This week our reader and follower continues his review of Sembene Ousmane’s novel, The Last of the Empire (Le Dernier de l’Empire)
Inevitably, the state machinery resorts to lies or getting economical with the truth through its media channels in order to hang on to power in anticipation of the crisis resolving itself through a possible reappearance of the missing president. Wave after wave of press releases are churned out with the minister of Information shouting orders to his senior staff to suppress the factual private media:
“We must issue an official denial. Tell them it’s not true…we can’t keep on manoeuvring like this. All the journalists are on the lookout. By keeping quiet, we’re only making things worse and will be seen as accomplices. …p70
In a continued frantic attempt to silence the truth being carried out by private media, government machinery, through the Director of Information, who also doubles as an active member of the ruling party, summons influential media houses to caution and scare them:
“…you should have other things to write about. You are always attacking government. In another African country, you would be in gaol right now… (p111).
Government has also resorted to deliberately instilling fear in the media by ensuring that their press conferences have a huge presence of “…informers, plain clothes policemen and members of the ruling party… (p106), the state apparatuses of control so well described by Louis Althuser in On the Reproduction of Capitalism and Noam Chomsky in Media Control. For individual private journalists, government is contemplating the worst on their lives: “…He can be neutralised…We know where to find them… (p160).
Sembene Ousmane’s underlying themes in his works revolved initially on colonialism, tradition and patriarchy among many others.
His themes still represent issues that need open discussion among the people. Almost all his early works were adapted for films in the strong belief that through films the message would reach out to everybody including the illiterate village folks, whereas written works are elitist and only accessible to the group masses representing a small fraction in most African countries.
The later works including The Last of the Empire, explore themes of political deceit, grand scale corruption, self-enrichment, open cronyism, patronage and detachment of leaders to the people that has become a common feature of post-colonial leaders.
The theme of political greed is illustrated through a constant and aggressive competition by ministers for the presidents attention such that towards his—the president’s 70th birthday a proposal is floated, amid a ravaging drought to buy him a jet as a gift through public funds, oblivious to the suffering masses to which one minister counters:
“…you seem to have forgotten about the drought…millions, plus interest, would be better used by our peasant farmers or the university than in pandering to an old man’s megalomania. …A period of drought is not the time to indulge in such an expensive toy. Not only is the price high…who will endorse this loan? The State on behalf of our impoverished people? Such a gift at a time like this, is a misappropriation of public funds… (pp30-31).
Negligence is another recurring theme and the novel carries a scathing indictment on the duty bearers for their continuous political bickering, typical of the proverbial fiddling while Rome is burning! Instead of addressing issues that would help make progress the leadership is occupied with fighting off political rivals who incidentally include particularly the private media which is in a perpetual stand-off with government.
Meanwhile the population is “…crushed by taxes; housing levies on wretched salaries; the insolence of technocrats and executives riding past poor masses in luxury cars with their wives, children, maids or stewards driven to markets in official cars… (p154).
The people feel hopeless with government feigning ignorance and failing to act on what is discussed everywhere “…revealing corruption, nepotism, embezzlement and squandering of public funds… The names of the beneficiaries were quoted: top officials, ministers, deputies, departmental heads, directors of parastatal companies and companies where the state was a major stakeholder….(p154).
Sembene Ousmane’s observation is that Africa is disappointed and disillusioned by the politicians, whose preoccupation in most of Africa is seemingly how to rob the nation legally by their perpetuation of political influence. Out of this realisation, the chorus emerging from the masses is that “…No President has the right to will the Republic to another. We’re neither a kingdom nor an empire…(p164).
Politicians heading towards the twilight of their rule will tend to manipulate followers to renew the mandate of the ruling elites through their anointed heirs despite a blistering record of malfeasance. Only where the people are bold enough to declare the last of such empires will politicians run for office as service and not a cash cow for themselves and their cronies as is the case in known countries. n