Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine


A Gathering Of Pretenders

The last time the Heads of State of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) tried a grand gesture, it fell flat.

This was back in 1980 and the meeting was in Lome. The Liberian 'revolution' had just taken place and the incumbent chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) President William Tolbert and many of his Ministers had been very publicly and gruesomely killed. The ECOWAS leaders of the time decided that they had to do something to demonstrate their abhorrence and distaste of such brutalities.

Since the organisation, like its bigger and older relation, the OAU is very keen not to "interfere in the internal affairs of member states," the leaders would not and could not state the obvious.

When the new Liberian Head of State, the then Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, was refused entry into the meeting, it was the most spectacular gesture ever to have been made by a gathering of African Heads of State. It was the sheer novelty of it all that was the main attraction of the ostracization of the Master-Sergeant. African Heads of State had demonstrated that they were very long on rhetoric and incredibly short on action and many people were surprised that they were able to marshal enough courage on this occasion.

But then it was all essentially only a gesture which could not even be maintained.

The problem being that there were not many among the assembled Heads of State who could in all conscience cast the first stone, as it were, at the Master Sergeant.

Many of them had themselves come to power through similar means and some of those that went through legitimate means had transformed themselves into despots. However, at that time, there were among the assembled Heads, people like Shehu Shagari of Nigeria and Hilla Limann of Ghana who, for all their indecision at home could not be accused of unleashing terror on their fellow citizens.

With such people in ascendancy, the ECOWAS Heads felt strong enough to take their unprecedented step. Suddenly there were visions of a strong and powerful community that would insist on a certain minimum standard of behaviour among member countries.

Some commentators were actually seeing the ECOWAS in the same league as the European Community successfully ostracizing the Greek colonels. For one brief moment many hoped that future coup makers in Africa will consider hinderances other than the capture of the local radio station and consider the possibility they will have to face a world outside that might not be overtly impressed by their swagger at home.

But then it remained just that - a brief moment of hope. The assembled Heads appeared to have surprised themselves and hurriedly murmured apologies.

This past week, the venue was again Lome except that the circumstances were a little different. The Liberian leader now General Doe is now one of the "elder statesmen" among the group, senior to the likes of Flight Lieutenant Rawlings of Ghana, Captain Sankara Burkina Faso and Maj-Gen. Buhari of Nigeria, all of whom came to power in circumstances not unsimilar to Gen Doe even though not as bloody.

The atmosphere can only be imagined among the assembled Heads in Lome when the news came through of the coup attempt in Conakry. The words employed by the coup leader could have been those used by any of them in seizing power in their individual countries. Economic problems and the suffering of the citizens have always been very convenient excuses for staging coups and Col. Traore was laying those same charges against Col. Lansana Conte. Luckily for Col. Conte the attempt failed in Conakry and he was able to return home in triumph. Very significant though were the loud silences of his colleagues and their studied avoidance of uttering any comments.

It couldn't have been far from anybody's mind that part of the reason attendances of ECOWAS and OAU summits had plummeted was the fact that they provide the traditional opportunity for African Heads to be overthrown and one could normally tell the confidence of the various Heads by the absences.

If the Guinean coup had succeeded the new leader would have been welcomed to the OAU meeting next week and at next year's ECOWAS summit if he survived that long.

Obviously there are not many African leaders who will have the normal courage to condemn anything that happens anywhere on the continent except in apartheid South Africa. The result being that most of them spend most of their energies looking over their shoulders and making meaningless and non-effective speeches at international gatherings.

It is no wonder that they don't impress anybody seeing they are not even convinced of their own words. The tragedy is that for as long as this continues, the international credibility so avidly craved by African leaders will never be achieved.

Pretending that somebody is the legitimate leader of his country because he had guns behind him only mean that Africa will remain in the pitiable state it is now and every gathering of African Heads of State will remain the unfunny and unproductive spectacles they are now.

The moral courage that will enable Heads of State to exclude anybody will belong only to those whose w records can stand any scrutiny and who came to power having been given a mandate by their people. Until that day, a gathering of African Heads of State will remain a group where qualifications will be the lowest common denominator needed for bullies. Belonging to will be nothing to aspire to or to be proud of and all the members will continue to live with the knowledge that each meeting might be their last.

talking drums 1985-07-15 guinea sekou toure's legacy - writing for young africa