A vigil guard at his post as Singapore's late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew lies in state at Parliament House in Singapore on March 28, 2015. PHOTO | ADEK BERRY | AFP
By OTIENO OTIENO
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father who breathed his last on Monday, was brutally honest in his assessment of the prospects of the newly independent African nations.
From his experience interacting and observing the behaviour of our own founding fathers at international meetings and state visits, the man lionised for transforming Singapore into a wealthy modern state came out with some choice descriptions of selected leaders and events on the continent in his autobiography, From Third World to First, that point to Africa’s original sin.
On the culture of coups in the 1960s: I was not optimistic about Africa. In less than 10 years after independence in 1957, Nigeria had had a coup and Ghana a failed coup. I thought their tribal loyalties were stronger than their sense of common nationhood.
On Chief Festus, Nigeria’s finance minister, in 1966: The night before the meeting, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Belewa gave us a banquet in the hotel. Raja and I were seated opposite a hefty Nigerian, Chief Festus, their finance minister.
The conversation is still fresh in my mind. He was going to retire soon, he said. He had done enough for his country and now had to look after his business, a shoe factory.
As finance minister, he had imposed a tax on imported shoes so that Nigeria could make shoes … I went to bed that night convinced that they were a different people playing to a different set of rules.
On Krobo Edusei, Ghana’s minister for presidential affairs, in 1966: On our arrival at Accra, the person who came up to the aircraft to greet me was Krobo Edusei, the minister for presidential affairs.
He had gained notoriety as a corrupt minister who had bought himself a golden bedstead, a story much publicised in the world press …
On my second night in Accra, he took me to a nightclub in Accra. He proudly announced that he was the owner and that all VIPs would enjoy their evenings there.
On Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s founding father: He was quite a character, with his sunglasses even indoors and at night, and his buxom young African lady companion. He looked old but spoke with vigour, waving his fly whisk to emphasise his points. (1971 Commonwealth meeting in Singapore)
On Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding father: Prime Minister Kenneth Kaunda’s major preoccupation was politics, black versus white politics, not the economics of growth for Zambia. He remained as president until the 1990s when, to his credit, he conducted a fair election and lost.
On lavish lifestyles displayed by Third World leaders at Commonwealth meetings: All leaders were equal at the conference table, but those from heavyweight countries showed that they were more equal by arriving in big private jets, the British in their VC 10s and Comets, and the Canadians in Boeings … Those African presidents whose countries were then better off, like Kenya and Nigeria, also had special aircraft.
I wondered why they did not set out to impress the world that they were poor and in dire need of assistance.
Otieno Otieno is chief sub-editor, Business Daily. firstname.lastname@example.org. @otienootieno