Monday, December 23, 2013

272. Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote by Ahmadou Kourouma

Waiting for the Wild Beast to Vote (Vintage, 2003; 445) is a quintessential Ahmadou Kourouma. Like the previous book, Allah is not Obliged, it is about political failures on the African continent. Like Wizard of the Crow, it mixes voodoo and African mysticism with politics to satirically tell the story of the evolution of dictatorship and its subsequent metamorphoses into questionable democracies, on the continent of Africa.

The story traces how Koyaga developed from a pro-French soldier to become the president and dictator of Republique du Golfe, through a series of prophecies, coups and counter-coups. Fricassa Santos became the president of Republic du Golfe, after independence following an election whose supervision by the United Nations and with Fricassa's own sorcery prevented the French from rigging it to suit their preferred candidate, J.-L Crunet, who had been the country's Prime Minister for the last ten years of colonial rule. Having assumed power, Fricassa's voodoo men had informed him that he should be fearful of one of the members of the Naked People of the Mountain, for he would be the one to overthrow him. Consequently, Fricassa further fortified himself with voodoo, thick walls, and a phalanx of commandos. So when Koyaga, a former pro-French soldier, son of Tchao - the first man to fight for the French, to wear clothes, and to lead his people against French invasion when they attempted to capture and bring the people of the mountain under French colonial rule - and Nadjouma - a woman of such physical powers that no one could face her and in whom even the famous and extraordinarily strong Tchao met his match - after years of service demanded his pension which the French government had paid into the country's coffers, Fricassa decided not to pay and also not to integrate Koyaga and his men into the country's army. According to Koyaga, such pro-French forces, stooges of the colonialist, who fought against the Nationalists freedom fighters in all the French colonies do not deserve to serve in the country's army. But the real reason of his decision was the prophecy.

However, as the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers shows, preventing and suppressing a prophecy is the fastest route to its fulfilment. Koyaga, who was oblivious of the existence of any prophecy - though there was one about him which professed great tidings for him and his people, decided to use force to obtain what was due them from the government. Steeped in the voodoo of his mother and Bokano - a Muslim spiritualist and a marabout, Koyaga's mission suddenly morphed into a plan to takeover the country, of which he succeeded. However, there were four of them who could become leaders: Koyaga; the former Prime Minister, J.-L. Crunet; Bodjo (later Ledjo); and Tima. 

Bodjo (or Ledjo) was a disappointed priest who ran into exile when on the eve of his investiture he was virtually killed by a man who accused him of sleeping with his wife. In exile he fought for the French in almost all their colonies: Madagascar, Morocco, Vietnam, Algeria.
Everywhere he proved himself a formidable leader and a pitiless foe of colonised people struggling to be free. During his travels, he acquired the prestigious rank of Warrant Officer Second Class and the conviction that, in life, only treachery and deception triumph and that they always pay. This credo informed his conduct and, on his return to his country, he played the game of intrigue.
However, even though Ledjo fought against the nationalists he was a quasi-nationalist who believed in certain nationalist ideologies as the non-eternalness of white supremacy and also that the black man was not inherently evil. This ability to believe one thing and do another emphasised his cunningness and his ability to fluidly change beliefs. These socialist tendencies, in a time of the Cold War, lost him the presidency. The power-sharing agreement that followed made him the president of the National Security Committee; ironically, the committee became more powerful than the government and the National Assembly. 

Tima who was openly a communist and an anti-colonialist and had studied under the tutelage of a homosexual patron in France became the president of the National Assembly. To J.-L Crunet, a mulatto who was "unhappy not to be white, but happy not to be black" [116], was given the position of head of government. And Koyaga became the Minister of Defence. Crunet and Koyaga became the liberal conservatives, influenced by the West (during the Cold War) and Ledjo and Tima became the nationalists and progressives (influenced by the East).

However, because "if you pull off a big robbery with someone, you will never truly enjoy the spoils until the other person is dead [Allah is not Obliged, 95], there were counter coups and insurrections, which resulted in the deaths of the three and the elevation of Koyaga into the presidency. Having achieved this, he sought to visit his peers to learn from them the trade of becoming a president in Africa. 

As a quintessential Ahmadou novel, there is a large dose of political history of Africa in the story. In fact, it could easily be described as a historical novel, if not for its surrealism. What he wrote about some of the leaders, beginning from their childhood and their route to the presidency, made it easy to identify them; they are information that Wikipedia easily provides. Through Koyaga's visits to these leaders, Ahmadou describes how leadership worked in that given period in Africa and the type of people who sought it. He also described how leadership was taken away from the people who fought for independence and given to the colonialists' stooges, who continued with the colonialists' policies of oppression and therefore changed nothing in the country. He adds that, like a con artist, these new leaders put on charades to present themselves to the world as leaders who were ready to represent their people; leaders who had denounced communism. Gradually, when they had obtained the peoples' acceptance, and an absolute hold on power, they moved on to call themselves father of the nation, his excellency, and such, turning their countries into one-party states, themselves the only rulers. Ahmadou labelled almost every leader on the continent, directly or indirectly, whose political party was the only one and who had ruled for some time, a dictator. With this generalisation, Kwame Nkrumah and others became dictators. 

According to Kourouma a people are defeated only if they allow themselves to be defeated regardless of the opposition. Thus, Africans complicit in their own colonisation were also complicit in their subjugation by these leaders.

In all these, Ahmadou discussed the role of the colonialists in creating these monstrous leaders; more importantly he pointed to the consequential effect of Cold War policies on African leadership. So that leaders with socialist beliefs, or presumed to be socialists because of what they might have said, but of great capabilities were denounced and killed to be replaced by anti-communists of doubtful capabilities and insatiable lust for power. Yet ideologies are useless if they are strategised to benefit a few individuals under the pretext of helping the people - the masses. It is useless if it does not address the people's needs, for an ideology is nothing but a tool to shape lives, behaviours, thoughts and their outcomes (or effects). The intellectuals who should have remained true to their training, in an attempt to gain positions and enjoy the perks of power, rushed to legitimise the positions of these new leaders in histories, poems and with their words. Though political allegiances and ideologies shift, the motive for the quest of power does not shift; thus, an anti-colonialist's (or a nationalist's) motive is usually not different from a colonialist's (a stooge of the colonialists): one to enrich himself and his bosses, the other himself and his bosses. The end of both situations is the suffering of the masses.

Like Allah is not Obliged, this novel has received glowing reviews. It was described by the Spectator as 'a witty and wholly authentic chronicle of black African atrocity...spellbinding' and the Guardian as 'a thoroughgoing indictment of African way of leadership'. How dictatorship is a black African atrocity is difficult to understand, as if there has never been such type of leadership anywhere in the world, as if these dictators just appeared from nowhere. There is no African way of leadership. There is good leadership and bad leadership. Strangely, what these reviewers at the Guardian and Spectator forgot to add was the fingerprints of the West on all the dictators mentioned in this story. They suddenly suffered amnesia on those part of the story that showed that Emperor Bossouma of Pays du Deux Fleuves (Jean-Bedel Bokassa, later Emperor Bokassa, of the Central African Republic), the man whose totem was the leopard of République du Grand Fleuve (Mobutu Sese Seko of Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire), and the dictator whose totem is the caiman of République du Ébenes (Houphouet-Boigny of Cote d'Ivoire), all three fingered in the story, were supported and maintained massively by the imperialists in their East-West dichotomous game. In fact, these leaders chose their allegiances carefully and brutally declared their anti-communist stand during the Cold War, staunching the flow of Communism into Africa with all their might.
Democracies will only help people who are anti-communist. Even if the Cold War, the struggle between communists and the West, is just a friendly scuffle between white men, between the rich, we have to get involved. We Africans get involved so we can reap the fruits of victory! [286-7]
The relationship between these leaders and their Western counterparts, and the stance of the latter during the Cold War was highlighted throughout in the text. In fact, it is common knowledge how undemocratic the relationship between the West and Africa was at the time. It was clear that had the Devil declared himself anti-communist, these leaders would have found a way to work with him, as they did the world over. According to Wikipedia
In 1975, the French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing declared himself a 'friend and family member' of Bokassa. By that time France supplied its former colony's regime with financial and military backing. In exchange, Boskassa frequently took d'Estaing on hunting trips in Central Africa and supplied France with uranium, which was vital for France's nuclear energy and weapons program in the Cold War era.
The 'friendly and fraternal' cooperation with France - according to Bokassa's own terms - reached its peak with the imperial coronation ceremony of Bokassa I on 4 December 1977. The French Defence Minister sent a battalion to secure the ceremony; he also lent 17 aircraft to the new Central African Empire's government, and assigned French Navy personnel to support the orchestra. The coronation ceremony lasted two days and cost 10 million GBP [Great Britain Pounds], more than the annual budget of the Central African Republic. The ceremony was organized by the French artist Jean-Pierre Dupont. Parisian jeweller Claude Bertrand made his crown, which included diamonds. Bokassa sat on a two-ton throne modeled in the shape of a large eagle made form solid gold.
Of Mobutu Sese Seko, it says 
Installed and supported in office primarily by Belgium and the United States, he formed an authoritarian regime, amassed vast personal wealth, and attempted to purge the country of all colonial cultural influence while enjoying considerable support by the United States due to his anti-communist stance. ... 
During the First Republic era, France tended to side with the conservative and federalist forces as opposed to unitarists such as Lumumba. ... During the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, relations with the two countries gradually grew stronger and closer. In 1971, then Finance Minister Valery Giscard d'Estaing paid a visit to Zaire; later becoming President, he would develop close personal relationship with President Mobutu, and became one of the regime's closest foreign allies. During the Shaba invasions, France sided firmly with Mobutu: during the first Shaba invasion, France airlifted 1,500 Moroccan troops to Zaire, and the rebels were repulsed; a year later, during the second Shaba invasion, France itself would send French Foreign Legion paratroopers to aid Mobutu (along with Belgium).
Additionally, Kourouma narrated the long history of the DR Congo, from the role of King Leopold II and his use of mercenaries in running a country that was his personal property. Again, these narratives are not different from what is available in public domain. Again, quoting Wikipedia
Leopold extracted a fortune from the Congo, initially by the collection of ivory, and after a rise in the price in rubber in the 1890s, by forcing the population to collect sap from rubber plants. Villages were required to meet quotas on rubber collections, and individuals' hands were cut off if they did not meet the requirements. His regime was responsible for the death of an estimated 2 to 15 million Congolese. This became one of the most infamous international scandals of the early 20th century, and Leopold was ultimately forced to relinquish control of it to the Belgian government.
Consequently, the  idea to describe this evil repelled by the people, and supported and maintained by the West, as 'authentic African leadership...' is borne out of a prejudiced and warped mind bent on misinforming and putting the continent in that light. One could understand if this is meant as a marketing tool, for the publishers, to get as many Westerners, who turn to Africa to satisfy their love for the macabre and who think that is all the continent is good for, as possible to purchase it. But this goes beyond that. This is a deliberate attempt by those reviewers to skew the story to suit the West's construct of Africa. If anything at all, this is an authentic chronicle of Western influence in African politics and the effects of that acrimonious and sulphuric Cold War on governance in Africa.

The end of the Cold War marked the end of the usefulness of these dictators. Overnight, they became excess baggage that needed to be disposed off to save the sinking ship. They lost their appeal and their wickedness and lies - using communism as an excuse to crushing insurrections in their countries - were no longer countenanced. The new stories were reforms and democracy. However, as experienced politicians these leaders were able to transform themselves into the new governance system which became a condition for economic aid. And this is what happened to Koyaga, whose celebration of his thirtieth anniversary in power used up the entire resources of the country leading to protests and widespread violent demonstrations. When he shouted communism, he was told it had already been defeated, it no longer existed. He must reform if he were to receive any assistance. He must allow political parties to be formed and must go for elections, which he did in a spectacular manner, thus becoming the first democratic president of the country.

The narrative structure is somewhat complex. The story was narrated by Bingo, a griot, with interjections by Tiécoura, his assistant and Koyaga - the President, and his aide, Maclédio. But it was written down by a different person who occasionally appeared but largely remained anonymous, writing the story directly as Bingo reported, making it seem as if it is Bingo writing his story.

However, this story could have been half its size and would still have told all that it told. The extra stories were too long. It was almost as if Kourouma was writing the complete history of every figure or character in the story, even when it does not add to the story. This made some parts seem unnecessary and repetitive. For instance, excluding the entire lateral story of Maclédio and how he became Koyaga's right-hand man would have benefitted the story.

Furthermore, Ahamadou's penchant of intruding into his novels with his own understanding and point of views, though minimal in this story, was present. This always takes away from the novel. His personal influence could easily be distinguished from the characters'. It lacks that fluidity with which an author merges his desires with that of his characters so that the reader sees only the characters and not the author. However, his use of hyperbole in this story is accepted as griots are allowed to tell their stories in their own fashion.

On the side, it has been suggested elsewhere that the parodied the late Togolese Gnassingbé Eyadéma. For those who want a scathing read on African leadership during the Cold War read this book. However, if you want the same thing with much more bite read Wizard of the Crow.
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1 comment:

  1. I would have read this first before purchasing the novel. What an unreadable book!

    ReplyDelete

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