The fate of vultures

The title of my column this week comes from a poem by Nigerian writer and academic, Tanure Ojaide.

Ojaide is an uncompromising wordsmith who has long decried the looting of his country, in general and the oil-rich Niger Delta, in particular.

Sample this:

O Aridon, bring back my
wealth from rogue
– vaults; . . .
blaze an ash-trail to the hands
that buried mountains in their
lifted crates of cash
into their closets.

As a poet who is so immersed in the struggle for social justice, I am sure Ojaide would agree that it has been a momentous fortnight.

Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali is forced to flee Tunisia and his unceremonious departure causes an earthquake to the political edifice of the Arab World (Algeria, Yemen and Egypt are probably next in line) and former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier “Baby Doc” returns to Haiti.

So as one tyrant was fleeing, another one was homesick after twenty-five years enjoying Parisian delights.

On Tunisia, I was most intrigued by this piece of news from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), “The unrest which has spread to many parts of the country, including Tunis, was triggered by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed graduate, who set fire to himself on December 17 in the town of Sidi Bouzid, south east of the capital, Tunis. His desperate action came after the authorities stopped him from selling vegetables without a licence.”

There is a lesson in this that tyrants over the centuries have never understood.

A citizen who has tried all they can to realise a dream of a simple life but find themselves denied even a basic way of earning a living will explode at some point.

The great American poet Langston Hughes says it all:

What happens to a dream
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Yep, explode is the operative word in the Arab world at the moment. It seems the tyrants are wetting their pants now wondering if the Tunisian Harmattan will blow them off the stool of power.

But the wily Tunisian politicians have tried to concoct some government of national unity of their own, recycling the mafiosi that propped up Ben Ali for twenty-three years.

The Tunisian youth, though, have other ideas. They are demanding a new beginning.

I hope they get what they wish for because what I witnessed in Tunis in 2005 was a police state.

I had gone to attend the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

There was, of course, the great irony in this WSIS being held in Geneva (2003) and in Tunis (2005) – the former a land of secret bankers to the world’s dubious characters and the latter, a police state that had many activists, lawyers and journalists in its prisons.

So, here we were in a country ruled with an iron-fist discussing matters related to access, cost and availability of Internet and mobile technology to the majority of our people. Inevitably, such issues involve freedom of expression and access to information.

Just to give you a slice of the paranoia I will tell you what happened to me upon arrival in Tunis.

I had a professional video camera in its case and all.

Plainclothes police working with immigration officers went ballistic.

They wanted me to leave the camera at the airport and collect it on departure. A colleague from a southern African national broadcaster saved the day.

It seems tyrants do trust other African national broadcasters to do the right job. But we were warned: don’t film anything outside the United Nations summit venue.

Another lesson: in a dictatorship the culture of abuse of power seeps down. The immigration officer, police, passport clerk, all seem to have drunk water from the same stream of sadism.

The summit itself was a study in surrealism. The media activists and journalistic associations that wanted to take the United Nations to task for hosting this summit in such a repressive state were physically intimidated by members of the state-sponsored “NGOs”.

And hey, could those people organise themselves: crowding all the available microphones and shouting themselves hoarse.

They knew what the likes of IFJ and IFEX were going to demand: the release of journalists, lawyers and activists who were nothing but prisoners of conscience.

But the bootlickers defended their dear powdered and slick Berlusconi-look-alike Ben Ali and spoke of their country’s development under his wise leadership and how the “charlatans” in question had ended up in prison.

I remember one distinct character that was the most vocal and disruptive. I think her name was Saabie, a heavily-built and pugnacious person.

One key media gathering had to be abandoned as she raged on. It would be nice to see her now and ask if she will be following Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia.

Another lesson: when tyrants flee, they do one bad thing, they leave their henchmen and praise-singers behind to face the music alone.

You agree this is not fair, but a chartered jet can only carry so many wives, children, cats and dogs.

Across Africa, we await with bated breath as tyrants repeat the refrain what we have heard before, “Never in a thousand years!” Kenge.

Chris Kabwato is the publisher of

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