By Mick Krever, CNN
Over the years, whenever Christiane Amanpour has asked heads of state – even the most oppressive – which world leader they most admire, the answer has almost invariably come back to Nelson Mandela.
“He is a great man, that one,” Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe told her in 2009.
Even the world’s longest-serving leader – President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea in West Africa – told her that Mandela was the African leader he most admired.
Of course, it is not only strongmen who admire the conciliatory Mandela.
The president of the Ghana – whose country has enjoyed peaceful elections for more than two decades – was just five years old when Nelson Mandela was thrown into prison with a life sentence.
“Growing up as a young student in secondary school, Nelson Mandela was an icon for us,” President John Dramani Mahama told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday.
Ghana, he said, was at the forefront of the liberation struggle against colonialism.
“And so we marched, we held demonstrations in support of him – until he was released from prison in 1990.”
Years later, when Mahama was Ghana’s minister of communications, he had a chance encounter with Mandela at a Cape Town conference.
“I came back to the hotel and was standing right in front of the lifts, going back up to my room,” he said. “And when the lift arrived and opened, President Mandela stepped out.”
“I was shocked; I was frozen; I couldn't utter a word. He nodded in my direction. I was so shocked I couldn't nod in response.”
“This was a man I had revered over the years. I had marched for him; I had demonstrated for him; I held placards calling for his release. And then the opportunity to meet him – I was so frozen I couldn't even talk to him.”
As President Mahama follows in Mandela’s footsteps, he told Amanpour that Mandela himself followed the steps of other African leaders.
“He follows a tradition of several African leaders, who have used forgiveness and compassion to try and build their nation states,” he said.
Mahama cited the examples of Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, and Julius Nyerere – the founding fathers of Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania, respectively – as examples of liberators in whose tradition Mandela followed.
Mandela’s legacy, too, will live long after his death, Mahama said.
As for those leaders who say they admire Mandela but block democracy in their own countries, Mahama said “people take the different things that Mandela teaches us and use them as they wish.”
Indeed, one of Mandela’s great legacies, he said, was that he only served one term in office.
“There was a lot of pressure from the chiefs and the people in South Africa for him to continue and do a second term; and he declined.”
“We must prepare the next generation of leaders to take over from us. I don't think that any one person has all the answers to the challenges that our individual countries face.”
Now, as Mandela is mourned and remembered, the world should “not only celebrating his life, but emulating his life.”