• As Nyerere and Obama among others have proved, it’s an ideal time for penmanship
What do presidents do after their terms come to an end? This may seem like a normal question. It is not. Presidents are not ordinary citizens. On the contrary, they are leaders of their citizens. They bear upon their shoulders the weight of the plight of the people and places where their presidency happened.
A story is told off the cuff. It is the story of Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. Both are revered African statesmen who led their country to greatness. Children exist across the breadth and length of Africa who carry their names as their own.
Mwalimu Nyerere retired as Head of State in a rare peaceful transition in Africa of the 1980s. He did so in 1985 and his Zanzibari deputy Ali Mwinyi, now 97 years old, took over. Interestingly, the current President Hassan Mwinyi of Zanzibar is the son of the latter.
It is not until 1990 that Nyerere retired as the chairman of his powerful party Chama Cha Mapinduzi, which still leads Tanzania to this day.
Now come the mid 1990s and South Africa gained the first black president in the person of Mandela. Soon after being sworn in, the anti-Apartheid icon embarked on a trip across Africa to appreciate those leaders who stood with the African National Congress while he was in jail for 27 years.
Nyerere had devoted much of his own presidency to supporting the liberation struggles of South Africans. Mandela decided to pay him homage in person. Off did he jet from Pretoria to Dar es Salaam. He learnt that Nyerere had chosen his ancestral village of Butiama, by lake Victoria, as his site of retirement.
When Mandela reached rural Butiama, he found Nyerere integrated back into the village life. It is said that Mandela found him attending a village baraza under a vast mango tree canopy. Mwalimu was sitting on a bench at the back, listening with his head cocked. A child, grandchild of his, whispered of the approach of Mandela from his homestead a mile away. He nodded and listened, head cocked the other way.
He later stood up and acknowledged Mandela with a long hug. They cried silently. Then both sat to the end of the meeting, side by side at the back of the baraza. Later, hand in hand, both grey-haired African heroes went to the boma of the mstaafu rais for tea and talk time.
Folklore has it that it is this encounter that convinced Mandela to be an iconic but one-term President. He was advised not to overstay his stay at State House Pretoria. He would later work with his ghost writer Richard Stengel to publish his acclaimed 630 pages memoir, titled Long Walk to Freedom (1994).
Undoubtedly, Nyerere was (and still is) a famous statesman in this corner of Africa and yonder. Few Kenyans, however, are aware that he was a great author, too.
He translated William Shakespeare into Kiswahili twice. His books on African liberation struggles, socialist ideology and philosophy of education are read in many varsities. It is possible that his status as an author did inspire his successor Mzee Mwinyi to pen his lifetime, too.
It appears to be an established tradition for great statesmen of Africa to put between pages their life and times in their service to their nations and nationals. Influential retired presidents from West Africa, such as Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, show that this practice is not unique to East and Southern Africa.
This is the reason we should as a nation encourage outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta to pen his presidential memoirs. A scion of one of the pioneer writers of Kenya, Uhuru should share with posterity the merits and demerits of his time as citizen number 1 between 2013 and 2022.
His decade as the first President under the new Kenyan constitution is a constellation of opportunities and challenges that have affected lives of Kenyans from all the four corners of the republic.
A book or two already exist on the politics of the retiring President. Think here of the recently late Joe Khamisi’s 430-page Uhuru Kenyatta: Promises Broken (2022) or Hard Tackle: The Life of Uhuru Kenyatta (2014) by Peter Thatiah.
However, for a leader of our land at times of great changes occasioned by Covid-19, global terrorism and the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, it is not enough for one book or biographer to give us the insights to this era.
An autobiography by Uhuru Kenyatta can set free his mind as he enjoys retirement beginning next week, be it in his home by the State House or the village of his ancestors in fabled Icaweri. This should be the primary assignment of the President as he settles back to civilian life that other leaders of peaceful transitions have enjoyed across the continent.
The revered, retired 44th American President Barrack Obama, whose roots partly Kenyan is, was awarded the prestigious Emmy Prize last week. He has been using his time in retirement to write.
Higher Ground Productions is a cinema company he launched with his wife, who is a writer also. The Emmy was awarded for his narration of a new Netflix series titled “Our Great National Parks”. A retired President can serve his nation in other ways as shown from retirement stories of Nyerere and Obama above... and Uhuru soon?