We all know that Zimbabwe’s old man, Robert Mugabe, now 90, and in power since 1980, has no stomach for the niceties of political diplomacy. To him, a spade is a spade and he calls it that. Not too long ago, he described a gay Zimbabwean as worse than an animal, and Western leaders who say his country is Nineteen Eighty Four because of his despotic rule are “scoundrels”.
Last week, exactly March 16, the Zimbabwean leader tongue-lashed Nigeria and its peoples. In an expansive mood at a birthday bash his military chiefs hosted for him, Mugabe lamented that his country men and women were becoming like Nigerians who must be “corruptly paid for everything”. He said, “Are we now like Nigeria where you have to reach your pocket to get anything done. You see, we used to go to Nigeria and every time we went there we had to carry extra cash in our pockets to corruptly pay for everything. You get into a plane in Nigeria and you sit there and the crew keeps dilly dulling without taking off as they wait for you to pay them to fly the plane.”
Firstly, we want to tell Mr. Mugabe that he didn’t say anything that has not already been said about Nigeria and its people. The phrase “Nigeria is the most corrupt nation in the world” has become so clichéd that it has lost its meaning. What is new though which Mugabe is reluctant to admit is that his own country has upstaged Nigeria on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. While Nigeria is ranked 163rd, Zimbabwe is 170th, third from the bottom. Mugabe is believed to have corruptly enriched himself while the masses of the country’s population languish in abject poverty. That is one of the reasons why he has hung onto to power for over three decades now – preferring to die in office to transferring power to another man, not even one from within his ZANU-PF party.
Nigerians know that their leaders are highly corrupt, stealing billions earned from the country’s only export commodity, oil, while the rest of the population is left impoverished. But they do not need the leader of a sister African country to rub that fact painfully in. Zimbabwe is not just a sister nation, but one that owes Nigeria a huge debt of respect. No country contributed to its victory over white settlers in its liberation struggle as did Nigeria. We trained the elite corps of its military and civil service and offered financial and diplomatic assistance, this in spite of the fact that Nigeria was not a Front Line state.
We want to put Mugabe’s uncharitable comments about Nigerians and their country down to senility and much more. There is a Nigeria complex that is uniquely Southern African. Black Zimbabweans, South Africans, Angolans and Namibians loathe being reminded that their liberation from white settler rule would have been delivered had Nigeria and Nigerians not thrown their financial, moral and diplomatic might behind the liberation movement in Southern Africa. We respect that sensibility; that is why Nigeria and its leaders do not make much song of our contribution to the liberation struggles in those countries. But it has to be a two-way thing: we respect you, you respect us too.