Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Africa - land of land of political volcanoes

by Mohammed Hakeen

The South African emergency regulations have caused a ripple in diplomatic circles throughout the world. In this article the writer attempts a comparison of the repressive apartheid regime and dictatorial military regimes in Africa.
When live volcanic mountains throw out hot molten lava they take no one by surprise. So it is, these days, when there is violent change of Government in Africa, or maybe one can go further and say in the Third World. Illegal overthrow of constitutional governments by military coup d'etat has come to be a major identification mark of a third world country, in particular the black African one.

Indeed one may recall the blunt but correct observation made by a British Prime Minister in the sixties. He made a statement which did hurt many, but then it was the truth stated. It was during the debate as to whether or not Britain should join the European Economic Community.

The Prime Minister was asked whether he sought the opinion of the member countries whose economic future might be more directly affected by the British entry into the EEC. The answer was straight and simple - how could he hinge such a vital decision on Britain's future on the opinion of African leaders who were temporary, here today gone tomorrow?

You may say but this is true of leadership of any country. Yes, it is.. There is no country where the Government does not have changes. But what is significant is the method used in bringing about that change. In settled and mature nations the method is equally settled and mature in the sense that its nature has been defined by a long standing, respected and accepted convention.

The Government belongs to the people and it is they who put it in charge of their affairs and retain the right to remove it by the very method used in putting that Government in power in the first place. In other words the mandate to govern the people comes from, and through the ballot box and the mandate has a time limit. agreed ab-initio even though renewable through mutual consent and decided at future elections.

In primitive, semi-primitive and what in sophisticated terms are called "developing countries" or Third World, the respect for the ballot box is extremely fragile. The will of the people is anything but supreme. They are at the mercy of the military elite using trigger-happy-soldiers.

It was Sudan and lately it is Uganda in a series of political volcanic eruptions. For record purposes, we should note that the Ugandan coup is the 140th violent change of government in Black Africa since the wave of independence began just over twenty years ago. So, on the average, one is talking of seven coups a year in the Black African independent states.

There is hardly a black African country today which is independent and where one can say the people are living in peace and harmony and experiencing no oppression in one form or another.

Whichever way you may care to look at it, the fact remains that it constitutes an impressive record of instability to show to the rest of the world. It is a clear proof of a gap which we least wish to admit or talk about. This is more recognisable when it comes to showing tolerance or respect for the opinion of those being governed.

There is hardly a black African country today which is independent and where one can say the people are living in peace and harmony and experiencing no oppression in one form or another. If you can contradict me and mention one, I will tell you the number of people in jail on political dissension or murdered by those in power for some reasons or living in exile in other lands! It is sad for it is a fact that thereā€¦ from independent African States typical examples of black persecuting black.

It is interesting to read an observation made by a London newspaper, the SUN. The paper said that "apart from Kenya which is haunted by corruption, all the Black States are either military dictatorships or one party tyrannies".

It seems that the SUN picked Kenya as an exception, though not free from the general accusation on all Africa - corruption. One may ask just one question or possibly two. What became, for example, of Tom Mboya? Where is Oginga Odinga today? But maybe by comparison, the SUN found more political tolerance in Kenya than in any other Black African country, and therefore by African standards Kenya stands as a shining example.

Let us move on. The SUN continued by saying "We condemn South Africa's apartheid as evil and doomed. Yet suppose the Afrikaaners surrender power tomorrow to the Black races. What reason do we have for believing that the freedom will suddenly flower there when it is dead and dying everywhere else in the African continent?"

Regardless of how biased you are or opposed to South Africa, regardless of how nationalistic you are in support of independence for Africa, one thing you cannot honestly deny is that the question raised by the SUN is not only relevant but also fundamental. Go through the entire continent and look at the records, sentiment aside, and you will arrive at the reality.

You may not wish to admit it in the open for it is not only disheartening but also disgraceful. Well, maybe you will keep your conclusions between the lines only for those who can see. Let us ask this question. By how much is what is happening in South Africa today more detestable than what is today happening to the people say in Nigeria for example?

In South Africa people are arrested and detained without trial, under the cover of emergency laws. In Nigeria people are arrested and detained without trial under emergency laws. Worse, in Nigeria not only are there no elections, people are told that they have no right to even discuss the future of their country.

Even to ask questions such as when will the country be returned to the people (i.e. elections) is regarded as raising issues that endanger the security of the State. Let us ask, where is the difference between this state of affairs and what obtains in South Africa?

One further comparison - in South Africa the blacks are restricted and confined to 'homelands'. They are to be seen in the cities only if they are employed there and during working hours. Also the blacks have no passports to freely visit other countries of the world. Come now to Nigeria. The people are stopped at countless checkpoints manned by police or Army or both. All sorts of questions are asked, including those which are impossible to answer.

So here you are restricted to your house, if you want to be free from these harassments which may lead to detention. One even hears of mobile courts that can charge a driver with anything and fine him on the spot and failure to pay there and then would land him in prison, where he may remain forgotten until he rots!

Many Nigerians had their passports confiscated by the Nigerian Security Organisation (NSO), and prevented from travels abroad. The people have been told that issuance of passport should be regarded as a privilege not a right. All sorts of obstacles are placed in the way of those applying for new passports excuses are never difficult to find in denying the people their entitle- ment. Even where a person is lucky enough to have passport he has to pay a special tax of one hundred naira before he can leave the country.

So if denial of freedom of movement is wrong in South Africa what makes it right in Nigeria? If harassment of the blacks in South Africa is criminally wrong and indeed it is wrong what makes it right in Nigeria?

A Ghanaian, Professor George Ayittey, wrote and I quote: "Apartheid is an abomination. But the sad fact is that many of the black African leaders who applaud sanctions against South Africa have instituted de facto apartheid regimes in their own country. Countries against their own black people".

One cannot help admitting the truth of this observation. For years, all efforts from the Front-line, Middle- line and Rear-line States to fight the Apartheid Government of South Africa have not met with success. Why? Because there is so much contradiction, dishonesty and hypocrisy. As Shakespeare said in one of his plays, "words without action, cannot to Heaven go", let me add by saying that half-hearted action submerged in hypocrisy and contradiction can also never to Heaven go!

I have made but a brief comparison between the situation in Nigeria today and South Africa. The list is not exhaustive and from it we can draw parallels. But imagine the cheek of it, Major General Buhari talking about apartheid. How can he, of all people ignore his doings in Nigeria and condemn Botha? In fact Botha has a better claim to speak for South Africa than Buhari has to speak for Nigeria.

Even if one does not accept the kind of election that brought Botha to power, one cannot deny that there was some kind of election; and people, though minority of the population, did cast their votes. Buhari came to 'power' only through a coup! There were no elections, not even among the 250,000 or so members of the 'Nigerian' Armed Forces!

The lawful task of the military is to protect the people from external aggression. In order to enable them discharge this duty, the people supply them with and allow them to carry and keep weapons in trust.

I conclude by calling for a uniform standard. Oppressive rule is, and must be exposed as, unacceptable, regardless of where it is or by whom it is! By Black or White, in South Africa or in Nigeria dictatorship is to be opposed! The people must be acknowledged as the supreme power over their own affairs.

In any country the military is part and parcel of the society and its functions within that society are well defined. That function is given to the military by the society, in other words the people. In accepting to carry out its assignments, as defined by the people in writing, those who join the military take an oath of loyalty to defend and protect the territorial integrity of the country.

In other words, the lawful task of the Military is to protect the people from external aggression. In order to enable them discharge his duty, the people supply them with and allow them to carry and keep weapons in trust. To turn round and use the same weapons on the people with a view to much taking over political or any other form of control is criminal and therefore unacceptable. It is an act of treachery to say the least. No reason can be invented to justify it and it is more ridiculous for those who have committed the offence to decree "laws" to legalise an illegality.

Let me give a brief anecdote which best illustrates the position. Imagine you employing a security guard, i.e. a watchman, to watch over your house and guard against intrusion or trespass by outsiders. Then one day you went out to a party and returned late. On arrival at your gate the watchman denied you entry claiming that he had taken over the house because he felt that you were running it "wrongly".

He went on to say that he had also taken over your family because he could look after them better. The watchman took advantage of the matchets, bows and arrows, etc which you have bought and given to him in trust.

At this point some little advice may not be out of place. Those who have seized power must never forget its transitory nature.

Buhari in Nigeria claims that he understands this by lamenting at the fate of those who once ruled Nigeria. What is interesting, however, is that he carefully avoids mentioning where President Shagari is and why. He described the situation of all the others that are alive.

For the records, it should not be forgotten that President Shehu Shagari remains the most popularly elected leader that Nigeria has ever had. From the desert encroaching areas of the extreme North to the sea en- croaching areas of the extreme South, people in their millions voted freely for this one man. Today he allegedly lies sick under military detention. Those who are responsible will be held accountable.

It is a pity, indeed it is sad. Nigeria, once said to be the pride of Black Africa, its most populous country, rich in oil, advanced in culture and educa- tion, a model of democracy etc, etc, is today a land comparable to only very few places in terms of repression. Once it was the land of free association, free movement, free speech.

Today all these, and more, are no more! It is now a land of secret Military Tribunals, unlawful detentions, a land of NSO harassment, a land of Decree No. 4. In short, it is a land of misery and persecution. All the atrocities are carried out in the name of "reviving the economy". Economy now takes precedence over life and liberty.

In Nigeria we have a case of Black-on-Black. Comparable to South Africa in oppression, Nigeria is certainly one of Africa's live political volcanoes.

talking drums 1985-08-12 Ghana's former vice-president speaks from exile