Friday, September 2, 2011

Penned from the Palace

Somebody once said writers belong to the streets, not the palace. But there are those who have defied this unofficial creed -- like Vaclav Havel, Barack Obama and Leopold Senghor -- to issue timeless works from the comfort of their presidential homes.

In Africa, such leaders ruled in the post-independence era, during which many compiled their political beliefs and life stories into numerous books, some of which still remain important references in academic institutions.

Although their grand dreams failed, most African founding fathers will forever be remembered through their immortal words.

Today, perhaps one of the most compelling modern day presidential memoirs, besides Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom, is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's The Child Will Be Great.

Her's is an epic depiction of human resilience, endurance and struggle against seemingly insurmountable hurdles, and all that in an environment hostile to women.

After surviving an era of military coups, detention, warlords and overcoming the popular George Weah in closely contested elections to inherit a literally failed state ravaged by years of war, Ma Ellen, as she is popularly known, still remains upbeat throughout the pages of this moving book.

She describes Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson, two warlords who were pitted in bloody battles for supremacy for many years, as undisciplined, homicidal maniacs, and goes on to revisit the 26 -ear-old mayhem in words reminiscent of scenes from the under-appreciated 2005 film, Lord of War.

"They gave boys as young as nine drugs to fuel their ferociousness," she explains. "They gave them... guns... and permission to take whatever they wanted, and then sent them out to villagers and countryside to loot, rape, fight and kill."

Other African presidents who have compiled their ideas into books include deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi, whose controversial Green Book outlines his outrageous political views; Ketumire Masire and Yoweri Museveni. Read on:

President Daniel arap Moi and Raila Amolo Odinga

Okay, these two did not write their memoirs, but their biographies are worthy a mention here.

Although they realize the power of the written word in boosting popularity and posterity, many leaders today either lack time or talent to pen their memoirs, if the huge number of journalists and university dons being hired to do the work is anything to go by.

And while many of these biographers have been hailed for compiling exemplary works, some have been accused of telling their subjects' tales in a manner that, most often than not, leaves many stones unturned.

When Nigerian lawyer Babafemi Badejo's Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics hit the bookshelves four years ago, many Kenyans ran for it, hoping to understand the Prime Minister's rocky past, especially his role, if any, in the 1982 attempted coup.

But, to their disappointment, the book turned out to be a hugely sympathetic story that denied readers a chance to understand one of Kenya's most... enigmatic... politicians.

"It has a weakness, in that, despite the rich variety of sources, the book comes like a dry chronicle, rather than an engaging and sensitive portrait. One gets the feeling that quite a lot is being held back, although the author secured full cooperation from his subject," says one critic, who goes on to lavish praise on the book's vivid and detailed recount of Kenya's political events in the last three decades.

Before Dr Badejo, Andrew Morton had narrated the story of retired President Daniel Arap Moi in Moi in The Making of an African Statesman.

Labeled by critics a cosmetic makeover of the former president's image, the book conveniently omits facts many Kenyans would die to know, like Mr Moi's marriage life, the Ouko murder saga and the Goldenberg scandal.

Morton goes to great lengths to paint a picture "of a man dedicated to his Christian faith, and having few material needs or ambitions; a country lover of simple tastes and demands...."

The English journalist seems to have forgotten a lot of criticism again the former president, including the fact that Moi bought a Sh2.5 billion presidential jet -- and built an airstrip, complete with a tower, at his farm in Kabarak -- as the country reeled in abject poverty.

Apart from many other glaring omissions, Andrew Morton's entire book seems to exonerate Moi from virtually all the crimes he has been accused of -- like the misappropriation of public funds, illegal expenditure, tribal clashes, human rights abuse and torture of political prisoners -- and goes on to blame the West for soiling the retired president's name.

But the subjective nature of the book should not come as a surprise from this writer of fortune who had previously done opportunistic books on Princess Diana, Monica Lewinsky, David and Victoria Beckham and Tom Cruise.

Peculiarly, both Moi and Raila, two towering figures in the Kenyan political landscape, had their stories done by foreigners with no firsthand knowledge of the country's political history.

Hence the two biographers have been criticised of failing to bring out the side of their subjects many readers were eager to know.

Patrice Lumumba

"Neither brutality, nor cruelty, nor torture will ever bring me to ask for mercy, for I prefer to die with my head unbowed, my faith unshakable and with profound trust in the destiny of my country, rather than live under subjection and disregarding sacred principles," said Patrice Lumumba in a political testament written in form of a letter to his wife, now preserved as a historical document, shortly before his death in prison.

The Congolese legend eternalised his views in Congo, My Country. But the fact that the book was published posthumously in Belgium in 1962, four years after the submission of its manuscript, renders its authenticity as uncertain as the various theories floated to explain the mysterious death of its famous author.

Kwame Nkurumah

The first Senegal president, Leopold Senghor, adored as the father of Francophone Africa's poetry, was so passionate about the written word that he housed literary exiles from as far as Haiti and Cuba during his presidency, besides compiling numerous poems.

However, Kwame Nkrumah was perhaps one of the most prolific presidential writers in the continent, compiling his political philosophies into numerous titles, like African Socialism Revisited, Africa Must Unite and African Personality.

"As far I am concerned, I am in the knowledge that death can never extinguish the torch which I have lit in Ghana and Africa. Long after I am dead and gone, the light will continue to burn and be borne aloft, giving light and guidance to all people," reads the epitaph on Nkrumah's mousoleum in Nkroful, the village of his birth in southern Ghana.

Perhaps when scripting these prophetic words, the Osagyefo (liberator) had a premonition of his downfall, which he sorrowfully recounted later in Dark Days in Ghana.

Julius Nyerere

When it comes to wielding the pen from the palace in the East African region, Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere stands out among his peers like an elephant in a golf course.

After making a name by translating Shakespeare's Merchants of Venice into Kiswahili, the humble leader discussed his complex political visions through titles like Education for Self Reliance and Crusade for Liberation.

As a scholar, Nyerere was a strong advocate for the application of education as a tool for self-reliance and liberation, rather than a ticket to elitism.

"The skills acquired by education should be liberating skills. Nothing else can properly be called education. Teaching that induces a slave mentality or a sense of impotence is not education at all -- it is attack on the minds of men," Mwalimu explains in one of his books.

Although, earlier on, Jomo Kenyatta had recounted the ways of his people in Facing Mount Kenya, long before Oginga Odinga narrated the ups and downs of his political career in the 1960s opus Not Yet Uhuru, their writing abilities were nowhere near Mwalimu's talent.

Nelson Mandela

"I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that, after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."

Written by Nelson Mandela during his incarceration at Robben Island on some scraps of paper which he hid under the floor of his prison floor, these words were to be the lines of the first chapters of The Long Walk to Freedom, arguably one of the most popular autobiographies in Africa and beyond.

But this should not be a surprise, since anything associated with the iconic anti-apartheid leader -- from his former apartment in Soweto to his cell in Robben Island -- always has an hypnotising effect on humanity.

So huge is the Mandela name that specialists claim that, were he a brand, he would rank alongside the likes of Coca-Cola and Microsoft. He reportedly gets more than 4,000 invitations to events, and numerous request for autographs and product promotions per month.

To protect the old statesman's identity from exploitation his lawyers have copyrighted his name, prison number and other relics linked to the Mandela legacy.

Apart from his own writings and those of his official biographer Anthony Simpsons (the late), there are tens of other unofficial texts chronicling Madiba's life and times.

(First published in the Daily Nation)

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