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Prof. Kais Saied, the new president of Tunisia

By Donu Kogbara

IN July, President Beji Caid Essebsi of Tunisia died in office, triggering off an election that attracted 25 candidates. Kais Saied, an austere 61-year-old law professor, stood out from this crowd because he had no political experience, had never been in government, had an absolutely pristine reputation and was not receiving substantial funding from any domestic or overseas source.

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Because none of the 25 candidates secured a majority in the first round, which took place on September 15, a second round runoff election was scheduled for October 13 between the two top candidates: Saied and Nabil Karoui, a media mogul who owned a TV station and had been imprisoned for money-laundering and tax fraud.

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Instead of ruthlessly capitalizing on the fact that Karoui could not dynamically compete with him from a jail cell, Saied announced that he would not campaign ahead of the run-off because doing so would give him an “unfair advantage” against his incarcerated opponent.

Enormous wealth

Some might say that the playing field was level overall because Karoui had other advantages that Saied did not have – enormous wealth and plenty of free favourable TV coverage, for example. But Saied preferred to be a perfect gentleman. Karoui was eventually released before the runoff.

According to an Al Jazeera TV report I chanced upon online: “…It is that openness and obsession with equity that has connected with Tunisia’s youth, who, above all, see Saied as an honest leader offering them the keys to the nation’s future.”

Saied, who had vowed to fight corruption, promote social justice, establish a whole raft of constitutional reforms and “immunise” (via education) disillusioned youngsters against the Islamic extremism that is rife in the Arab world, won the runoff by a landslide.

Having achieved a resounding victory – an impressive 72 per cent of the vote – Saied is now the President of Tunisia; and I keep wondering whether a similar phenomenon can occur in Nigeria in my lifetime.

Can a refreshingly different aspirant – an intellectual who cares more about ethics than power and has no money, fat cat financial backers or interest in amassing big bucks – conclusively triumph over same-old traditional politicians and win an election here?

Can our system evolve to the point where clean candidates who capture our imaginations and have a lot to offer meteorically rise to the top without engaging in endless moral compromises?

OK so theorising is easier than practising, while socio-economic transformation is easier said than done. And it’s entirely possible that Saied will wind up disappointing me and his many other fans.

Since he has only ever operated, until recently, on genteel turfs such as university campuses, debating platforms and the pages of newspapers, he might turn out to be incapable of skilfully negotiating his way through Tunisia’s complex and treacherous political terrain.

He may doggedly hang onto his idealism but fail to translate it into meaningful actions. He may be sabotaged by a selfish elite that doesn’t like radical deviations from a pro-elite status quo.

Alternatively, he might, once he has access to state coffers, lose his innocence and succumb to the temptation to get rich illegally. Or maybe relatives and friends who are less saintly than he currently appears to be will let him down and make him look bad.

Long story short: Professor Saied is human and no doubt possesses weaknesses like the rest of us; and he may therefore not remain on a pedestal for long or forever.

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But his ascension is immensely significant and signals hope for those of us who are desperately craving change and want to believe that today’s Africa can produce truly inspirational leaders.

A wonderful move

2019 is the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves in the English colonies at Point Comfort in Virginia USA, in 1619. Many black Americans feel traumatised about the fact that their ancestors were forcibly removed from Africa and sold into bondage.

The slave trade is history but its malign effects are still very much part of the negative realities that many black people face in this day and age; and many descendants of slaves feel adrift psychologically and culturally and yearn to connect with their roots.

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Some have even done DNA tests that enable them to gain a rough idea of the regions their forebears were dragged out of in chains. Ghana was a major hub for the transatlantic slave trade from the 16th to the 19th centuries; and W.E.B. Du Bois, the revered African-American civil rights activist, is buried in Accra. He moved there with his wife, Shirley, in 1961; and he died there in 1963.

Many black Americans would like to emulate Du Bois; and they are our brethren, so kudos to President Nana Akufo-Addo for kindly declaring 2019 the “Year of Return” for America Diasporans who would like to be reunited with their continent of origin.

At the launching of this initiative in Washington last year, President Akufo-Addo said: “We know of the extraordinary achievements and contributions they [Africans in the diaspora] made to the lives of the Americans, and it is important that this symbolic year – 400 years later – we commemorate their existence and their sacrifices.”

But Akufo-Addo is not, strictly speaking, a pioneer. Since independence from Britain in 1957, Ghanaian leaders have initiated policies to attract Africans abroad back to Ghana.

According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., Director of the Hutchins Centre for African and African American Research at Harvard: “Kwame Nkrumah saw the American Negro as the vanguard of the African people…He wanted to be able to utilize the services and skills of African Americans as Ghana made the transition from colonialism to independence.”

Akufo-Addo is continuing this policy and the African-American community is excited about this latest initiative; and I hope that Nigeria will also enthusiastically and formally invite our brothers and sisters in the United States, Caribbean, etc, to come home…on holiday or to settle.

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Even if they don’t actually wish to live in Nigeria, let them know that Nigeria is there for them if they ever need it. Merry Christmas to you all!

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