African politics: Slowly, winds of change

The world is now supposed to be a global village, a term which perhaps means that just as in a village we get to know what’s happening to our neighbours through the grapevine, similarly with the modern communications platforms we are kept informed about events in the rest of the world, in countries that we may never have heard about or had no reason to be interested in.

Another aspect of this globalization, and this one is more real, is that developing situations elsewhere have the potential to impact our own countries in the short term and with long term consequences. In recent times, there have been several examples of this, starting with the mega financial crisis of 2008 and coming up with the latest two upheavals: Brexit or the exit of Britain from the European Union after a referendum there, won by a thin margin but which nevertheless saw the Prime Minister under whose watch this happened, David Cameron, stepping down not only from office but resigning from Parliament altogether.

The other one is the election of Donald Trump as President-elect of the United States of America – but the latest I have read is that there is some move to prevent him from assuming office from lobbying at the level of the Electoral College. This is going to be a major-major shake-up if ever this move is successful.

Geographically we form part of the African continent and depending upon our profession or career, we may become interested or involved with African countries either fortuitously or by design. On the other hand, at national level regional cooperation has been growing since the time of our Independence, and again according to our individual situation we may be participants in some way. This happened to me when I was a junior doctor at SSRN hospital in the early 1970s, when there was a meeting of the Organisation of African Union if my memory serves me right.

Concurrently, a medical conference was held by the Francophone African states, and the theme of the conference was designated by a term that was totally unfamiliar to us, since it was in French: the high- and bizarre-sounding drepanocytose. It took us some searching to learn that it meant sickle-cell anaemia, a condition which is common in Sub-Saharan Africa but rare in Mauritius. As usual a circular had been sent around to the hospitals requesting participation by doctors. Hardly anyone of us was interested, even those who had trained in France.

And then late one morning, Minister of Health Harold Walter descended upon us. This was my first encounter with him. What else but politics can a minister play with? He exhorted us, in his booming voice and in Her Majesty’s English, to massively take part in the conference because, he said, it was being sponsored by the French authorities and France was going to give (?) two Alouette helicopters to Mauritius.

What the hell this had got to do with us doctors attending the conference we did not know, being too naïve to understand these big game machinations. But there you are, a number of us went to the fancy-fair which was held at what was for us the other end of the world: Le Morne Hotel. Not because we were particularly enamoured by the topic to be discussed but because there was going to be only a skeleton staff left to manage the hospital for the duration of the conference, and everybody tried to avoid being the sacrificial lamb.

Incidentally, it was at that conference that I first met the pioneer of Plastic Surgery and founder of the Burns Unit in Mauritius, Dr F Ghadially with whom I was later to develop a close professional relationship.

And so, to continue the story, my next connect with Africa was a visit to Namibia, Botswana and Zambia in 1992 as a Commonwealth Fellow. Then came South Africa shortly afterwards for personal reasons, and the big leap, if I may put it this way, was when I was WHO representative in 1999-2000. What makes me bring this up is an article about Gambia that I read a few days ago in The Economist, and it brought back memories of the first of five interviews that I and my two other colleague nominees had to undergo in Harare, the then temporary Regional Headquarters for the WHO.

My interviewer was the impressive Dr Ebrahim Samba, who was the Regional Director for WHO-Africa, RD AFRO as the title was shortened to. We had a déclic as he also happened to be a Fellow of the Royal Surgeons of Edinburgh, and at the end of nearly twenty-five minutes, he leaned across the big table from his high RD’s chair and put out his hands, saying simply, ‘I’ll be seeing you!’

Dr Samba was from Gambia, a country I did not know anything about at that time. But he told me how he had had to deal with an epidemic of yellow fever that decimated nearly 50% of the country’s population some time after he had returned there as a surgical specialist, and that was a starting point for me to follow what was taking place in that part of the continent. As also Mauritania, where my next interviewer Dr Hacen Mohamed, Programme Director, was from. We struck a close personal friendship and, according to our colleagues, we looked like brothers. In our hearts we did feel like that, and I have memories of pleasant dinner time moments spent at his house during my attendance at WHO meetings in Harare.

General elections were held in Gambia, a country with a population of 1.9 million people, earlier this month, and the reigning President Yahya Jammeh lost to his rival Adama Barrow, a relative upstart who was cast against a formidable foe. But he won hands-down, 45.5% to Mr Jammeh’s 36.7%. And the unexpected happened: Mr Jammeh accepted the result and stepped down, rather quietly.

With the rioting and violence that took place in Cote d’Ivoire after results of general elections were not accepted by the incumbent some years ago, and strongmen in other African countries (Burundi, Congo) trying to change the Constitution to remain in power, the decision of Mr Jammeh gave some hope that winds of change for the better were blowing in Africa, albeit slowly.

The two other examples that had kindled hope earlier were that of the legendary Nelson Mandela, who called it a day after only one mandate as President of the Republic of South Africa, and that of President Masire of Botswana who went away quietly after being eighteen years in office. He too left with a positive legacy for his country behind him, and at personal level also there were no lingering matters to tarnish his image.

The hope from Gambia, however, seems to have been shortlived. Latest reports coming in reveal that Mr Jammeh has decided to contest the election results, claiming they are false. He is keen to stay on instead of stepping down, and some African leaders as well as the UN are planning on meeting him and persuade him to accept the result and step down and leave the place for Adama Barrow. At this stage the outcome is still uncertain, and there are fears that if Jammeh refuses to comply, violence may ensue: Jammeh has ruled as a dictator during his long reign.

On the other hand, in the same issue of The Economist, under ‘Books and arts’, a review of ‘The Egyptians: A Radical Story’ ends on a note of ‘surprising hope for the future, thanks to a young generation that says “it is no longer prepared to put up with the old crap”. ’

Any lesson or hope for Mauritius from that side at least? Just wondering…

RN Gopee

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