IN a far-off land, but in this galaxy, and only in the twentieth century, the president of an African country was asked for an interview by a journalist from his own country.
They were attending an international conference, 15 years after their independence. A lot had happened — some of it so-so but a lot of it disastrous.
The journalist asked about rumours that he intended to decree himself the life president of the party and country.
“Why don’t you ask me that question back home?” said the president “Why?” asked the reporter.
“This is an international conference…for international questions…”
“I wasn’t aware of that particular international protocol.”
“Now, wait a minute,” the president said, wagging his forefinger at the reporter and advancing on him menacingly.
The reporter walked away to confront the newly-elected president of Nigeria, a civilian. “I’ll answer any questions,” the man said.
“I have nothing to hide…”
The interview made headlines all over the world.
The Nigerian lost the next election, but insisted he had lost to a better person “in a free and fair election”.
The reporter observed, with a chuckle, that his own president won the next election and the one after that. No international or local observers used “free and fair” to describe his president’s string of re-elections.
The last time the reporter was heard from was from a small farm in a remote, arid part of the country.
“No comment” was his response to a question on the development of democracy in his country.
Under his breath, he was heard to mutter: “It seems we have entered the era of the soul-less president.”
Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal waited for many years to become president of his country.
He has now forced his people to elect him for a third term.
Most of them protested violently. It is said by many African journalists that Wade, a doddering old man in his 80s, is an example of the new soul-less African leader.
Many veteran African journalists have finished up worse than the man struggling to eke a living on a piece of tired soil in the outback of his country.
There is the pathetic story of another old journalist sitting, almost daily, on a stool in his favourite bar, on the outskirts of the city, reciting with eerie, emotional sadness, every night: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog….”
Journalists who have known politicians who became presidents of their countries, tell of this chilling syndrome in which they end up losing their souls.
For them, life itself loses all meaning. Their souls actually die and they believe they exist only to inflict punishment on all who even don’t support them.
“It happens when the leaders suddenly realise that their people don’t love them anymore,” records one journalist”
Usually, this happens when real hard times are visited upon the people.
These hard times don’t touch the presidents and their inner circle.
So, when the people grumble, the leaders believe only foreign influence can be responsible.
So, they lose all reason and become virtually soul-less, butchering their own people as if they were agents of the devil.
Debate among journalists continues to this day: why do leaders turn against their people to this extent?
A journalist friend, a Ugandan, once argued spiritedly that Idi Amin was a better ruler than Milton Obote.
Not many African journalists of my period would describe Obote as being possessed of the same milk of human kindness as Julius Nyerere and even Jomo Kenyatta, his contemporaries.
But Amin was in a league of his own.
He had demons, his own people have said.
These people decided that they, like The Creator Himself, could end life.
We, at some point, convinced them that they could indeed end life as we know it.
We should, by now, recognise this weakness in us. No leader on earth has such power. Let us show them every day that they are no different from us.
It may cost us many lives. But future generations will thank us for not allowing our countries to go the dogs.
Bill Saidi is a veteran journalist based in Harare