I have just finished reading Aminatta Forna’s book, The Devil That Danced on the Water. This is a daughter’s memoir of her father, her family, her country Sierra Leone and the African continent as a whole. It was featured by the BBC as its radio book of the week when it was published by Harper and Collins in 2002.
BY PIUS WAKATAMA
Aminatta was the daughter of Mohammed Forna, the former Sierra Leone’s minister of Finance who was harassed, imprisoned, tortured and later hanged by the dictator, President Siaka Stevens, on a trumped-up charge of treason. What took place in Sierra Leone at this time was a prelude to the brutal and devastating 11-year civil war which enveloped the whole country and left thousands dead or homeless. What intrigued and frightened me is the similarity of her account of what was going on in the country at the time her father was killed and what is happening in Zimbabwe today.
On April 19 1971, the parliament of Sierra Leone declared the country a Republic. Former policeman, Stevens, who was prime minister, became president with wide executive and legislative powers. In 1973 the first general election, under a republican constitution, was held. The main opposition party boycotted the election due to intimidation, violence and electoral irregularities, just as what happened in Zimbabwe when the MDC boycotted elections in 2008. As in Zimbabwe, the incumbent won unopposed.
And as in Zimbabwe today, Stevens’s regime was very repressive and corrupt. He grossly mismanaged the economy and he and his colleagues looted state resources to the point that the state was unable to deliver basic services like health and education. Those who dared to criticise him, some of whom were close associates, like Forna were harassed, imprisoned and killed. Forna’s real sin was that he had resigned from government because he was against the rampant corruption taking root in the country and strongly criticised Stevens’s autocratic rule.
While Forna wanted to see a prosperous and self-sufficient Sierra Leone, Stevens was bent on using the treasury as his private bank. The regime was so violent that gangs of unemployed urban youths were amply supplied with alcohol and drugs and used as intimidators and Siaka’s personal death squads. In desperation, thousands of Sierra Leoneans left their country to seek for better lives elsewhere. For those who remained, Aminatta said, the new measure of wealth was no longer money, land, cattle, goats or wives, but a son or daughter who had successfully emigrated to the West. This is the case in Zimbabwe today. One often hears comments like, “Mai nhingi vari kudya wena. Vane mwana ari kuUK.” [so-and-so are living comfortably because they have children in the UK].
At the end of 1985, after 14 years in power, Stevens resigned and handed over power to Saidu Momoh, but remained as chairman of the ruling All People’s Congress. However, the damage had been done and the stage for catastrophe set. On March 23 1991, civil war broke out and Sierra Leone became hell on earth. Thousands were left dead and homeless. Zimbabweans must be warned.
In Zimbabwe, criticising or opposing the government was, and is still, taboo. Consequences for so doing are dire. Many were killed. I was harassed, intimidated and arrested several times for writing and preaching against injustice and oppression by the government. The Daily News, for which I was writing a weekly column, was bombed and banned for being critical of the government. People were full of fear, even those within the ruling party. Friends pleaded with me to stop writing but I continued. In 2008 I was arrested but the judge found me not guilty of any crime. Later, a sympathiser who was in the system phoned to say that they were coming to get me. I had to flee to South Africa where I stayed until the formation of the Government of National Unity.
Today things have changed. People have had enough suffering to such an extent that they have lost their fear. Today, writers, journalists and critical analysts are publishing articles that one could have been killed for a few years ago. Even in the rural areas, villagers no longer look behind their backs before loudly venting their anger against the government. The fact that Zimbabweans are fast-losing their fear of Zanu PF is in itself ominous.
The factional war raging in Zanu PF is also ominous. One of the most respected senior members of Zanu PF, Cephas Msipa, spoke about Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis, saying that President Robert Mugabe’s government had failed the country badly. He warned that if the factional fights in Zanu PF continue, the country would be thrown into chaos.
The entrance of Joice Mujuru and her disenchanted allies into opposition politics is not to be taken lightly. The fact that she must have some support from within the security sector and among war veterans is not an issue for conjecture. Her background as a liberation war veteran can only be questioned by fools. If Zanu PF decides to deal with her formation violently, as they have done with other opposition parties, one can imagine the worst to happen.
A glimmer of hope lies in the fact that all opposition party leaders are calling for a united front to remove Zanu PF from power and bring sanity to Zimbabwe. It is good that most of them have indicated their willingness to work with Mujuru. However, given the great egos of Zimbabwean politicians, one is sceptical about a workable opposition coalition coming into being. As political commentator, Eldred Masungungure said, “Political egos are the anti-thesis of a coalition. It depends on whether Mujuru, Tsvangirai and the other opposition leaders are willing to swallow their egos for the greater good of the country.”
Mujuru’s manifesto is very good, but it is only a piece of paper. She must be wary that she does not bring into opposition politics the Zanu PF culture of greed and violence. That would be catastrophic. She can only avoid this by choosing carefully the people she will work with. Former Chegutu farmer, human rights activist and founder of the Mike Campbell Foundation, Ben Freeth recently said, “What Zimbabwe needs now to take the country forward is commitment to a new value system. We need people who are wise, honest, virtuous, courageous and hard-working — men and women who prize justice, righteousness and human rights above political ends, who look to better the lot of others rather than themselves. This has been the foundation of every successful society through history.”
If Freeth’s sentiments resonate with all Zimbabweans and such people come fearlessly forward for leadership, Zimbabwe will soon be free, indeed. The efforts of retired Bishop Sebastian Bakare, and those working with him in organising the National Convergence Platform convention, must be applauded and encouraged. It is imperative that ordinary Zimbabweans take the bull by the horns and stop relying on professional politicians to solve Zimbabwe’s myriad problems. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.