THE CURSE OF THE AFRICAN DESPOT
By Damola Awoyokun
Wednesday, May 25, 2011.
One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world – Alexander Solzhenitsyn
With all our faults as a state rife with corruption and our inadequacies as a people, there is still something irrepressible about the Nigerian spirit that would not allow Mubarak, Mobutu, or Gadhafi be a possibility in Nigeria. Inspired by the Tunisian uprising and the success of Tahrir Square, Libyans in the UK rose to join voices with Libyans at home to press for democratic reforms and the exit of Gaddafi. I joined them and I seized the moment to ask a question that had been disturbing me for a while. ‘How come you guys allowed Gadhafi to rule for over 40 years?’ The leaders of the protest were unwilling to speak to me. They said they are not sure whether I am for them or for Gaddafi since he has spies all over the world. We were a few metres away from the home of the prime minister. Behind us is the MoD – the symbol of British Military might and these Libyans are still afraid of the embattled Gaddafi thousands of miles away.
In Telling Times, the collection of her prose spanning the rise and fall of apartheid, the South African Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer noted that during the Soweto uprising: “what neither the accusations of the white government nor the claims of the black adult leadership will ever explain is how those children learned, in a morning, to free themselves from the fear of death. Revolutionaries of all times…know this is the freedom that brings with it the possibility of attaining all others.” More than 500 were massacred in that uprising.
The protesters in London point out that Gaddafi used fear and terror to suppress them for 40 years. They said: “See in Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata. Everywhere in Libya people took to the streets peacefully to say enough is enough. See what Gaddafi did? He opened fire on his own citizens.”
The previous night there was the burial of a headless 11-year old girl who had been shot like other protesters with antiaircraft artillery. Gaddafi could not bear to see their long-suppressed spirits soaring. On February 18 some protesters went to demonstrate in front of central security headquarters in Benghazi. Some officers came out, welcomed the protesters, ushered them into a courtyard saying they are one with them. They locked the gate and gun them down. Twenty three protesters died.
Charles Darwin in theory of evolution talked about animals turning into men. In Libya’s February 17 revolution, Gaddafi turned men into animals. But they corrected this false impression. ‘That is what Gaddafi has been doing for decades in Libya. Many more we know nothing about.”
The Libyan writer Hisham Matar wrote that when the Tunisian uprising spread to neighbouring Egypt, Gaddafi became very jittery. He quickly released some political prisoners which included Matar’s two uncles and cousins that have been jailed for 21 years. But Matar’s father abducted from Cairo in the same week as other relatives is still missing. Like thousands of other political dissidents both real and imaginary.
At the demonstration I told them that when the former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo started making moves to tamper with the constitution so that he can spend a third term, Nigerians mobilised to fight him off calling his move a sit-tight syndrome plaguing the whole of Africa with forever presidents; yet Obasanjo had just spent 6 years. Nigerians would not sit by and watch someone spend 20, 30, 40 years in office. I told them of General Abacha, the most evil of Nigeria’s heads of state and a friend of Gaddafi who almost plunged us into another civil war. I told them of how Nigeria was practically shut down for three months during the NUPENG and PENGASSAN strike of 1994 and all the while mass protests waved all over the country while Abacha’s elite squad trained in Libya and North Korea were doing their job assassinating major opposition figures in broad day light. That only galvanised the opposition.
I then asked. “What about your opposition? What about the press?”
“There are none. They are all propaganda network for Gaddafi,” they said. “1.8 million people constitute the Libyan work force. Close to 20% of them are there to spy on the remaining 80% and report any dissidence to Gaddafi’s revolutionary councils. ‘There are no political parties either,’ they told me.
2What about your universities?” I asked. “The lecturers? Don’t they go for international conferences and raise consciousness about what was going on in Libya?”
Their response was that “Gaddafi has spies and mercenaries all around the world protected by the embassies. They not only take you, if they can, they get your family back home, kill or imprison them or hang them publicly for treason.” Hence their reluctance to speak with me in the first place and the reason why Hisham Matar’s relatives were arrested in a single week.
In December 1993, Libyan agents in the US with diplomatic cover kidnapped former Libyan foreign minister and dissident Mansur Kikhia, one month before he was to receive American citizenship. In 1980, Gaddafi’s assassins left Faisal Zagallai, a dissident and doctoral student at the University of Colorado partially blind. In 2004, he placed $1 million on the head of Ashur Shamis, a prominent dissident living in Britain for decades. In London in 1984, 11 Libyan protesters were shot and a British policewoman killed when Libyan diplomats opened fire on demonstrators who came to protest against the execution of two student dissidents in Tripoli.
But these African or Arab sit-tight tyrants do not start out outright employing blood, tears and terror to entrench their protracted rule, they were darlings of the public when they first assumed office. However, there is a virus in the social consciousness they capitalise on very early. Any society that is fond of placing hell-is-other-people analysis and blame-history arguments over on-the-ground facts is susceptible to a Mugabe, a Mubarak or a Gaddafi.
I once asked the young Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, why did Kenyans allow former President Arap Moi to rule for 24 years and the current president Mwai Kibaki, who was a Vice-President to Moi, to hold on to power after the 2007 election. Wainaina’s response was curt: “insufficient decolonisation,” he said. Close to fifty years after their independence, we are still making the self negligible and the west responsible for our failings. And once a popular leader with closet dictatorial aspirations knows this, he begins to rationalise major problems of his country in terms of attacks from the west or the communists or the Zionists. And he, the best and the most experienced nationalist warrior to combat them. Anyone who opposes is regarded a traitor. Opposition is made equal to treason. Then the liquidations start. And the once popular leader lapses into a full-fledged ruthless dictator.
Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese convener of the prize for good governance in Africa said that many of these repressive tyrants littering Africa and the Middle East enjoy expensive French wine, Italian décors, luxurious American cars, and other western deluxe, but when it comes to democracy and respect for human rights they tell their people to dismiss it as western concepts.
In Nigeria, we are grateful to the Awolowo- Soyinka generation who did not render our consciousness ready to easily receive such debased thinking. Right from the time the valorisation and over-romanticisation of the African by the Negritude movement was made an intelligent reaction to the pervasive Euro-American racist condescension, Nigeria became implacably sceptical to different Afrocentrisms and their narrow assumptions or untruthful theses. The Senegalese poet Léopold Senghor, a chief pillar of Negritude spent 20years as the president of his country. President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire too in search of a similar postcolonial culture inaugurated Authenticité. He worked to rid his country of the continuing influence of Western culture since it accounted for banditry of colonialism, barbarism of racism and evils of the long night of slavery. He ruled for 32 years and died richer than his country. When Uganda’s Idi Amin, Africa’s most evil leader so far was also casting himself as a pan-African nationalist warrior against the west, and otherwise distinguished Africans and African-Americans refused to question his barbarisms out of race solidarity, Nigeria lead the charge against him. Criticism, like charity, Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel laureate says, must start at home.
Why is it that these leaders don’t limit their pan-African, anti-west and anti-Israel nationalism to one or two terms and then abdicate power? Because they are using those postures to disguise their own nefariousness and also laying the foundation for a protracted autocratic regime and a corrupt despotism with a sure promise of pain-spreading economic models. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe claims the west hates him and want to see him unseated because he promised land redistribution from white landowners back to their original black owners. For 30 years now, he keeps on rigging elections to keep himself in power and to consolidate his image as anti-colonial freedom fighter he once was.
When the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was indicted by the ICC for his patronage of the mercenaries that masterminded the genocide in Darfur, he says the indictment is another western act of neo-colonialism. He has spent 12 years as president. In 2009 when Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rigged the elections and the people trouped out to protests, he said the protests were influenced by ‘Zionist media’ and called protesters mere tools in the hands of ‘Evil Britain’ and the US. These dictators recourse to the profitable power of such rhetoric to regenerate and sustain the historical hatred of the west or the Zionists hence obscure real issues. It is all yahoo populism. When the released Lockerbie bomber landed in Tripoli, he was greeted with such a great fanfare because he had been cast as a warrior against the west. During the US occupation of Iraq, Libyans travelled to be part of the fiery insurgents in Iraq to fight against the so-called crusaders conveniently forgetting that there is an equivalent of Saddam Hussein at home. Slavery, colonialism, racism, Zionism or the so-called neo-imperialism or neo-colonialism have provided handy excuses to blame the west for our failings yet without the luxuries of intense self-criticisms, Africa or the Middle East cannot fly.
When Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa, he urged openness and cooperation between blacks and whites at a time when the sore of apartheid was very fresh. He understood that openness not only civilises the force of hatred, but makes it possible to lay the foundation for a decent democratic society and makes it hard to pervert social problems into unbridgeable binaries of blacks against whites, masters against servants. In as much as we express solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Arab world fighting for change, no divisions between Shiites and Shias, Arabs and Persians or Jews, Muslims and Christians nor any hatred of the west must be allowed to subsist because a new leader like the old ones would capitalise on them to hide his own nefariousness and perpetuate himself in power.
Damola Awoyokun is a writer and former Associate Editor of Glendora Review and former Managing Editor of Farafina Online.