By Rejoice Ngwenya
SOUTH Africa’s Mecca of real-life stage art, the Market Theatre in downtown Johannesburg, is currently filling up seats with a musical rendition of the short but memorable political
life of Idi “Big Dada” Amin.
This is a hilarious, yet heart-shattering narrative of one of Africa’s most vicious dictators that left, especially me as a Zimbabwean, not just with a sour taste in my mouth, but neurological red lights flashing and emotional alarm bells ringing. The play evokes a somewhat satanic apparition of a blood-thirsty Amin whose life-support network was fortified by murder, praise-singing and an irritating reminder of past military victories fought to defend imaginary national sovereignty.
On my part, I could not help but draw analogies with The Contemporary, my fear and misery being compounded by the mere fact that while South Africans can afford to sit and portray lives of past dictators in the comfort of the luxurious Market Theatre a few yards from Kippies, Africa’s home of Jazz, I and the other 13 million Zimbabweans wake up every morning face-to-face with modern-day reality.
Our real lives are not, as one contributor suggests, mere “copycats” of what or who we should be, but a hazardous road across crocodile-infested political rivers on an epic journey to reclaim our stolen national pride. A journey that has not only claimed the lives of our brothers and sisters, but has of late seen thousands of children and their grandparents lose their worldly possessions and homes — turned refugees in their own land. It is not a game anymore.
Big Dada opens with a demagogic Amin dressed in camouflage, telling the world how he is such a blessing to Ugandans because he personally liberated them from Milton Obote’s nepotistic and corruptive misrule.
Many readers of the Zimbabwe Independent, the enlightened baby-boomers of my age, would have been a little young to experience the full brunt of Amin’s political arsenal, and can only take solace in literary and oral narratives that have been relegated to the realms of African folklore — at least on this side of the Equator. Yet ironically, if his most “celebrated” title was Conqueror of the British Empire (CBE), our own diatribe against Tony Blair has of late assumed schizophrenic proportions only matched by Amin’s pogrom against Indians.
Big Dada is surrounded by a bunch of parrotic, pea-brained military subordinates and “ministers” whose only claim to literacy is Amin’s signature on their pay cheques. But that’s not where my encounter with Amin’s ghost at the Market Theatre ends, no. It is the bloodshed, hatred for criticism and outright political boyish naivety that captured my interest.
In Amin’s world, opposition politics was not tolerated; even a simple case of local clergymen raising concerns about abuse of civil rights was rewarded with death. He claimed all sorts of things among which was to eliminate “enemies of the state” — a euphemism for opponents of his totalitarian dictatorship.
His appetite for luxury and guns took him to none other than Libyan strongman Colonel Muamar Gadaffi — and he’s still in power! — a testimony to the adage that dictators need each other to survive.
Uganda’s precious national treasury was plundered to satisfy the whims of Amin’s personal taste for security and an obsession to defend his interests against imaginary imperialists. Even when the Bank of Uganda could not sustain Big Dada’s appetite, he would wag a finger at his Minister of Finance to simply print more money.
In one stroke of fate, Amin transformed Uganda from being the Pearl of Africa to the Pearl Harbour of bloody Lake Victoria fed by a tributary of haematological political greed!
What does a nation do when shackled with a vice-like grip of a vicious, senseless and arrogant leader like Big Dada? In the play, Ugandans shift their tone of praise-singing upward by one octave. This strikes a sweet chord with the dictator, who revels in the false placenta of submissive stupidity — we call it popular support on this side of the Zambezi River — even Jacob Zuma “has it”. Thousands of starving but “patriotic” Ugandans turned up at political rallies to marvel under the spell of a liberation hero, the Great African Provider, Conqueror of the British Empire whose entire cabinet sat by his side bemused, ventilating their glowing over-sized tummies with dripping ears of murdered liberal democrats. Perhaps just like us, Ugandans needed a powerful empathetic saviour, since they themselves were too weak and too hungry to lift a finger.
The difference between Tanzania and our neighbours is that Julius Nyerere, despite his self-destruct socialist political ideology, had mwoyo mukubwa — a big heart. Mwalimu heard the muffled, suffocated cries of his neighbours and decided to intervene before it was too late. Our neighbours — Thabo Mbeki, Festus Mogae, Levy Mwanawasa and the other great pretenders in Sadc are just big talkers with a silent vocabulary. They term it “quiet diplomacy” — a deadly political sign language that passes as a convenient way of being seen to be responsible but act irresponsibly.
The Kenyans, just like our neighbours down South, preferred to prosper from the economic misfortune in Uganda — licking their lips from socio-cultural fallout of thousands in intellectuals, business acumen and merchandise making its way across the borders.
If my memory serves me right, Amin even went so far as to host an Organisation of African Unity Conference, a testimony that this dead-end, lifeless club is an expensive excuse for African leaders and their wives to plunder their respective fiscus on all-expenses paid holidays.
How many G11, Comesa, Sadc, Non-Aligned, bilateral, multilateral, AU and UN meetings have been financed by our Harare government in the past 25 years? And what do we have to show for it but food shortages, fuel crisis, load shedding, bread queues, sugar queues, brain drain, a collapsed health infrastructure and above all, state-sponsored political intolerance and violent anti-white rhetoric. So much for African Unity!
This is in no way a confession that Zimbabweans cannot liberate themselves anymore. In the play, while Big Dada, like King Mswati of the East wined, dined and married beautiful young women, and more blood spilled, citizens started questioning his legitimacy. His prisons swelled faster than his belly and his military inner circle began to feast on his naivety, demanding more, more and more.
Ugandans both at home and abroad also never stopped asking questions. The international media, especially the excitable British tabloids, kept the pressure on with suitable titles like the Butcher of Kampala, Blood Thirsty Dictator etc.
In Tanzanian exile, Ugandan citizens got together and persuaded Mwalimu Nyerere to ignore the hypocritical East African Community and take action. The initiative was with the Ugandans, aided with a groundswell of regional and international discontent.
Towards the end of the play, we see Big Dada’s circle of influence shrinking, and with it, a proportionate increase in paranoia and greed. You can sense that he is nearing his time of the end — blaming and destroying both friend and foe. He strengthens his relationship with one confidant — a lonely and heartless parrot who undertakes Amin’s personal errands till the end. Amin is so lonely and suspicious that he does his own laundry and trusts no one — not even with his stockings!
Does he stop going to church? No! What kind of a religious order can host such a devil and still claim to represent the faith of our fathers? Eish, let me not judge lest I be judged. The Book tells us that no matter how sinful we are, we will always be candidates for forgiveness. But Amin was not just sinful, but also an unforgiving cannibal!
He went to church not to seek salvation, but eavesdrop on popular and religious sentiment about his rule. Since the pulpit became the only platform of free political expression, Big Dada had no option but to personally murder the priests. It will take me some time to erase the image of a hopelessly drunken Idi “Big Dada” Amin, wine bottle in hand, feasting and belching as a matter-of-factly from a liver of a human rights martyr, while the guns blaze around Kampala, with his forces under siege from Tanzanian armed forces.
Time is not on our side. Let us not wander around the political stage and wait for another Mwalimu to extricate us from the shackles of political oppression. When the curtains of this ugly drama of Zimbabwe’s political history come down, what will we tell our children? Are we to applaud, ululate and give the oppressors a copycat standing ovation fuelled with tears of self-pity flowing down our cheeks? It’s not a play anymore! We are our own liberators.
*Rejoice Ngwenya is a Harare-based writer.