Mbeki, Obasanjo play key roles in African renaissance

SERIOUS VOTE: A man cast hi vote in Katsina, Nigeria, at the weekend. Should the elections be 'free and fair', they would mark the first civilian demicratic handover in country. Pic. George Osodi. 21/04/2007. © AP.
SERIOUS VOTE: A man cast hi vote in Katsina, Nigeria, at the weekend. Should the elections be 'free and fair', they would mark the first civilian demicratic handover in country. Pic. George Osodi. 21/04/2007. © AP.

This is a pivotal time for Africa.

This is a pivotal time for Africa.

Our continent, for years associated with hunger, poverty, wars and a whole host of other negatives, stands on the cusp of beginning to prove that it is everything people never thought it would be. But the road to success is paved with massive stones and thorns - and Africans will have to be extra careful that they do not miss the window of opportunity before them.

This past weekend saw Africa's most populous country, Nigeria, go to the polls. It was no ordinary election, this. It marks the first time since Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960 that power is transferred from a civilian leader to another civilian leader.

The country has never had continuous civil-led democracy in 47 years of independence!

Instead, what it has had are some of the most violent and heartless military dictators yet seen on the continent. One Nigerian friend told me that in Nigeria, the saying "better to be misruled by one of my own than to be ruled well by a coloniser" came truly alive.

But things have changed in Nigeria over the past eight years. With the demise, welcomed universally, of the dictator Sani Abachi, came the democratic rule of Olusegun Obasanjo.

A single visit to Nigeria will show anyone what a tough task he had on his hands. The country has immense wealth and yet has been run into the ground by successive despots who did nothing but steal the country blind.

To this day, for example, investigators are still scouring the world trying to find millions of dollars stolen by Abacha and his henchmen and stashed away in secret bank accounts. The rest of the country has been denuded as much as the country's purse: the roads are falling apart, every rich person has a guard, the electricity network is virtually non-existent and water and sewerage supply in many cities does not work.

The roads are so clogged, and adherence to the rules of the road so lax, that it once took me four hours to drive from the airport to the city centre. The distance is about the same as that from OR Tambo International to the Joburg city centre.

Yet the truth is that things are changing in Nigeria. The advent of democracy has seen the return of free enterprise, the growth of attempts to fight the endemic corruption at all levels of that society and the return of Nigeria to being a force for good on the continent.

Obasanjo and our own president, Thabo Mbeki, have done some sterling work in getting the so-called developed nations to scrap the debt that has held Africa back for decades. The two have also mediated in various hot spots around the continent that have seen democracy - and with it prosperity - return to places where all that existed before their arrival was despair, hunger and war.

If there is anything that these two men will be remembered for, it is their sterling efforts to entrench a true and lasting African renaissance. If there is anything they should be remembered for, it is their belief in us as a continent and the good we can do.

We owe them a huge debt for what they have achieved and what they continue to strive for in this regard. The past 10 years have seen Africa raise its head once again in pride because they have truly tried to show us that this continent is capable of solving many of its problems.

But all those achievements could be reversed if the people of Nigeria fail to get this past weekend's elections declared free and fair. All these achievements could be as nothing if the country does not get a democratically-elected president and, instead, return to the shambles of military rule.

We know that there has been widespread violence and, in one extraordinary incident, the headquarters of the independent electoral commission was targeted by terrorists with explosives.

By Friday, a total of 26 policemen had been killed in just one week in election-linked violence. After casting his vote on Saturday, Obasanjo said: "It does not reflect well on us as a nation that this has happened."

What is the next step? For now, we can only hope that the vote-counting process goes smoothly and that independent observers find the election to have been substantially free and fair. We must remember that, after all, ordinary Nigerians voted in their millions, expressing hope that the democratic system would deliver real fruits.

Nigeria is a country of 140million people. It is important that the positive hopes and aspirations of all these people be fulfilled. If the election was substantially free and fair, let it be declared so. If it was not, then it must not be declared so merely because Nigeria is important.

Whatever happens, though, I will be praying that we have a free and fair election declared. I will be praying that Nigerians have chosen a leader who will continue the exemplary work started by Obasanjo. I will be praying that their country remains peaceful.

At this stage we have to wait and hope to hear from the Nigerians themselves. Let us pray for them and for our continent.