his single most significant feat: ending terrorism.
Increasingly number of them will also agree that we are now better off without him -- and that he deserves a peaceful retirement. He (and the current government) should listen to them.
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