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Archive for the ‘african politics’ Category

In the early days of the coup that brought
General Haroun Al Mahmud to power
the press of the world
camped on state house lawns
day and night day after day
dozens of them

Their gear hung from every tree
their goings on created a festive air
it was a carnival such as the city
and the country
had not seen

The new Strongman reveled
in the media blitz
he paused for photo ops and granted interviews
he gave press conferences
in his eyes these confirmed without a doubt
his own greatness and invincibility

One night he ordered a barbecue
and invited the press of the world
to eat, drink, dance
and be merry

The wily journalists
encouraged and fanned
the General’s every idiosyncrasy
and busily made footage
a media hungry world waited

In Lagos Nigeria
a mother returning home
after a punishing day at the market
hearing BBC and CNN voices
doubles up

“What ting Al Haroun
dun do again?
he dun kill another Archbishop?”
folks like her were insatiable
and they were legion
there was blood and there was fun

At the court of
General Haroun Al Mahmud
at the grand old colonial mansion
the British built to display power
there was never a dull moment

A marriage bid today
for the hands of the daughter
of one of Europe’s ruling family

Tomorrow battle plans in all earnest
against neighboring states to teach them
in the General’s own words
lessons they will never forget

Now and then a mocking cable
dispatched to Washington
to the most powerful man on Earth
timed to cause the President
the greatest discomfiture

One morning fresh morning
a gift of a young virgin
kidnapped the other day on her way to school
now handed to his friend and companion
the young Scottish doctor
who saved his life from the syphilis bug

Now in the cool of the African evening
the barbecue sizzles
oriental and African aroma
mingle and add color to the night
oh such a night

Wine and conversation flows
the press of the world is in hot pursuit
they reach for their little packs
trinkets, perfumes, handguns, electronics
gifts for the General from the labs
and workshops of Europe

Now the General was a true natural
protocol abandoned
he does what only he can
sprawls on the grass
his monstrous legs akimbo
bantering and hollering

Soon wine and whisky take their dues
the moment arrives and the past returns
and the General is back again
where he once belonged
there now he hears a voice

“You and I must make a pack
we must bring salvation back
where there is love I will be there
“I’ll reach out my hand to you
I’ll have faith in all you do
Just call my name and I will be there

It was the King of Pop
but in Michael’s amplified voice
the General hears the voice of his own mother
it brought him back to the warmth
and comfort of the old colonial barracks
at the river’s mouth

Away from power and pomp and intrigues
away from the slaughter of innocent men and women
that his men carried on a daily basis on his behalf
away from the haunting cries
of the dying and the dead
back to the simple life he once knew
and loved

Years ago his own dear mother
writhed in agony on the dirt floor
of their simple hut
and bestowed upon him
on that silent night
the ultimate gift

Now here he was where it all began
here where as a young man
he and his buddies marched happily to the drill
of the Scotsman’s horse voice
none but Commander Neil Graham

And now the Union Jack flutters again
triumphant again in the cool African breeze
as he and the others march proudly
in tune with the crazed hollering of the Scotsman
Eyes right!
Presenter armes!

Rifles click!
the men come to a dead stop
and for a moment nothing moves
the band strikes God Save the Queen

With a jerk the General returns to the World
back to the Country whose President
he had just shot
and found himself surrounded
by the Press of the World
fighting for a shot of his silly moon face

someone save my life tonight

John Otim


early days on campus at ahamadu bello
by john otim

I joined the Ahmadu Bello University the year I left graduate school in the early eighties. Arrived in the middle of a cold dry dusty season locals call the harmattan. The campus was filled with expatriate academics from around the world. Poles, Indians, the British, Americans, Africans, and others; it was a seething pot of nationalities. It was an exciting moment and place to be.

Weekends were filled with parties. The feeling of being in a new African country far different from one’s own was intoxicating. For a young single male the local women appeared the ultimate in famine charms. But on campus there was work to be done. I was amazed at the number of sharp young academics one encountered on campus. Perhaps because my expectations had been low, I was after all coming to a rural campus. But later I felt I never learnt so much in one single place but then I never stayed longer in any other one place.

"attracted to books"

book corner

            In the humanities and the social sciences where I belong Marxism was the popular mode of analysis. All the good thinkers seemed to be Marxist. When the one hundred anniversary of the death of the prophet arrived they held a conference themed Karl Marx in Africa. Participants came from far and wide. There were good papers, there were bad papers, they were all there. It was an exciting moment. A woman from Portharcourt wrote about male chunism in Achebe; one of the very first to do so, she demonstrated her case well. My own paper discussed the division of labor and the production of knowledge. It was an ambitious if pretentious look at the rise of knowledge from its communal folk origins. At first the common property of all from the common collective labor, but then the split begin to occur along the emerging fault line in the workplace. Soon one strand of knowledge or view of the world grew dominant and was universalized; a long the line that eventually led to the New York Review of Books.

            A few years down the line a new military government came to power in Nigeria. The year was 1986. The new rulers were abrasive and knew what they wanted, and it was not the common good. They proceeded nosily to adopt the structural adjustment program, under the supervision of the IMF while pretending to carry everyone on board. Soon the oil rich country was paying more on interest rates. Which had now grown far bigger than the original debt. There wasn’t a great public service but there was some. Now it began to slump, especially in the crucial areas of health and education. Soon the economy collapsed. And so began the exodus from campus of skilled and experienced academics.

"central campus"

central campus

            Yea there was in Nigeria at the time and there still is in Nigeria plenty corruption and dozens of corrupt and corruptible officials and politicians. On campus many Nigerian colleagues traced the beginning of corruption in their country from the time of the civil war they fought in the late sixties, when all norms broke down and gave way to the free for all dominion. But those of us who had read Chinua Achebe’s earlier novels, especially No Longer at Ease, knew that corruption in Nigeria as a matter of public concern dates much earlier. Nevertheless it seemed to us at the time that the IMF and its Structural Adjustment Program was abating and aiding corruption in the country; knowingly feeding the corrupt machinery of government. But the world is what it is.

            Was excited when I got your mail and regretted that I did not inform you in the first place that I was working on a book on Ahmadu Bello University. How greatly my book would have profited from your rich perspectives.  I was writing at the invitation of the university. And that created complications but I tried to be my own man as a writer should.

            There was a time at the forum when they were boasting that they were going to get you back to help them discuss the other Barack Obama. Meaning the President’s father who was then apparently in the news. But the forum is dead now. It died when you left. Nowadays lucky is the day the forum gets even 2 posts. DrVali still tirelessly counts the number of his pages in his forever forthcoming book.

Greetings and thanks


reflections on the post colony
by john otim

The great Hall teamed with postcolonial students in their trademark red gowns. Present were nearly the entire faculty and quite a few members of the country’s political and administrative elite from downtown. The occasion was the debut of the play: Not now sweet Desdemona, written, directed and produced by Murray Carlin. Murray Carlin was a White South African teaching literature on campus. Murray Carlin fancied himself a liberal. And in the dense postcolonial atmosphere at Makerere he was.

"Makerere University"

makerere university (photo James)

To appreciate Murray Carlin’s drummer one had to know something of the politics and the workings of South Africa’s Apartheid Society as it then existed. And one aught to have some familiarity with Othello, the great Shakespearean masterpiece. In the play set in the medieval city state of Venice, Desdemona, a young White woman of  beauty, grace and nobility, marries Othello, a Black General and war hero of  charms, grace and nobility. That Shakespeare’s Othello, though black was in the age of imperialism,  a commanding figure in the small city state, spoke volumes.

The context of Shakespeare’s play differ from that of Murray Carlin’s;  the women differ too. But Shakespeare’s Desdemona suggested Murray Carlin’s Desdemona. Shakespeare’s Desdemona is young, vivacious and ready for life. Carlin’s Desdemona is older; wedded to the State, and one might say over with life. Neveretheless in their private lives both women run into currents of racism at play in their two societies. For the younger woman in the prime of life, matters end in tragically. For the older woman there are frustrations, but in the end it is politics and officialdom that dominates.

In Murray Carlin’s play the white President of South Africa fortunately or unfortunately turns black whilst making love to his wife at State House.  In the eyes of the Apartheid State, of which he as President is the ultimate symbol and representative, his and his wife’s relationship become at that moment, both immoral and illegal. In the confusion the First Lady, a true daughter of Apartheid, reaches for the phone and calls the police, to report the illegal presence of a black man at State House in the bed chambers for that matter. Was he an intruder?

Within moments apartheid police burst into the Presidential Mansion located at an exclusive suburb of Cape Town. Police could recognize the President for what he was. But now they saw only a black man, who was naked and who was in bed with a white woman who was also naked. Police arrest the pair for a breach of Immorality Act. Law and order following its due course. Shocking headline revelations across the land, the President and the First Lady go on trial, charged with the crime of making love across the color line. In the Republic such as it was, this kind of situation had occurred before. But now it was different.

At the trial, perfectly legal according to the laws of the land, the onus is upon the prosecution to prove that the transfiguration of the President from a white to a black person occurred in the heat of passion. If the color change occurred after the act, the President and the First Lady had no case to answer. Although the President, now as a black man, could still face other charges. If  the color change occurred, during the act or before the act, the pair were clearly in breach of the famous Immorality Act and would face long years of jail terms.

In Not now Sweet Desdemona, Murray Carlin was determined to demonstrate the absurdity of Apartheid. Look how stupid it is.  But in realiy Carlin ended up trivializing the horrors of a system that had blighted the lives of so many; the systems whose legacies stood to haunt South Africa for years to come. Of course it is true that many African rulers today by their own deeds have made Apartheid look like child play.

At the trial the President pleaded not guilty. The prosecution listened sympathetically and turned to the First Lady for explanation. Madam at which point during the affair did the President turn black?
Ah it was, it was, it was …it was …
Madam speak up! Tell this Court precisely the moment in which the President turned black? Was it before, was it during, or was it after?
Ah it was, it was, it was du-du-during … Madam was a Stateswoman.

Makerere students and faculty burst into laughter. On stage before them a white woman and a black man stood side by side accused of making love together. The audience could not withhold itself. At that moment it saw only the luscious act of sex, not the scores impoverized or jailed and murded by apartheid.

Murray Carlin nervously paced the grounds outside the great Hall. When he heard the burst of laughter and the prolonged applause at the final end, he was elated. He knew the evening had been a success. Many in the audience of Makerere University students and facul thought so. But in reality this was a sad moment. Few if any in the audience came out of the play better informed or more engaged with the burning issue of the continent that apartheid really was at the time. 

"Makerere Main Hall"

Makerere Main Hall

Not now Sweet Desdemona had reduced the serious business of Aparthied to something as mundane as sex. It directed attention at the outer trappings of Apartheid and hurled insults. The audience for sure had a good laugh. But the play and the performance left no dent in the bulwark of Apartheid. Had the President in reality turned black as the play imagined him to do, he would have been swiftly and smoothly replaced. The system would would have gone on. Apartheid like postcolonial barbarism in Africa today, was a logical system within itself. There was nothing in it to laugh at. Apartheid was not a commedy of the absurd. There was everything in it to be abored and opposed, to struggle against, and to defeat.  as eventually was done.

John Otim
Suncolor Media Consultants
Kampala, June 2011

Copyright john otim 2011

intrigues and betrayal on campus
by john otim

By the grounds of Zaria Club the blue Mazda took off. Behind the wheel was Professor Patrick Wilmot of the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. The College is Nigeria’s foremost Academy. Before Wilmot could join the now scanty traffic on the leafy and usually busy Queen Elizabeth Road he cut the engine. He sensed he was followed and he wanted to make sure.

                At the junction he swung the car to the left instead of to the right which he normally would have done. He was headed home and that would have been the way. It was getting late. At home his wife waited. He needed rest and sleep and he could do with a cold shower. The heat of the day was overpowering. The next day he would travel hundreds of miles to represent the Ahmadu Bello University at a new college in the eastern city of Oweri. Oweri was once the site of a gruesome battle in the civil war that nearly tore Nigeria apart.  

                Now he swung the car as though it had been a piece of cardboard. It roared into the silence of the night waking up ghosts of the long dead. In this town where there had been a massacre during the civil war there were many ghosts. As a child Wilmot grew up in Jamaica watching tourist speed boats and ski artists on the blue waters of the Caribbean.

                He was an intellectual but he fancied himself a sportsman and a dandy. He loved life. Now he pushed the accelerator to the limits. But his pursuers rode more powerful engines and soon they overtook him. Fresh mint unmarked cars piled upon the Mazda like players on a rugby score line. Two cars raved and raced ahead to block his front. Another two raced the Mazda on the sides. They squeezed and boxed it in. The last car pulled in from the rear and blocked the last exit. It was a professional job done to precision.

                A dozen strange men armed with automatic weapons pounded on the top of the Mazda as if to break it. They shouted his name. Patrick Wilmot, Professor, come out!’ He heard their voices as if from a far as if in a dream.

                His car doors were locked, standard precaution from previous experience. He was going to remain inside his car. Let them break the glass, let them reach for him. But his lone front seat passenger, a shy and colorless man, probably scared out of wits, opened the car anyway. A dozen mighty hands reached for Wilmot. They ceased him and yanked him out of the car and threw a handcuff upon him.

                It happened so quickly. At first Patrick Wilmot imagined he and his friend had been set upon by armed robbers. This kind of thing occurred quite often. But from the handcuff he knew this was a government job. Now he indulged himself. Which was better, to be attacked by common armed robbers or to be set upon by government thugs? He could not tell.

                The next thing he knew he was squeezed between two huge smelly men armed to the teeth, at the back of a speeding car in the dead of the night, headed for God knows where. The smell of old sweat mixed with the odor of cheap perfume was nauseating. But there he was. Patrick Wilmot knew that his time had come. The common message inscribed on trucks that ply Nigerian roads, flashed through his mind, God’s case no appeal.

                He thought of his young wife waiting for him in their university house on the Ahmadu Bello University campus. The largest and some say the best school in the country. It was built by one of the founding fathers of the nation in the early days of independence when rulers still cared. There in their book lined rooms, his wife waited, longing for a husband who may never come home again

                He thought of his front seat passenger, a friend and old colleague he had known for years in the same faculty at the university. This was the man who had invited him out that night. Although the reason for the invitation had never been clear. But now he feared for him. If any harm came to the man it will all be because of him. Because the poor fellow had innocently been in his company and had witnessed his abduction and journey to certain death. Poor fellow, Wilmot felt sure they will eliminate him, to cover their tracks. Wilmot blamed himself. He felt sure these men who are now driving him manacled at breakneck speed on these dangerous roads in the dead of the night were taking him to his death. The certainty of death had a soothing effect. Only the handcuff bothered and hurt him. The brutes, they had fixed the chains too tightly. On a man that had taught in their university for years, a man who represented no danger, no threats to their nation. How could anyone run a modern state in this fashion?

"central campus"

central campus

                The car headed south towards Kaduna, the old seat of the old north, where once Captain Laggard held court and administered imperial justice. Today Luggard was still a hero in that city. Just before they could enter the city the car branched off on the lonely road to the airport. This long stretch of land was one of the least inhabited parts of the country.  Patrick Wilmot knew now beyond doubt that the men were going to kill him and dump his body in some groves for vultures to pick. Under the military dictatorship that dominated the country this kind of thing was normal.

                The thought of death melted away the pains on his wrists. His body grew numb, only his brain raced ahead with surprising alacrity. As if the brain knew it was making its last runs and filing its last accounts of life on earth.  He glanced out the window. It was blue dark; marvelous for the job at hand.

                His molesters began to light up. They started puffing in the kind of manner that thieves do just before a grand job in anticipation for the great rewards they knew would follow. The stink and the heat inside the car grew unbearable. In the glow of the cigarette he tried to study their faces. Better to know your enemies. Sweat trickled down their broad empty faces.

                In his mind he saw them in the morning grinning and saluting their bosses and confirming the deed was done. In return they would get their petty rewards and go home to their fat wives and hordes of dirty kids in their crump quarters on the poor side of town. These were rural men, poor hungry men; men with little or no education, men who in this country as it is now, stood not a chance. They were men who had come to the city in the bid to make money but could not. They were men who had lost all touch with humanity. They were the kind of men the system seemed to breed in numbers, exactly for this kind of purpose. A few years ago this kind of men did not exist in the country.  

                A thought occurs to him. And he saw before his eyes, the storm troopers, well fed youths in perfect uniforms, admirable to look at, smartly marching down the streets of Nuremberg. These too were death squads. They too were the products of a desperate and degenerate system.

                Thoughts of imminent death receded. But the pains returned to ravage his manacled wrists, biting hard. Thoughts of his forefathers, at no point far from his mind, returned and overwhelmed him. Presently he saw his ancestors before him. So vividly he thought he could reach out and touch them. Men, women and children wrenched from this land, from their homes and farms, shackled and marched through the forests in chains to the coasts, bound for the slave boats and slave plantations of the Americas with no hopes of return.

                Today in this modern world he too was in chains. He too was being hurried to the coasts through the darkness of the night. The truth struck him. Power inAfricahad passed from the old colonial bosses to the children of the old slave brokers who on the eve of independence inherited the old colonial state. These modern men have learnt nothing and regret nothing. Their forefathers treated the people with contempt, using them as slaves and merchandize in exchange for beads and gun powder.

                These modern men treat their own people with equal contempt. They prefer to invest money earned from the vast oil and gas reserves of this otherwise great country in personal bank accounts and mansions abroad while the people remain without the most elemental of services. While institutions collapse, the rule of law disintegrates and corruption takes center stage.

                As the car taking him to his death wheezed through the silent night seemingly singing the song of death, everything came together within his mind. It was this degenerate impunity that put him in chains and now demanded his blood. He was not the only one. There were many in the county who daily suffered the same fate. His crimes had been to work in the interests of the young people he taught in the university. He had worked as diligently as a man could. He had tried to develop young minds and to cultivate in them the love of ideas. He had tried to point the way and to show them what they could achieve for their country if they applied ideas. In return the authorities accused him of subversion.

                Five hours had gone by since government thugs seized him from the leafy suburb of the northern city ofZaria. From that moment on it had been a maddening race through the night, and for him a journey to oblivion. The thought of his colleague who had witnessed his forced departure and who for his pains may now be dead, returned to plague him. Presently memories of those moments spent in the company of his young wife returned and soothed away all pains. Those happy hours that we once knew …   

                The car sped, singing the song of death. He looked out the window and saw the dawn hour slowly emerge out of the firmament; the most beautiful he had seen. The play of colors, of indigo, of purple, red and orange across the green valleys, over the simmering springs and streams of Africa, was breathtaking. The thug on the wheel stayed on the accelerator, oblivious to the burning beauty of the dawn.

                Despite the pains on his still handcuffed wrists, the life within him stirred, and he found himself enjoying the morning breeze. Silently he hummed a tune. No woman no cry. Yes good old Bob Marley. They approached Lagos, the amorphous and frightful metropolis where millions live in appalling conditions. They entered the teaming city of ten million. He knew now that here they will kill him and his body will never be found. It will disappear like a needle in a barn full of hay.

                Instead they took him straight to the airport where they paraded him still handcuffed, before the mid morning crowd at the departure lounge, in a bid to inflict maximum humiliation. Wilmot could see the horror in the faces of total strangers as they looked at him. Those that recognized him who knew who he was, including his old students from the university, were dying with shame, as only Nigerians can. Afterwards they bundled him on to a plane bound forLondon, tired, hungry and penniless after eighteen years of tireless service at theAhmaduBelloUniversity.

                In London Wilmot learnt he need not have worried so much about the fate of his front seat passenger. The shy and diffident academic, had been sent from Lagos where he now worked in a top Government job, specifically to lure him from his house to a spot where he could be quietly picked without anybody being the wiser.  

                That proposed trip Wilmot was to make on behalf of the Ahmadu Bello University to the city of Oweri had been a ruse. The University Vice Chancellor was aware Patrick Wilmot would be picked up on the eve of the trip. The Vice Chancellor’s role in the game plan was to make sure Wilmot stayed in Zaria to be picked. The year was 1988. Four years after George Orwell.

copyright john otim 2011

the rise of one african college
by john otim

There it all is! plain in the gaze of the freshman student reporting to campus for the first time at the beginning of the new school year. The look of consternation, for here in northern Nigeria, it is the period when the land is grey and drab. Now however, once through the gates of the Ahmadu Bello University, the new student will find himself  in a new world. For outside the gate it is dry and dusty. But there within the gates, are well watered lawns, shrubs and parklands, neatly laid out.

rush hour

About a decade ago the youth of Nigeria converged on the Ahmadu Bello University campus from across the vast distances of the Federal Republic for the biannual Varsity Games students love to call the Olympics of Nigeria. The visitors, including those from the far south east and south west, arguably the more developed parts of the country, were dazzled by the sight of the woodland campus far in the reaches of northern Nigeria. Where they expected desert and scrubland they found a serene and cosmopolitan campus. The morning after they arrived, the youth gathered at the grand new open air stadium at the edge of the campus. Julius Berger built it. Yes the same company that built the State House in Abuja, the Federal Capital. The facilities included artificial track lane and a modern indoor gym. Needless to say the home side swept the trophy cart as they had in the past always done.  On this campus sports is a religion.

Yet half a century ago the Ahmadu Bello University did not exist at all. The land where now stands this grand edifice consisted of scattered farmlands worked by peasant farmers. On the western edge of the campus, was the medieval mining and iron smelting factory. To the eastern side was and still is the ancient walled city of Zaria. Keeping watch over the city is the mighty rock face. A minor mountain range really, the Kufena is the most striking landmark in the whole of Zaria.  The Kufena once formed a part of the complex of the ancient walled City. Here on its top Queen Amina of Zazzau once built a fortress and held court. Given the breath taking view from that location, it had to have been one of most magnificent of royal courts. It is said that from this vantage point the Queen’s scouts used to spot enemy troops from afar and would dispatch a battalion to meet them. That way the Queen reigned long over her domains.

Fifty years ago or so, the Ahmadu Bello University was but a dream in the mind of one man and a handful of close associates. There was of course already in existence, the Nigerian College of Arts Science and Technology. But this was no university. The man who by shear force of character, willed the Ahmadu Bello University into existence, was Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Premier of Northern Nigeria at the time of independence. Today the Ahmadu Bello University stands as one of the most prized institutions of modern Nigeria, and one of the largest and finest universities of Africa.

"central campus"

central campus

In the year 1952 when
nationalist leaders of Nigeria including Sir Ahmadu Bello began to take control of the affairs of the country, there were but two secondary schools in northern Nigeria. Keep in mind that this was an area half the size of Western Europe, with a population that ran into tens of millions.  Ten years down the line the new leaders began to turn things around. And the number of secondary schools in the region rose from the miserable figure of 2 to 59. But this was still far from adequate. Throughout the country at the time over ninety percent of school age kids were out of school. Less than two percent of the population attended higher institutions of learning. Of which there were only two, Yaba College at Lagos, and the University College at Ibadan. A few years 2 new colleges were added. One of them was the Zaria College of Arts Science and Technology, the institution the Ahmadu Bello University would eventually subsume and supersede.

Back then, amidst the disheartening educational and social backwardness, particularly in northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello planned to open a university. Evidently there were at this time far from enough feeder secondary schools that would provide intake for a university in the north. Nevertheless from Kaduna, the seat of the north, word went out. There shall be a university in northern Nigeria; it will be located in Zaria. It will be called the Ahmadu Bello University. Sokoto, the northern most city and home town of Sir Ahmadu Bello was the seat of the Caliphate, but the new university was not going there. Kano was the commercial hub of the north and its most important city. But the new institution was not going there. The university was going to Zaria, the distinguished little town with a long tradition of learning and scholarship.

Zaria stood at the head of the rail line connecting the north and the south of the new Federal Republic of Nigeria. It was already in many ways a cosmopolitan place, a microcosm of the emergent new nation. There is in the autobiography of the late Attorney General of the Federation, Justice Bola Ige, and a lovely portrait of Zaira of the nineteen thirties. Bola Ige called his book, Kaduna Boy. The Zaria of Bola Ige’s boyhood was a vibrant multi ethnic, multi racial cosmos, with huge government departments, big trading and commercial concerns. In those still early days Zaria was already emerging as an educational hub, comprising of a handful of research institutions and soon to come, a secondary school. More importantly Zaria was an old center of Hausa and Arabic scholarship and civilization centered in the famed walled city. In short Zaria, like Oxford was possessed of old traditions of learning and culture. In his sojourn to Britain Sir Ahmadu Bello had been to Oxford, and he came away with great admirations for the distinguished British Institution.

In his choice of Zaria, Sir Ahmadu Bello was sending a message. The new university would be steeped in traditions of scholarship and learning. It would be open to all, regardless of race, religion, gender or culture. Sir Ahmadu Bello had been a teacher by profession. Although coming from a royal background he moved swiftly into public life and eventually politics. Never the less, he remained always interested and focused on education, which he fully saw as a means of social development and individual enlightenment. He had been part of a movement that attempted to fashion out of colonial education a unique model that would blend with the culture of his people, meet its unique needs and be fully modern and universal in outlook. Now that he was the Premier of the North, Sir Ahmadu Bello saw the establishment of a university in the north as part of a drive for rapid development and social transformation. The Ahmadu Bello University arose out of a dire need for rapid progress against a background of general backwardness.

Today it is exactly forty nine years since the University first opened its doors in October of 1962

John Otim
Suncolor Consultants

copyright john otim 2011 kampla uganda

on the road to find out
by john otim

We left Kampala, capital of Uganda, soon after dawn on the road to find out. We were on a mission to recover the lost childhood. Uganda suffered a violent and horrible past. Nowhere was this truer than in Northern Uganda where a brutal war, if war it was, raged without let or hindrance for upwards of twenty years. In the rich farmlands, just when the harvests were due, tragedy struck.

Men armed with automatic weapons, some in uniform, arrived in the village. Cattle, goats and sheep were driven away. Crops in the fields were torched, homesteads were reduced to rubble. Men women and children were herded into makeshift camps that lacked all amenities. There they lived for years, ravaged by famine and disease. A way of life was gone. Business as-usual continued elsewhere in the country. In the camps a generation grew that knew nothing but war. A few years ago the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, visited the camps. When Egeland saw what had happened he called the situation the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.  James and I were headed there.

"on the road to find out"

on the road to find out

James and I had been to school together at King’s College Budo near Kampala with the best of the youth of Uganda. We came from all corners of the land. We arrived on merit and we created a fairyland universe. We and the school took great pride in what we achieved. The new country was proud of us seeing in us its own future. But the new El Dorado did not arrive. Looking back now it seems we lived our lives in a world that was not there. At the time Uganda was an independent State and a member of the United Nations but the school was white run. Management and faculty were white. So was the headmaster’s secretary, so was the school’s director of works.

"King's College Budo"

Kings College Budo

In the sanitized atmosphere of the postcolonial school we studied the American war of independence, we studied the French revolution, the two world wars, and of course Shakespeare. We enjoyed ourselves.  But the treachery, the violence and the upheavals we encountered in our lessons and on the pages of the history books, shocked us. Could men act like that? Was Lenin was Stalin was Hitler real? The legendary African Strongman was a shadowy figure in the distance. But within the space of a year our credulity would be tested to the limits. Macbeth sprang from the eternal lines of Shakespeare’s poesy and assumed material force. He drove in a motorcade on the streets of our city. He flooded the streets with his army; and they unleashed terrific violence and created a state of fear. But that was that. Worse was to come.

The evening before, we visited a popular Kampala resort. We thought to find there a face we might know who could give us some useful tips. We had been out of the country for too long. The place was filled with revelers but it had an undertone of tension. Men and women appeared stylized. Smiles and laughter was the hardest thing but drinks flowed. Presently we approached a group to see if someone would break from the mold but people just stared at us as though we were aliens. We approached a second group at the opposite end and met with no luck at all. . We left trusting in the Nigerian dictum – God dei. Meaning God is there.

"Chief's house"

here i spent my holidays

The next morning we were on our way, winding through dense city traffic on potholed roads, amidst exhaust fumes, morning smog, loud music when police escorts edged us out of the lane. We narrowly avoided an accident. James was relaxed at the wheel. I liked that in a driver especially on long distance. Presently he broke into a smile. You know what? All this will end. The slums will and the traffic will. It will be country all the way.

Ten kilometers out of town and traffic began to ease. Twenty more and we were the only ones on the road. The hillsides were green, sparkles in the morning sun. Here no hills were cropped. I remembered the towering magnificence of Old Kampala Hill where once we picnicked and played where now stands the Gaddafi Mosque – Gaddafi erecting a shrine for The Almighty.  In the years ahead Kampala landscapes were dug up and replaced by ugly structures. A sure sign, James said, of the absence of planning, evidence that people were surviving. When people do nothing but survive you get this kind of thing, short-term solutions that create long-term problems.

I studied the man now. He gunned the car. The old engine roared and flew. James had spent his years in exile teaching in America. I had spent mine teaching in Nigeria. America had shaped him differently. To his accomplishments as a scientist and a footballer James expanded and added new dimensions. He became a designer and builder of residential districts. He built his own house. He made his own furniture.  James was the kind of man you could throw into a desert wilderness and he would find a way to survive and to prosper. His Clemson home in the United States was a forest of books. Travelling with him now, listening to him talk and seeing his tool kits by the back seat I remembered Robinson Crusoe.

I too had changed and left behind the land of make-believe that I guessed still plagued our country and the people we encountered in Kampala last night. Nigeria with all its contradictions got me out of that mess. There was something about the Nigerian that told you I am real don’t mess with me. In Nigeria I was surrounded by smart people, go and get people. In the university whenever I doubted the course of action my colleagues were about to take, they would say “You no see”, “make you sit down there”. It was the invitation to get up and be part of the action. Where Nigeria includes Uganda excluded. The phrase “Federal character” enshrined in the constitution, made it obligatory for Federal and State supported institutions to reflect the diversity of the Nigerian population. You could not have a government department in which everybody came from the same tribe. The generals came all the tribes of the nation.

"James standing first from right"

James standing first from left

Now we were approaching Lwero, the lovely small town set on rolling hills. The kind of place you look at and say here I want to build me a university. Here I want to invite the youth of the world to frolic and to learn. But Lwero was a place whose name had become inseparable from our country’s history continuing brutality. But now as we drove through the land the brand new all brick cathedral of the Catholics rose up. A little while later the church of the Anglicans came in view, just as new just as magnificent. In Lwero you discovered that everything was new. The rubble of hostility was buried under the gloss of newness. Let the people get on with their lives. Get on with what!

"rebuilding life from zero"

rebuilding life from zero

On and on we drove, the lay of the land changed, so did the vegetation. We found ourselves running parallel with the River Nile as it pursued its eternal course. James who knew the location well said the river was a mere stone throw away. I imagined I heard its mighty roar. On the other side lay the object of our mission, the vast territory of Northern Uganda. We imagined we could see the blue hills of Payira and the mountain range of Otuke. For there come what may we planned to unearth layer by layer the lost world of childhood.  

"Koroto Rocks"

Koroto Rocks

From time to time we shot past the skeletal traffic on the road. We could not bear to allow any object even if it were brand new from the factories of Toyota or General Motors to stand between us and the lay of land. We delighted in everything and everything delighted us. A few drivers who thought themselves in smart state of the arts autos got mad at us. They could not bear the thought of our faithful oldie out gunning them. But the Nile seemed to draw us on. The forest grew exceedingly dense and magnificent. It was easy to lay back now and let your thoughts run to the beginning of times. In the beginning was the word. In the beginning was the big bang. It did not matter. Suddenly the river came at us, in a matter of seconds was upon us, in a roar of boiling surging foaming mass. It was the leap of an angry lion. Mercifully we were over and across the bridge in one big surge of the old motor. Welcome to Northern Uganda. The car music box played Bridge over troubled water. Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down.

The novelty of again entering the land where one first saw the light of dawn brought memories. I thought of songster Joyce Akpan singing the number we created together on the Ahmadu Bello University campus – In the first light of the dawn.  The next day we were en route to a place called Kalaki towards the old town of Soroti in Kuman land. In the fifties and sixties Kalaki was a big center of learning drawing students from a huge swath of the countryside. Over the years much smaller centers than Kalaki have grown into universities and colleges while Kalaki has shrank. James’ father began his teaching career at Kalaki. Here in the late forties James was born in a small house that still stood despite the violence. It and the old stone chapel were the only structures that survived. We longed to enter the old house but we could not. We were strangers in the land and the climate of suspicions was real! The thought occurred of Elvis Presley. Caught in a trap, can’t get out because I love you so much more.

"here James was born"

here James was born

The most vivid sign of decay as one approached Kalaki was in the condition of the eleven kilometer stretch of road that links the school or what remained of it to the brand new northern highway from Soroti to Lira. We had to navigate and negotiate our way inch by inch. It took us hours. So daunting was the challenge we took no photos. And so we approached at last Kalaki. It was a place I had not seen, but a place of which I had in the past heard much. Here as a young boy my father went to school and lived with a family of Baganda teachers from the rich and colorful kingdom down south. Here years later my mother began her teaching career. What confronted us now was a world that James could not recognize but James was glad at having made the reconnection to a past that though gone was still there.

On the third day as the town stirred we left our base in Lira. Lira was a town that refused to die. Five years after the massacre in which more than two hundred people were bludgeoned to death at the Barlonyo refugee camp the town was again in bloom Death came silently at dawn and caused a terrible stampede.

"death at Barlonyo refugee camp"

Barlonyo killings

We were on the Lira/Kampala road. We drove past Kamdini, the old colonial resort for chiefs and high officials of the colonial state. We made as if to cross the Nile again and confront again the guardian spirit of the river of which the ancestors spoke. We passed again through the dense vegetation of the Nile basin; always a place of awe. Just before we could cross the bridge we took a turn and hit the road that leads to Arua, Uganda’s northernmost city. We were headed for Anaka, the place where it all began. The landscape was splendid, it rose and fell and rose and fell; a panorama of lights and shadows. Finally Anaka loomed and I heard again the old familiar reverberations.

ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubanga oketo
ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubanga oketo

Drum beats throbbed, the arena shook, and voices rose in song. Ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubanga oketo. Do not delay. You will miss the Lord’s own delicacies. Do not delay. Wonders of creation rose in the mind. The dancers responded with a passion. The girls were as if they could fly and their faces were broad with smiles. Boys circled them. In swift subtle motions of the waist they made as if to claim at once their portion of the delicacies. Round and round they danced. Ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubnga oketo. The girls responded in like manner. Drum beats rose to crescendo. It was the larakaraka, Acholi courtship dance. Tourists hurrying back from nearby Murchison Game Resort crowded the arena on the spacious lawn by the chief’s house. They lit up the night with their filming. Dark clouds were gathering. Soon the storm broke.

"war shattered schoolroom"

war shattered classroom

By the end of the sixties Anaka was on its way. It was the gateway to a great game reserve comparable to Serengeti. It stood on the road to the Sudan. It had two secondary schools, a technical school, and a modern one hundred bed hospital. Now as we approached the school where I once studied, I saw nothing that resembled what I remembered what I knew. The orchards were gone. The enchanted groves and brooks of Agago where we kids loved to play were a shadow of what they once were. We drew near. A group of boys playing on the lawn saw us. They took cover and were gone. We were the guerrillas. We were the army. We were the enemy. Not in their action. Not in the appearance of the place was there anything that resembled the old Anaka I knew and loved where my family lived. As we drove away I realized that perhaps no one could ever come home again.

"author at ahmadu bello university"

author at ahmadu bello

John Otim
formerly of the Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria
 now with Suncolor Consultants in Kampala Uganda

the saga of a continent
by john otim

A figure from out there
In the placid days of our innocence when everyone high or low rode bicycles, Teacher on his bike was a distinctive figure on the land. Teacher was unmistakable in his neat white sleeves, khaki shorts, matching khaki stockings smartly pulled up. There was about him the look of a man in uniform.
               Teacher was a presence on the land. To wide eyed kids playing ball on the plains, kids for whom the world was heavenly, teacher was a hero. To the local community dancing in the soft lights of the moon, tending fertile plains by the day he was a figure from out there that they revered, that they consulted on all, on everything. Teacher was Teacher. 

"class in session"

wide eyed kids

               Those placid days a great African leader took for himself the title of Mwalimu, which in Swahili meant teacher. But Teacher was Teacher before the Mwalimu became the Mwalimu and the President of his country.

Let Peace Reign
There was a magical quality about the land in its green gentle contours. In the conical dwellings peasants lived in. In the song of the many rivers that crisscross the land. The colors of the morning, the peace of noon and the reveries of sunsets were sublime. No one said let peace reign. Peace just reigned. Where did peace come from? Who took peace away?

               When independence came and white people left did they cast a spell that one day brought war? Who stole the peace?
               Teacher said that if you looked closely at the stories from before, you discovered there was nothing like the Congo, like Darfur, like Somalia, like northern Uganda. These pathologies were new pathologies. Where did they come from? Who crafted them?
               The white man that once ruled the land could drive from one end of the country to the other end. He drove alone without body guards. No armed escorts no sirens heralded him. But a man there was those days that had the habits of sirens. In all likelihood he invented it.
                A colorful chieftain dying for attention, the man imagined himself a king. He had men with buffalo horns sit in the front of his huge American limo. In ceremony the men blow the instruments whenever the limo approached a trading post or a market town.
               From his corner the great chief stirred, waved joyfully to cheering onlookers. This was theatre. Today sirens on the roads are something else, part of a growing culture of intimidation. I will deal with you. I will teach you a lesson. 

Where did Peace go?
Elders in the villages remember how the local white representative of the white ruler walked the land freely unmolested. He charted with locals along the way. He gathered intelligence. He filed reports to the Center on the abundance of the land waiting to be tapped and evacuated to the Center. Little kids joined him, they made fun of him. He was zestful and energetic. The kids loved him, he was friends with them. They taught him the language, they taught him many things, he learnt fast. Well, he was young himself, barely a kid out of college.
               The local white priest from the Veronica Fathers did the same thing. His color like those of the white boy, gave him standing, conferred upon him the stamp of authority. Under empire color was everything. You are everything and everything is you. Diana Ross once serenaded. But it was of love the goddess sung. But really in the colonies color was everything.

            In his white robs, for he was young too, the priest walked from village to village, tireless, winning hearts, gathering the faithful. The local trader was Indian but sometimes Arab. The black color of the people set the Indian off as white. He sold his goods, made what profits he could, minded his own business. Not for him authority. He did not seek over lordship. He filed no reports. But he benefited from the color bonus. In the colonies it mattered if you were black or white.
               Where did the peace go when the white people left? They said the Congo burst into violence the day after independence. Today in Africa leaders move in armed convoys like mafia bosses. Armored limos, personnel carriers, tanks, all are on display. I will deal with you. You don’t know me.
               The local trader does not ride his car except he is in the company of hired thugs armed to the teeth. Walls and barbwires have taken over the green belts of the commons where once kids played. People say there are guns and armies behind those walls, armies ready to go on the rampage at the lift of a finger. We will deal with them. Just say the word, Bwana. We will saw them. We will bomb them back to the dark ages. Once an army commander confessed, we did horrible things there. 

Teacher and his friends
On this landscape once so placid, where love once grew, Teacher rode his bicycle from one end of the country to the next. He covered miles, one day at a time, resting wherever nights took him. As he moved he felt the wind and the breeze around him, he heard the wheels of his own cycle sing. On every branch will blossom, dreams for me and you. A tree of love stays ever green, if your heart stays ever true.
               But it was the voice of Cliff Richard, the dark boy from Calcutta, who moved to the Center and became a star. But not before he fended off taunts from school mates. Where are your bows and arrows?
               Teacher found ready welcome in the homes of other young teachers. On rough chairs crafted by local carpenter, around steaming cups of sweet tea and salted nuts they gathered. They chatted and argued till dawn. Love and romance was in their hearts. But they talked of India, the land of the free; they talked of Japan, of Russia and of America. They talked of Jomo Kenyatta and of the Mao Mao. They imagined a future in which a black man would one day rule and the people live free and in peace. They had a dream. “Japan Japan kum wu gum, Ikare man ducu an aparo pwonyere na” their students sung as they marched joyfully to class.
               In their reverie the teachers enthralled about ongoing preparations for the various inter school competitions, especially football and music competitions coming up in the capital. They felt their lives were charmed. The gods of their forefathers were alive, were smiling on them. Jo jok amalo. Everyone felt their own school would win. Had they been Nigerians they would have said God dey. God is there.
               It annoyed them that a village music teacher and his remote school won the music prize year after year. How did he do it? The football trophy by comparison lay wide open. Today this school, tomorrow another takes the glory. The games produced great brilliance, showed up great talents. Today’s football greats would smile on these kids. They surely would.
               The year before several of the teachers were on the national squad that toured England. Teachers were young those days. Straight from hot Africa they came and played bare foot in wintry conditions. They upset not a few metropolitan clubs. Metropolitan newsmen paid them back. They mocked the hell out of them. But the journalists did notice something. The chaps approached football the same way they hunted lions, in groups, in formations. They were a team. The lion never knew from which direction the spear was coming. Watch out man, the natives are coming.

Moments in the woods
Teacher was a sportsman from beginning to end. One day as he was fond of doing, Teacher was on his bike. This time he was in the company of two other teachers, young men like him. On their brand new cycles ridding through the land the three teachers were a sight. They approached the bridge on the river. It was  a most scenic spot.
               In the morning mist, dimly through the morning light, the young men saw emerge three wholesome figures wearing rows of colored beads round their shapely

"youruba girls"

market day

waists. Just about all they wore. The girls laughed and waved and laid their bets. Huge African butts in the sun, the wind came howling. The robins sang on the trees. On every branch will blossom, dreams for me and you … I love you so, don’t you know that it’ll be true till the leaves turn blue, on the evergreen tree … on the evergreen tree.

The girls laughed and teased and made fun. They were irrepressible. Now each maiden laid a claim on the teacher of her choice. Tonight I will celebrate my love for you. The young men dismounted … were led into a wonderland. They lost precious hours. The journey before them was long and the weather uncertain. But who cared?
               For years Teacher would recall those moments in the woods. He remembered the sounds of the frothing river. He remembered how they could not tear themselves away. The encounter reminded him of the Illiard. The ship of the good king took a turn on the Aegean Sea. They come upon a bevy of maidens in their morning rituals by the waters. The men are immobilized, would not move.
"River Nile at Karuma"

the frothing river

Where have all the young men gone?
Years later Teacher set off again across the land on the same old bike he used to ride on, still wearing white sleeves, khaki shorts and khaki stockings. But times had changed. The land had a strange look, as if it was a new country. Nobody smiled anymore.
               Many of Teacher’s old comrades were in Parliament in the Capital. They were surrounded by luxuries they never dreamed of. But they were not smiling. Half dozen of them were in the new cabinet, lead by a young smart trade unionist. A war raged across the boarder. Columns of troops were on the move. Everyone that was anyone was recruiting and assembling an army. There were sounds of distant fire. There were rumors of a coup in the Capital. People talked in whispers. They hurried, they carried long faces.
               Teacher rode across the land, fearful now for his life and for the lives of those around him. A storm was brewing over the great inland ocean. Over the roar teacher heard the wheels of his old cycle sing again. But it wasn’t Cliff Richard. It was the voice of gentle Marlene Dietrich, transmitting the desperations, the frustrations, the pains of the new age. The flighty dreams of Cliff Richard, the dark boy from Calcutta, were gone.

where have all the flowers gone?
long time passing
where have all the flowers gone?
long time ago
where have all the flowers gone?
girls have picked them every one
when will they ever learn?
when will they ever learn?
Marlene Dietrich

John Otim
Suncolor Consultancy
Kampala, Uganda