Nigeria: Give Them the Cage

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Mahmud Jega, 8 August 2011


The most amusing story out of all Africa last week was probably the one out of Mombasa, Kenya, when former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo expressed indignation that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appeared before an Egyptian court two days earlier, bedridden and in a cage like a circus tiger.

Speaking at an African Leadership Conference, Obasanjo said the treatment meted out to Mubarak was bad for the image of Africa as a continent. He said, “Put him in a cage? It is not proper. He deserves a better treatment. This is not good for the image of Africa.” Obasanjo also demanded dignified treatment for Mubarak, saying as a former head of state, he was entitled to personal dignity befitting his status.

Very good. I am not surprised at all that Obasanjo was horrified by the caging of Hosni Mubarak, the last in the long line of Egyptian Pharaohs dating back 5,000 years. Old man Obasanjo must have seen many parallels between his own life and that of Mubarak. Hosni Mubarak was a soldier [actually an airman] who became a civilian ruler, though not a very civil one. Obasanjo too was a soldier who later became a civilian ruler, though he never really became civil; one day in 2001, he snatched a cane from the hands of a Civil Defence corpsman in Lokoja who was whipping spectators at a public event and gave him several strokes of his own cane.

Mubarak was once the Chief of the Egyptian Air Force before he became one of Anwar Sadat’s three vice presidents. Obasanjo had been the General Officer Commanding the 3 Marine Commando Division during the Nigerian Civil War, and was later Federal Commissioner [Minister] for Works before he became Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, i.e. vice president, in 1976. Both Mubarak and Obasanjo rose to the top jobs when their bosses were assassinated, Obasanjo’s in 1976, Mubarak’s in 1981.

Obasanjo’s biggest regret, from all indications, was that when he took over after Murtala’s killing in 1976, he made the mistake of handing over power to civilians in 1979. By 1995 he was in the Yola Prison cage, and he didn’t like the taste of it. He was lucky to have bounced back to power 20 years after he handed over. He must have been envious that Mubarak, who took over in 1981, was still there when he returned in 1999. Obasanjo ruled for another 8 years and Mubarak was still there. 5 years after Obasanjo left Aso Rock, Mubarak was still there, so he was very envious of this exemplary sit-tight African ruler.

Come to think of it, Obasanjo’s Third Term agenda must have been inspired by Mubarak, who ruled Egypt with an iron hand for nearly 30 years. Even the alleged crimes for which Mubarak was put in a cage, i.e. the shooting protesters at Tahrir Square, old man Obasanjo had pioneered them, for under his watch, soldiers shot protesting students at Unilag and ABU, Zaria in 1978, and still later under his watch, soldiers ransacked Odi and Zaki Biam towns, killing scores of innocent people.

Okay, maybe putting Mubarak in a cage was not very good for Africa’s image, as Obasanjo said, but the kind of things that African rulers like him did, where does he want us to put them in the event that we catch them? On golden beds?

I want to ask the African statesman Obasanjo: between putting Mubarak in a cage and the live television images we saw early this year of pro-Mubarak tribesmen charging into a very crowded Tahrir Square on camels, trampling scores of people as they went, which one did more damage to Africa’s image? I also want to ask him: when Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa lined up thieves in a public square in Bangui in 1972 and personally beat them to death, would putting him in a cage be more damaging to Africa’s image? Okay, when agents of the Ugandan Bureau of State Research drove a six-inch nail into the skull of the country’s Chief Justice Benedicto Kiwanuka in 1975, assuming we caught Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada after he fled to Jeddah in 1979, would putting him in a cage be more damaging to our image? If we catch the “unknown soldier” who threw Fela Ransome-Kuti’s mother from a storey building in 1977 and put him in a cage, is that more damaging to our image? In short, which one is better for our image: television pictures of children starving to death due to misrule, or the culprit ex-rulers in a cage?

There were many African leaders who ran away when their people were looking for them. If we catch any of them and put him in a cage, would that be more damaging than what they did during their years of misrule? Maybe even if Ugandans had caught Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada, Life President and Conqueror of the British Empire, no Ugandan carpenter could construct a cage big enough to hold Big Daddy, the former military boxing champion who had the girth of a sumo wrestler.

Maybe if Somalis had captured General Siad Barre [who, incidentally, was hidden by the Nigerian government], putting him in a cage would have been less damaging to Africa’s image than the ongoing piracy in the Indian Ocean, or the spectre of a country without a central government for 20 years, not to mention the impending famine.

Chief Obasanjo himself pioneered the sheltering of rogue African rulers on Nigerian soil when he offered asylum to Chad’s deposed ruler General Felix Maloum in 1978. Soon afterwards, Nigeria serially sheltered Siad Barre, Liberia’s Prince Yormie Johnson, Sierra Leone’s Corporal Foday Sankoh and Liberia’s President Charles Taylor, all of whom deserved to be in cages somewhere, not in posh guest houses.

If the Ethiopians had captured Lt Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam when he fled Addis Ababa in 1991, the cage that will hold him must be reinforced with barbed wire, given the Dergue boss’ notorious temper. Was it for nothing that Sir Dauda Jawara fled The Gambia in 1994 after ruling for 33 years? Or that Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko took off from Gbadolite in northern Zaire to Morocco and ultimately to the French Riviera; if he had stayed in Kinshasa when Joseph Kabila’s troops entered town, would putting him in a cage made from Zairean copper be worse for Africa’s image than the murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1961?

Fair is fair; Mubarak was not the first alleged criminal that the Egyptians ever put in a cage. The soldiers that shot President Anwar Sadat in 1981, led by Lt Khalid Ahmed Showki al-Islambouli, didn’t they appear in court in a cage? Many elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the blind cleric Sheikh Omar Abdul-rahman, later jailed in America for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, all appeared in Egyptian courts in cages. Actually the Egyptians are benevolent; isn’t caging better for Africa’s image than cutting off a former president’s ear and putting it in his mouth, as Prince Yormie Johnson did to the captured Liberian President Samuel Kanyon Doe in 1990?

I am even suspicious of that African Leadership Conference in Mombasa. Anybody who ruled a giant African country for a total of 11 and a half years, yet he was not given the $5m prize for good governance by the Sudanese telecoms tycoon Mo Ibrahim, must himself be a candidate for the cage. Why did they invite him to a conference on African leadership?

Already, there are signs in Nigeria here that a man handpicked and installed in power by Obasanjo is fascinated by the Mubarak/Obasanjo example and has abandoned promise delivery for tenure elongation. That is the kind of thing that makes some people candidates for an Egyptian-style cage.


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