An Open Letter to Nelson Mandela: African Leaders Should Celebrate Your Birthday by Doing the Right Thing

Happy Birthday, President Nelson Mandela. The people of Africa and from all over the world are greatly honored to celebrate your 94th birthday and to wish you good health and strength. You have been an amazing person and you continue to inspire many of us to try to do better for mankind.

Although I send this message to you, I really intend it to be a message to our leaders in Africa. As we all celebrate your birthday with joy, I think it is an opportune time to remind ourselves as to why you are such a great statesman. On your birthday, I take the opportunity to remind fellow African statesmen of a few aspects of your character worth emulating to advance the course of development and peace in the continent in major ways.

One of the reasons I most admire you is because of your capacity to forgive. For nearly three decades, you were held prisoner, often in solitary confinement, due to your uncompromising stance and belief in the inherent rights of all human beings. You were humiliated and separated from your family for agitating for the rights of all South Africans, however, not long after your release, you became South Africa’s president. You never looked back to the many years of suffering and you did not seek to punish your tormentors. Instead, you called for forgiveness and for all South Africans to work together and build their nation, never singling out any specific group. Your firm stand for a united population created favorable conditions for building a united South Africa.

Unfortunately, many of our leaders have not emulated this quality. They continue to seek revenge against their fellow countrymen. The older generation compels the younger to seek vengeance against injustices inflicted upon them in the past. Members of some ethnic groups continue to engage in prolonged conflicts because leaders of these groups are not willing to forgive. Rather than seek ways to unite people from different races, clans, tribes and religious groupings, leaders preach the gospel of divide and rule. The result has been continued discrimination and marginalization of some parts of the population. I hope that we can use your birthday to reflect on the power of forgiveness in forging inter-ethnic and inter-regional differences. If only we can borrow this one thing from you—the spirit of forgiveness—, then Africa could make major advances to achieving harmony and development. I use your birthday to ask our leaders to focus more on the power of forgiveness and compromise, for this is the right thing to do.

Another aspect of your life that I admire is your refusal to seek a second term as president despite being poised for a landslide victory. Despite having the constitutional right, you opted out to let younger leaders take charge who you believed would be better suited to lead the country at that time. Even after all your struggles, it was not power that you wanted, but the ultimate goal of securing freedom for South Africans.

Sadly, sir, quite a number of African leaders continue to hold the presidency for decades. They manipulate the constitution and use other undemocratic strategies to extend their time in power. It is these types of leaders that continue to undermine development prospects in the continent. To remain in power, they engage in gross violation of rights. Some of these leaders will no doubt be sending you good wishes and admiration on your birthday– gestures that are hypocritical and undermined by their own actions. They should honor your works by relinquishing power now. This is the right thing to do.

Finally, I have great admiration for you because you never used your political power and clout to enrich yourself at the expense of common South Africans. The trend in Africa has been the opposite—leaders have more often than not used the state to enrich themselves—literally transferring huge amounts of public resources to their personal bank accounts. Even in the most improvised countries, leaders have hidden millions of dollars. 

So on your birthday, these corrupt leaders should celebrate your birthday by returning the resources to the rightful owners —the malnourished children and mothers who are not able to access healthcare or basic needs.This is the right thing to do.

Happy Birthday President Mandela. Hopefully our leaders will honor you by doing the right thing.