Tuesday, February 26, 2013

228. Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Few authors are able to keep their theme running for such a long time as Ngugi has done. As a critic of the post-independence politics of the new wave of African leaders, Ngugi wa Thiong'o knows more about the tricks, chicanery, and shenanigans of these people than most people. He has observed and written about it both in fiction and in essays. His keen interest has always been the lack of socialisation of government efforts and the endemic corruption that has strangulated several African countries, including his home country of Kenya - which had to go through a series of Constitutional reforms after the 2008 electoral crisis - from developing. Ngugi's observations, from the the dawn of independence when the capsule of euphoria burst and evaporated all at once leaving behind a blanket of realities, are encapsulated in his works. From his first novel Weep Not Child (1964), which studied the hostile relationship between the colonialists and the colonised to Wizard of the Crow (2006) Ngugi has tried to point out that the requisite tools for development have nothing to do with colour. It has all to do with harnessing the resources within the borders of one's country and using these resources efficiently to provide the goods and services the people needs. According to Ngugi, the traits of a good leader has nothing to do with tribe or ethnic affiliation but his selflessness, objectivity and integrity - his ability to bring the resources within the country together; that blackness is not all that makes a man.

In Wizard of the Crow (Anchor Books, 2006; 768) Ngugi wa Thiong'o brings together years of studies and observation in one swoop of a pen into a compelling novel. Wizard of the Crow brings together all the issues Ngugi raises in all his novels - from that carpenter (and the Jacobos) who wanted to have it all, in Weep Not Child, to John Boy and his collusion with the second generation colonialists in Matigari to the betrayal of the freedom fighters and the people by the new elites and that MP in A Grain of Wheat.

However, whereas his previous books centred somewhat on the coming of the colonialists and more on the nefariousness of the first wave of leaders, Wizard of the Crow strictly analyses the behaviours of African dictators and autocrats and the complicity of donor institutions and countries in that ginormous corruptions that have engulfed our countries. In some way it collaborates Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid thesis when she argued that conditionalities and the type of government - autocrat, dictatorship, monarchy, endemically and openly corrupt - matter little as to who gets the World Bank and IMF loans and that governments use huge projects to siphon resources into their personalised off-shore bank accounts.

In WOTC, in that fictional country of Aburiria, we meet the head of state - known simply as the Ruler and his cronies - Sikiokuu, Tajirika, Big Ben, Machokali, Kaniuru and other obsequious grovellers; bootlickers who would sing praises if those praise-songs and appellations will enable them to steal more. In this set up, affiliations and alliances are capricious and lasts as long as dew would in harmattan. In the Ruler's government, positions are given to those who can steal more and those who excelled are made governors and managers of central and national banks, put in places where they can siphon more and share with the leader. Those who are hounded and described as enemies of the state are the poor selfless souls whose only crime is that they won't participate in pillage; that they are pure and seek the healing of the souls; people like Nyawira (the Limping Witch) and Kamiti (The Wizard of the Crow). The corruption described gets to such a level that it becomes abnormal to be moral, to be seen doing the right thing, like the situation Achebe described in his tiny green book The Trouble with Nigeria.

Regardless of the satirical nature of the write and the mirth it can engender in the reader to the point of hiccups and uncontrollable dribbling of tears, what Ngugi described in this novel is the reality of most African countries including those that have taken on a semblance of democracy (and this was also discussed in the book). There are leaders who today refer to the country the rule's natural resources as 'my oil' and run the country like their bona fide property, an extension of their hopeless homes. In WOTC, the bootlickers have decided to honour the Ruler with a mansion bigger and taller than what the biblical Babylonians attempted, and failed. Consequently, this birthday project was christened Marching to Heaven; the vision was for it to become the largest project and to show the world that the people of Aburiria can, and are able to, challenge the developments of developed countries. Now where will the funding come from? The Global Bank had to be convinced to release the resources for this mind-boggling project. And even before the Global Bank agreed (or disagreed) contract seekers have already bribing the chairman of the committee responsible for the project. On the other hand, all the macroeconomic indicators of the country are poor: unemployment is of such levels that the entire country is queuing for nonexistent jobs; inflation is so high that it has rendered the Buris worthless and trading is virtually conducted in dollars.

But the Ruler was a friend of the United States and the West for his dedication towards their cause during the Cold War. (Exactly what Dambisa stated in her book when she proved, with data, that during the Cold War, it mattered not the type of government one practiced, so far as one showed he is in favour of capitalism or communism one got funded; so that from Mobutu of now DR Congo to Mengistu of Ethiopia to Bokassa of Central African Republic - whose coronation as an emperor is reputed to have cost US$ 22 million - all received donor monies). However, again exactly as Dambisa wrote, the tides have changed. The West, perhaps on a guilt-trip, now wants to see some changes before advancing the required resources for this ginormous Marching to Heaven project. But what type of change do they want? Is it superficial or deeper? The answer came when the leader, after several failures in accessing the required funds, declared the State of Aburiria a democracy where free and fair elections will be held; thus succumbing to the requirements of the West. But with one catch: He will be the Ruler of whichever party that won elections. Thus, regardless of the elections, he is bound to stay in power forever. This sends applause and congratulations to all quarters including donor countries and institutions. In no time the money required for the project was released and work began. Autocracy then was replaced by dictatorial democracy.

Is this therefore a political dystopia fraught with that Orwellian doublethink-doublespeak, where words are democratic and deeds autocratic? What it shows clearly is how the idea of democracy fosters timidity and inaction, allowing the same folks to be in power and do the same things. It also shows that democracy can and do accommodate the negativities inherent in autocracy and dictatorial regimes: the outward morphing of dictatorships into democracies whilst leaving their deeds intact.

Thus, the Ruler in this case symbolises two main practices across autocratic states. The first is leaders who have democratise autocracy so that they win every election and can contest as many times as they want till they drop dead. The other symbolism is that there could be changes in leadership but because they are all corrupt and corruption has become the norm rather than the exception, it matters not who wins the election, the end will be the same: more corruption, less provision of goods and services and the cycle continues unabated. Just as Dambisa said, what a young country at the nascent stages of development needs is not democracy as these leaders democratise and institutionalise corruption in a way that is difficult to challenge; rather such countries need benevolent dictators, perhaps the likes of Mahathir of Malaysia. However, in Africa there has been more of the dictator and less of the benevolence.

In the end, the excessive corruption in the Aburiria government bred jealousy and vile machinations leading to several deaths and palace coups. Though Ngugi derides autocracy in this satiric thesis, he clearly exposes the dangers of excessive capitalism and American imperialism. He showed the multiplicity of American interests and how it can change over time to suit its objectives: from slavery to colonialism to capitalism to globalisation, all to its benefit; in so doing, as clearly articulated, it can befriend the vilest autocrats - the likes of Mobutu (who stole a humongous sum of US$ 5 billion) and Idi Amin (whose atrocities in his home country of Uganda makes his name almost synonymous to Hitler) when it suits them and if these leaders can best serve these interests. Once these interests are served, they quickly withdraw, wipe their hands, and attack that country as if they never dealt with, or know them at all. They launch a vilification campaign against them - sometimes including war, like it happened to Saddam Hussein of Iraq (when they had claimed that this man is the best person to rule his people and later accused him of a crime he had already committed when this accolade was showered on him).

Finally, Ngugi shows the gradual corporating of the world, through globalisation; the gradual recolonisation of the world through the use of corporate or private capital, with Non-Governmental Organisations playing the roles of the wolfish missionaries.

But there are certain distinctions that should be made regarding the actions of the Ruler. Was everything that he implemented bad? The answer is a huge no; however, the ends they were to achieve was what made them bad. For instance, he was somewhat nationalistic, which is not negative if you know your strengths; after all, some call it patriotism, others call it socialism. But nationalising to the benefit of cronies and family is not the way to go. Again, the Ruler streamlined the health system to include traditional healers, but doing it so you can arrest your enemies - Nyawira and Kamiti in this case - serves no end.

Ngugi's disaffection from his characters (even from the protagonists - Kamiti and Nyawira) brought out the humanity in them; that they are not gods (and therefore are fallible and have epistemic limitations) and alone are incapable of taking on the whole country. It might be seen as an unsolvable conundrum, an inextricable knot but what Ngugi is seeking are changes among a large section of people; changes that are major, conscious and directed at a positive end. You can make a change in your circumstances but it's impossible to make it in the world alone if not supported; besides, a lighted country will light up a room but not a city. 

Anyone who reads this book will come to understand their governments better. The reader will come to appreciate the ways of politics, governance and corporations. It should be a manual for the hoi-polloi so that they are not taken in by those apples dangling before their eyes. It is highly recommended.


  1. That's an intensive review. Have read Weep Not Child, Matigari and Great of wheat. but not yet this one. It is interesting Ngugi is able to keep the same thems running throughout his books without boring readers. Thanks.

    1. Try this. You'll burst your ribs and still learn tons from it.

  2. The way you focused on the theme of the book as opposed to summarising the plot captured the essence of the work. The book sounds like a good read even though the theme is a bit cliche.

    1. Yes Jerome... the theme sounds cliche but no one has written it as precise and incisive as Ngugi has done. What he has done is to eviscerate what we call democracy and the misrule of law. He shows that there are times when autocracy is synonymous with democracy.


Help Improve the Blog with a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Featured post

Njoroge, Kihika, & Kamiti: Epochs of African Literature, A Reader's Perspective

Source Though Achebe's Things Fall Apart   (1958) is often cited and used as the beginning of the modern African novel written in E...