Army Cook Who became His Excellency the President

John Otim

Excerpts from Strongman forthcoming novel by John Otim

Most of the previous night there were shooting and shelling and gun fights all over town. As dawn broke and the sun rose smoke billowed over the city. On radio and on television marshal music played all morning long. All regular programs were canceled. Then came the coup announcement. And as the news spread the new dictator rode into the city in great style in an open army jeep and gladly surrendered himself to the adoring crowds that had all of a sudden gathered at City Square.

Armored personnel carrier and thick lines of heavily armed soldiers marching along on foot escorted his motorcade. People thronged the streets in their numbers, dancing to welcome Al Harun. Their approval, so easily given now, some say carelessly given, helped the General entrench his still shaky grips on power. Professor Ali Mani of the local university and the ambassadors of the three powers that arranged the coup, promptly issued a joint statement, relayed live around the world.

“It is abundantly clear”, Ali Mani read in his sonorous voice as all four of them stood on the dais side by side with their man, “that General Mahmud Al Harun today commands widespread popular support in the Mountain Capital.

“You only have to be here this morning where we are at this very moment at City Square, to witness this amazing crowd that has turned up in numbers to welcome him freely of their own accord.

“We call upon the rest of the world”, Ali Mani read on, “to support General Al Harun and his new government at this critical moment in his country’s history. Your support now publicly and openly expressed is crucial to the peace and stability of this beautiful and still young country.”

No body stopped to ask whether the crowd in the capital, large though it was, was representative of the country. Or whether it was some crowd that had its own axe to grind and had been assembled there for just such a purpose. Soon invitations started to arrive for the new man to visit foreign capitals in his new capacity as the new head of state. They came from the Israelis. They came from the British. The Americans were more circumspect. The Queen always so careful, threw caution to the winds and put the centuries old prestige of her Royal family on the line and invited the new man  for a banquet at Buckingham Palace.

When the news came through State House went wild. If God himself had invited Al Harun to dinner it would not have been any heartier. Bugles and trumpets sounded out, fireworks cut the evening sky over the capital, Champaign bottles popped opened. Glasses were raised and were clicked in celebration. The State House declared an instant party to which all diplomats, prelates, cabinet ministers, heads of government departments, and the big moneymen of the city were instantly invited.

As for the dancing crowds on the streets, they had no idea what was coming their way. In the weeks ahead, one by one, people they knew; their neighbors, their friends, their relatives, they themselves, would get picked in the middle of the night. Those picked, would disappear without a trace, never to be seen again on the face of the earth. In the age of General Mahmud Al Harun, life had become suddenly expandable. There came a time, when there was not a man or a woman left in the Mountain Capital that did not know of someone who had disappeared. Often that someone would be their close relative, their close friend, or they themselves, as their wretched and amazingly still breathing body awaited execution in the dungeons of the State Research Bureau, despite the beatings and the torture it had endured. Soon the word to disappear came to mean, murdered. The number of victims rose rapidly till people stopped counting.

Attired in the full uniform of the army General, Mahmud Al Harun appeared every bit the star actor V S Naipaul said he should have been, had he lived in a large enough economy that offered individuals opportunities according to talents. The man was a born showman. In a poor and backward colonial society, the young Al Harun found himself drifting into the colonial army as a cook for the boys. It was a survival move on his part and survive he did. He was strong, he had a fine physic, and was obedient and eager to please his white masters. They soon noticed him and reassigned him to regular army duties as a private. He rose rapidly through the ranks. On the eve of his country’s independence he found himself head of his country’s army with the rank of brigadier. The rest is history.

Mahmud Al Harun had a knack for making friends. He sought out people. People sought him out. People liked him. He was a jovial and generous man. But the facade harbored a cruel and sinister side. In the years ahead his own wife would secretly warn his own friends, be careful of my husband, he is a dangerous man. Now his foreign friends had come to the conclusion that they needed to resume control of the Mountain Capital [their former colony] and its lucrative economy. The fellow in government was a nuisance, unnameable, shouted too much about apartheid, about imperialism, about Palestinian freedom, as if he could feed his country’s teaming millions upon words alone. It was time to ditch him.

The powers that be were looking for a pliable instrument of indirect rule. In Al Harun they found, their man. They helped him to power. Al Harun’s gratitude knew no bounds, he would do anything for his new masters. Al Harun was that kind of person, either all or nothing. But once in power Al Harun found himself out of depths. His foreign friends smiled. It was exactly what they wanted and what they knew would happen. Now he will depend us, they laughed. And that was what happened. When there was a crisis in the army, he went to  them. They defused the crisis. When there was a crisis of liquidity, he went to them, they bailed him out. When he fell sick, they took him abroad and cured him.   But they exacted a heavy price. As president, Al Harun found himself without a semblance of power. He did not like it. All critical decisions were now taken at the Embassy and relayed to him for implementation. It worked for a while as the honeymoon lasted.  But in his heart of hearts the African was a free man and wanted to be his own man.

How can I, a married man who goes home and sleeps with his own wife, become the play thing of other men.

That for Al Harun was the bottom line.

I have balls and so do they! There is nothing they have that I do not have!  

Al Harun once said that he feared no man but God. As it turned out the man did not fear God. How could anyone fear God and kill God’s children?

As Head of State Al Harun was distracted by the spectacle and paraphilia of power. For a model of governance, he had only the tranny of the colonial Governor, and before that, the absolutism of the old feudal kingdoms, to go by. He really had no idea how to govern a modern state. This in part, but in part only, explains the wanton killings he soon indulged in. Assassination, murder, torture, rape. These became the instruments of governance.

On the morning of the coup announcement, he drove his own jeep to the parade ground flanked by police outriders, comically waving to the crowds that thronged the streets to see him. Foreign journalists scurried to get that headline making image, of this new African phenomenon, that they were already calling, the Noble Savage, for they pictured themselves as the new Tarzan in the jungle.

The Strongman beamed from ear to ear. He wooed and won the World. He embraced his new role as the Noble Savage. It  was as it turned out a very clever move. He had the whole world play into his hands. Now he could and did disguise his many atrocities under the cover of a clown and a fool.  Al Harun was a genius, some would say of the evil type. He could kill your mother and leave you cheering. In a population of six million he wiped out a million people in eight years, and left half the country still cheering him.