10 December 2004

The move to more democratic and open politics in Africa
Essay by Cherno Omar BARRY

“Independence/ Then what? Freedom?” These were some of the words of Chinua Achebe in one of his interviews in response to the fate of post-colonial Africa. Almost all the African colonised countries have more than thirty-years of independence. However, little or no improvement has been made in assuring a safe socio-politico-economic environment for the poor natives for whom this independence is fought. Chinua Achebe, Sembene Ousman, Mongo Beti, Amadou kourouma, to name but a few among many writers, have played the writer’s role of questioning the fate of the less privileged. They denounced the politics of empty promises, embezzlement of funds, unjustified killings and the establishement of monarchs which have ever since become priorities on the national agenda of most black African states.
Tijan Sallah, in his poem “Second Independence”, has added his voice to this outcry. “Second Independence” is a poem publised in Dreams of Dusty Roads, a collection of poems published in 1993 by Three Continents Press. The poem is dedicated to one of his closest friends, Tanure Ojaide, who lectures at the University of North Carolina, and with whom he has edited a collection of African poems.
In this poem Tijan uses animal imagery which he says he did to capitalise on some of their peculiar traits and characteristic. He uses the bird because it can fly and percieve the wrongs and rights affecting its environment, but vulnerable to redoubtable predations. These birds symbolise the poor powerless natives. The hyena, symbolising those in power or those with the strings that can effect change at national level, is the greedy predator that tries to get everything for itself and gives little concern for the welfare of the weaker animals, of its kind.
For the benefit of the reader and to facilitate our analysis, we reproduce the full poem:

Birds empty their dreams under the moon’s taillight,
The hyenas must go.
Birds will celebrate their fate.

The hyenas have been greedy;
They fed on every part of our forest.
They trampled on the saplings.
They trampled on the grass.
They feasted on bird-meat;
They did their libations with bird-blood
The hyenas must go.
Their fate is wreathed in rust.

In the summer of our laughter,
Between whiffs of corn-tassels,
The hyenas stole our freedom,
Tossed our dreams into their jails
To fan up some fears.
The hyenas have been greedy.
The hyenas must go.

The hyenas must go,
With their praise-singers and gong.
We need to retrieve our laughter.
We need to retrieve our hearts.
So the hyenas must go.
We have no need for their cunning.

In Bamako, Banjul, and Bangui
Birds campaign to restore our laughter.
They celebrate with kus-kus.
They celebrate with their songs.

The hyenas must go.
They have ravaged our forests with terror.
Birds celebrate their fates;
More hyenas must go.

Tijan uses the hyena to represent retrogressive African leaders, whose only wish is to enrich themselves on the expense of their people who have confidence in them and who vote them in the place they are now occupying. The forest represents the source of salvation for the birds, their country, and yet these hyenas not only destroy the safety of that haven but “trample on the saplings” thus preventing possibilities of salvation for the future.
Africa has witnessed dictators in the likes of Idi Amin, ‘Emperor’ Bokassa, Mobutu Sese Seko, Samuel Doe, Sani Abacha, (may God have mercy on their souls) who like hyenas, have feasted on the weaklings. Power, which finally became absolute for them, has blinded them to the extend of neglecting the deplorable conditions of their own people. These people, who keep struggling hard to survive. In the end, the lucky ones earn barely enough to feed themselves.
Diseases strike mercilessly, famine ravages towns, and poor, unhealthy and nauseatingly smelly environments permeating the lapidating houses of these unprivileged ignored natives punctuate their daily lives. Yet all these peoples’ hopes lie in those they look up to as their leaders, praying silently in their rickety beds for salvation to come take them out of their woe. Yet, those few privileged ones - having forgotten those painful memories of childhood when father comes home quiet and thoughtful, and food, no matter the quality, lies on the floor to be shared – bask in ill-earned wealth, gluttons of excellent food, take numerous trips on hard-earned taxpayers money, drive expensive cars, wear classy cloths and smile at the natives who hungrily look on hoping one day this luck will fall on their pathway. In fact, their likes create a protective environment for themselves and flanked by egocentric wolves, whose priority lies trying to protect the juicy bones thrown at them.

The hyenas must go,
With the praise-singers and gong.

African presidents have always feared to lose the priviledges bestowed on them by their own people. What with easily accumulating the nation’s wealth, meeting powerful people, recieving royal treatment everywhere, it would be difficult to envisage losing all that for another miserable behind the scene life. Why are hyenas then fighting for the best part of the prey? Even the praise singer is not fooled to recognise who is ready to share that juicy part of the prey; the winning hyena. It does not have to be a heroic one; it just needs to control the larger part of the prey. The poet calls for the hyenas to leave and bring peace to the minds of the birds so that they can retrieve their laughter and their hearts.
This strong call for the hyenas to go is very timely. For Africa, especially black Africa is today subjected to a lot of civil strife and tribal wars. It is also a cry to save the deplorable fate of countries facing serious economic problems thus agravating the poverty conditions of the less priviledged ones. It can be very easy to assume people are allright when one is not subjected to a hard-earned one meal a day. If that is aggravated with unrest, it makes access to food more difficult and flares more anger amongs the population. This was the condition in which the colonial masters subjected its colonised people in order to make them completely dependent. These are the same conditions most African governments are subjecting their people to easily goven them. It becomes easy to put blame elsewhere and claim to bring salvation. Isn’t that another colonisation? In an interview with Network 2000, Tijan says:

They (the African leaders) lack vision. They are in power just for its own sake. They have resisted any call for democracy. They falsely argue that democracy is western and not applicable to Africa. [...] I don’t see anything in the tenets and ideals of democracy which is contradictory to an African Existence.

The reason behind writing the poem, Tijan reveals at the end of the interview, is because he was inspired by the ongoing sea-change in Africa, the move to more democratic and open politics, where human rights are protected and human progress embraced. It is important to note that, only Africans can help organise themselves. A second independence is necessary where African politicians can trust African intellectuals, who will in turn sit together to find a lasting solution to peace. With peace, African nations have the chance to think of many ways to help each other in all levels of national and international development. However, as long as political leaders are not finding ways to sustain their own socio-politico-economical development, Africa shall still bend to the whims of their colonial masters, who, in the first place are the ones they struggled against to gain independence. As long as African states depend wholly on external forces to help develop their economy, they can as well call them to take over once again and demand to be re-colonised. So far, Africa has shamed the great heroes of the African struggle for independence. Our new leaders have the task of proving us wrong and looking back into history to prepare our future. God bless our African nations.
NB: There could be quite a different interpretation of the imagery hyena for the colonisers and the birds for the colonised. This is left at your discretion.

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