Portrait of a Dying Giant

TOPE ADEBOBOYE – The Sun (Nigeria)

They were once a strong, proud, race living fulfilled lives in small and great monarchies strewn across the continent. Oblivious to other worlds, they tilled the ground, hunted beasts for food and fun, fished on brooks and rivers and seas, and tended cattle down lush pastures. They fought internecine battles, conquered kingdoms with bows and arrows, with swords and spears.
In the evenings, children gathered to listen to stories and folklores in the moonlight. Millions dwelt in mud or plank-built huts with thatched roofs, patronised witch doctors, grew old and died or got killed by strange, herb-defying ailments. Many were they that lived and died by the sword, metamorphosing into deities and myths to be later worshipped by succeeding generations.
For the African, this was life. One that existed solely for them. It was a time the land was populated by its owners, when the people lived as they deemed fit. There were neither white skins (except the albinos) nor machines. No ambitious trips to Mars or the moon, no fear of a sudden Armageddon via a nuclear warhead. Such a time so graphically depicted by the Nigerian storyteller, Elechi Amadi, in his classic novel, The Concubine.
But that wasn’t destined to last forever. For the white man came with his Bible, and soon, his gun. And Africa has never been the same again.
This journey of Africa- from that initial visit of the Portuguese in the late 1490s, which culminated in centuries of a most ignominious slave trade, through the continent’s eventual capture and release (?) by Europe, to the decades of pillage in the hands of its own sons- is what Howard French passionately takes us through in his new book, A Continent For The Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa.
French, a long-time correspondent of the New York Times in West and Central Africa, employed his several years as a reporter covering much of Africa’s most volatile recent past, to lay bare the promises and frustrations of an immensely fertile land tragically devoured by its own, a swarm of locusts egged on by an applauding West that would always turn the other way after its real goals have been achieved. A continent of great minds whose recent history is painfully replete with bitter pictures of strife, of diseases and death, of famine and drought, of weed-smoking kid soldiers wielding rifles down the streets of Monrovia. Gory pictures of brothers butchering brothers, of avaricious military despots and pot-bellied civilian dictators. Pictures of gloom and doom, of penury and despair, and a tomorrow clouded by palpable haze.
Indeed, as you turn each page of Howard French’s book, the words of that late Senegalese bard, David Diop, reverberating in the depths of your soul.
Africa, tell me Africa
Is this your back that is bent
This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun
But a grave voice answers me
Impetuous child that tree, young and strong
That tree over there
Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers
That is your Africa springing up anew
Springing up patiently, obstinately
Whose fruit bit by bit acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.
Diop had prophesied a life of bliss for Africa and its peoples after the long years of colonialism. Unfortunately, decades after all of Africa have been liberated from Europe, genuine liberty eludes its peoples, millions of whom are ruled with an iron fist by their countries’ civilian dictators.
But French, an African-American, would not just do a reporter’s diary of his 25 years’ romance with the Dark Continent. He gets himself involved in the continent’s plight. And apparently unable to keep containing those deep emotions long bottled up in his mind and notebook, he releases his fury on Europe and America. These countries, he claims, have always seen Africa as a mere huge dice on their ludo board, a gigantic plaything that could always serve whatever purpose that suits their minds. He queries America’s role in the plunder of the continent and it’s support for greedy dictators, especially during the cold war. He wonders why Washington would always look the other way while the Idi Amins, Mobutu Sese Sekos, Charles Taylors and Sani Abachas of this world were killing and maiming and looting, leaving their poor countrymen and women to suffer the consequences?
But this might be understandable. French is himself a black American, and his great grandfathers were born and raised in Africa, long before the vast continent was sliced and shared by Europe, and its best men and women shipped across the seas into bondage on sugarcane plantations in the Americas. And apart from living and working in Africa, French is married to an African. It then becomes more comprehensible that he appears, not as a mere, apathetic narrator of events, but as one fully involved, a man well situated at the epicenter of the perennially unfolding African tragedy.
And so French criss-crosses the continent, taking us with him into the streets of Lagos and Abuja in Nigeria. We follow him into Charles Taylor’s Liberia, into Mali, into the two Congos. He involves us, the readers, in his experiences in the power play and high-wire politics of the mid-1990s in Abacha’s Nigeria, in the Ebola plague in the Congo, in the Liberian civil war, in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, He writes of poverty and hunger owing to decades of misrule, and of the people’s desperation for survival by whatever means.
In 1994, Nigeria was at a boiling point, and the journalist, who had only recently been posted to Abidjan as New York Times Correspondent in West Africa, had rushed to the country. What he met on arrival at the airport, and in his trips around the world’s most populated black nation, was however different from what had been on ground a decade earlier. He says it all on pages 26 and 27:
“Corruption had eaten away at everything here since that bygone era of pride and optimism. Most would say the rot had started under the elected government of Shehu Shagari, who was overthrown in a military coup in 1983, and things had gotten steadily worse under a succession of bemedaled generals.
“Nigeria had become one of Africa’s most tragic stories, as if a great family franchise had been run into the ground by decadent nephews prematurely handed the reins of management. The callow nephews in this tale were army generals, and like King Midas in reverse, the officers who had run the country for the last decade had debased everything they had touched, starting of course with politics, which they had turned into a contest of self-enrichment. The leader who ran the country in the mid-1990s, General Sani Abacha, stood out even in this crowd.”
Indeed, General Sani Abacha, who in November 1993 forced his way into the State House in Nigeria, had in 1994 become something akin to a motion picture monster to his countrymen. At the peak of his five-year tyranny, the diminutive, dark-goggled dictator without a middle name had either decreed the assassination of his perceived political foes, or had hurled them into jail. In his dungeon were, among others, Moshood Abiola, winner of the 1993 presidential elections, General Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler (now president) accused by Abacha of plotting to sack his regime, Shehu Yar’Adua, and all the popular members of the human rights community. Ken Saro Wiwa had been hanged, Kudirat Abiola and many others had been shot dead in a Lagos Street, and a thick, palpable dread filled the firmament.
French painstakingly takes us through the absurd political dance-drama of those days of gloom, up till Abacha’s mysterious death in June 1998 of a heart condition aggravated, reports said, by an all-out orgy with a couple of sluts imported from India.
But then, Abacha didn’t create those clouds that threatened Nigeria’s very existence. The garlands for such, many argue, should naturally be draped round the copious neck of the country’s former ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida. He it was who annulled the 1993 Presidential elections and nearly pushed his country into the abyss. Abacha, echo those voices, merely benefited from that treasonable venture.
Sadly, the people’s hopes that a democratic regime would put a balm on their battered lives are daily being punctured by the supposedly democratic government of General Olusegun Obasanjo. Blessed with a haughty mien and the fury of a typhoon, Obasanjo rules the land more like a medieval emperor. The president carries himself with a presumptuous, almost megalomaniac air, apparently seeing himself as the best gift Providence ever bequeathed to the country next to crude oil. In several fits of raw, uncontrollable ire, he has ordered the destruction of whole communities, verbally assaulted clergymen and single-handedly annulled an election meant to produce a king for his village.
And already, Babangida, whose action nearly led to the country’s collapse, is seeking a comeback in 2007. Arrayed behind him is a clan of clowns led by that disgraced ex-general, Mr Abdulkareem Adisa whom many insist would have had a more fulfilling career as an Elizabethan court jester.
French tells of his meetings with some notable Nigerians, including Baba Gana Kingibe, who would have been Abiola’s deputy, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Newswatch’s Ray Ekpu, Kudirat Abiola, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, among others. He writes of his trips to several volatile parts of the country. The author tells a story of political intrigues and power play, of treachery in high places, of dashed hopes and a country sharply divided along ethnic and religious lines.
But Abacha’s “Giant of Africa” was not the only country on the boil. A systematic carnage had gradually reduced Liberia, that once promising country founded by freed slaves from America in 1821, into a land of living ghosts. Enter Charles Taylor, described in The New York Times by Robert Rodberg, director of the Program on Interstate Conflict at the Kennedy School of Harvard University, as one of the more colorful thugs of West Africa’s recent past.
Having lived in the forest from where he waged war against the repressive regime of the marijuana-loving illiterate soldier, Samuel Doe, Taylor forced himself into world consciousness as a fiend who fed minors with dope and sent them to their death on the battlefield. Indeed, as commander-in-chief of a mostly under-aged, drug-addicted youth guerilla army, Taylor had waged a war not only against Doe’s government, but against any perceived threat to his ambition to rule Liberia. On the road to Monrovia, where he would later rule as President, this brutish ‘gentleman’ who stole his country’s as well as Sierra Leone’s diamond to prosecute his warfare, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his countrymen as well as foreigners to book a passage to the Presidential Palace. Among his victims were two Nigerian journalists, Tayo Awotusin and Krees Imodibe whose murder Taylor ordered because of Nigeria’s role in ECOMOG.
Ironically, Taylor, on Interpol’s wanted list for committing crimes against humanity, now lives in opulence in Nigeria, shielded from justice by President Obasanjo against the wishes of the free world.
Interestingly, Taylor’s one-time ally and Liberia’s former warlord, Prince Yormie Johnson was also offered refuge by Nigeria, a country that is fast becoming a safe haven for modern day Hitlers. Many would remember Johnson as Doe’s nemesis on September 10, 1990. Like a possessed demon straight out of hell, Johnson presided over Doe’s systematic slaughter, supervising his men as Doe’s ears, hands, legs etc were gradually sliced off even as the cameras beamed the despot’s long, agonizing death to the world.
French, in his book, captures Taylor’s grand entrance into Monrovia and his first press conference where he laboured hard to justify his war. “We must take a moment to thank God, for this popular, people’s uprising was, in reality, God’s war”, said Taylor.
Unable to stomach the glaring blasphemy, an angry French had queried the warlord: “Isn’t it outrageous for someone who has drugged small boys, given them guns and trained them to kill to call this God’s war? How dare you call the destruction of your country in this manner and the killing of two hundred thousand people God’s war?”
But Mr Taylor had replied with a calmness quite alien to many of his ilk: “I just believe in the destiny of man being controlled by God, and wars, whether man-made or what, are directed by a force. And so when I say it is God’s war, God has his own way of restoring the land, and he will restore it after this war.”
Another real tragedy for Africa in the last decade was Mobutu Sese Seko, the late grandiose ruler of the former Zaire. Mobutu’s story strikes a chord with those of his fellow travelers in tyranny. A former soldier in the Congo, the man named Joseph-Desire Mobutu seized power in 1965 and was ‘elected’ president in 1970. Donning a fake toga of an enforcer of cultural awareness, he changed his country’s name to Zaire, forced Europeans out of the country and rechristened himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Wa Za Banga (The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake).
A sick soul plagued with prostate cancer since 1962, Mobutu’s countrymen would discover soon after he stole power in 1965 that he also suffered from another malady: chronic kleptomania. The Leopard, as Mobutu was known, did little for his country but much for himself, looting his nation’s wealth and fortifying his personal fortune to an incredible tune of four billion dollars as far back as 1984.
In May 1997, a rebel group, led by Laurent Kabila was closing in on Kinshasha. Mobutu, ravaged by a deadly mix of cancer and the people’s odium, had little strength to counter the insurrection. The Great Man fled to Morocco, where he died like a dog four months later, booking a speedy, one-way passage to hell.
French takes us through the streets of Kinshasha, just as he does with the Ebola epidemic of the neighboring Congo-Brazzaville, describing Mobutu’s final fall and the rise of Laurent Kabila. His vivid account of the chaos that descended on the country would later win him the Overseas Press Club of America’s award for the best newspaper interpretation of foreign affairs.
Some might query French’s rationale for blaming the West for much of Africa’s woes. Such people would argue that the continent’s rulers should take most of the blame. French‘s position, in his book, is that the West has always aligned with African despots in order to achieve certain goals. If the West had taken a more decisive stand against these demons in human form, perhaps Africa would have risen beyond its present stagnant state.
Yet others might argue that the author doesn’t really proffer any solutions to Africa’s leadership problems. He however cites examples of certain African leaders who guided their countries through the democratic path. President Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali is singled out as a flourishing flower amidst a cluster of thorns. The lesson here is clear. Africa’s sun will never shine until its leaders have eschewed their desperation for power and greed for their country’s wealth, and begin to relate to their people like fellow humans.
Laced with various quotes and references, with 16 photo pages and a map, A Continent For The Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa in its 280 pages is a rewarding excursion into Africa’s recent past. Indeed, this book published by Alfred A. Knopf and sold for $25 is a rich guide for anyone with a remote interest in that continent’s checkered history. And in the unlikely event that the reader quarrels with French’s submissions in his book, the reader definitely won’t have any quarrels with his breezy style, his lucid presentation, his easy-to-grasp, free-flowing prose.
Even then, as one digests the last pages of this book, one just can’t expunge the nagging question off ones mind: will this Black Giant ever cease to totter?

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