Cultural Representations of Postcolonial Power
Edited By Charlotte Baker and Hannah Grayson
Fictions of African Dictatorship examines the fictional representation of the African dictator and the performance of dictatorship across genres. The volume includes contributions focusing on literature, theatre and film, all of which examine the relationship between the fictional and the political. Among the questions the contributors ask: what are the implications of reading a novel for its historical content or accuracy? How does the dictator novel interrogate ideas of veracity? How is power performed and ridiculed? How do different writers reflect on questions of authority in the postcolony, and what are the effects on their stories and modes of narration? This volume untangles some of the intricate workings of dictatorial power in the postcolony, through twelve close readings of works of fiction. It interrogates the intersections between real and literary space, exploring censorship, political critique and creative resistance. Insights into a wide range of lesser known texts and contexts make this volume an original and insightful contribution to scholarship on representations of dictatorship.
3. Bekolo’s ‘Dictator’: Televised (Rita Keresztesi)
‘Our president was betrothed to Cameroon with great love and passion, yet over the years the fire has died. He spends more time in Switzerland than in Cameroon. What is he - too good for us now?’
— JEAN-PIERRE BEKOLO, Le Président
‘There is a joke about Angola: ‘Who is the public in Angola?’, ‘The President’. ‘Where does all the money go?’, ‘To the public’.
— SEAN JACOBS and CAMILLA HOUELAND, ‘The ‘Big Man’ Syndrome in Africa’
The Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s recent film Le Président (2013), labelled a ‘mockumentary’ by its critics, exposes the absurdity of power by the ‘Maximum Leader.’ Bekolo uses humour to level with the real-life dictator of Cameroon Paul Biya, who has been one of the longest-ruling presidents in Africa. In line of the cinematic traditions of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (USA 1940) and Ousmane Sembène’s Xala (Senegal 1975), Bekolo’s Le Président exposes the absurdities of dictatorial power in fiction and through humour. Contemporaneous with Bekolo’s Le Président, Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu (Mali/Mauritania 2014) also addresses and fictionalizes African dictatorship, though with a focus on Islamist extremism à propos the public stoning of an unmarried couple by the group Ansar Dine in Mali in 2012. In an interview with Danny Leigh of The Guardian Sissako explained that the film was originally planned as a documentary, but he realized it would be impossible to make a truthful film when most of the gunmen were still at large. ‘You can’t make a documentary where people aren’t free to speak. And the risk is that you make a film for the jihadists – because they’re the ← 57 | 58 → ones who are going to do the talking’ (Leigh, The Guardian 5/28/2015). Indeed, when the couple in Aguelhok were killed, a video was posted online. Sissako countered their ‘documentary’ with his own fictional depiction. In a memorable scene of Timbuktu, when sports are banned and soccer balls confiscated, a planned match goes ahead anyway – with the pantomime of an imaginary ball. A similar goal motivates Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit (2017) where she fills the gaps in information, because of the abuse of police power, with fictional details (Lang, Variety 8/1/2017). All of Bigelow’s films skirt the boundaries of documentary and fiction. Politically committed film directors often counter the excess of power with the moral force of art and imagination.
What these films and filmmakers share in common is their fictional approach to real-life events to defy absolute leaders and dictatorial power: Chaplin plays Adolf Hitler to a fool, Sembène chose an amateur actor with an uncanny resemblance to Senegal’s first president Léopold Sédar Senghor for the role of the President, and Bekolo’s film is an unabashed take on Paul Biya’s ongoing presidency in Cameroon. While documentaries in the African context have occupied a precarious role since outsiders used the genre to their own agendas, several African filmmakers have made it their own, such as the Cameroonian/French documentary filmmaker Jean-Marie Teno who had reworked the genre to empower and correct colonial historiography. Sembène and Bekolo have turned to fiction and the imagination to better represent reality and counter foreign-made documentaries. Since its European invention, filmmaking had been fused with the colonial project; but the technology also allowed, to quote Melissa Thackway, Africa to ‘shoot back.’ Ousmane Sembène, in the documentary film with Manthia Diawara and Ngũgĩ Wa Tiong’o, names Chaplin as one of his teachers in establishing and Africanizing the technology of moving images (Diawara and Wa Thiong’o 1994). Bekolo himself had paid tribute to the hundredth anniversary of cinema with his Le Complot d’Aristotle (1997). In his recent film Le Président, he returns to filmic satire and the mixing of documentary with fiction to expose the dictatorship of Paul Biya. ← 58 | 59 →
Carl Schmitt’s theory of the ‘state of exception’ explained the legality of sovereign authority during the rise of the Weimar Republic. Schmitt recognized the productive concentration of power in the presidential branch of governing. The move to dictatorial power justified through legal means, such as the evocation of a state of emergency to institute a state of exception in leadership, or its recent examples in Africa to amend the constitution to suspend presidential term limits, has been a modern phenomenon to respond to nominal demands for democracy. ‘Democracy’ has been the norm to legitimate political entities, re-dividing the globe to two political camps, dictatorships and Western-style democracies. After 1989 the new political-constitutional paradigm of dividing the globe into democracies and dictatorships, though still on the logic of the West and the Rest, replaced previous Cold War demarcations. The politicization of the human condition, away from economic factors of wealth distribution and dignity (manifest and measured in access to ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’), dominates the current world-scape. The West condemns all not deemed democratic while tolerating and normalizing economic inequalities and ‘precarity.’ The 9/11 terrorist attack on US soil in 2001 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism enabled a rhetoric of political efficiency to protect Western-model democracies at the price of freedom. The efficiency model of modern dictatorial rule, even when it aims to defend ‘democracy,’ has been the modus operandi to modern political leadership models. The US has utilized the tool of suspending privacy rules justified by the normalization of crisis and fear of terrorist attacks, so did African leaders of late. Recently, dictatorial presidents seek amendments to their country’s constitution to stay in power in order to ‘sustain’ political and economic stability: in Burkina Faso, now ex-president Blaise Compaoré evoked the clause of ‘state of exception’ to legally stay in power for the imagined benefit to his country. Corruption is the price paid for continued but unpopular power, therefore leaving is a dangerous option for a dictator, as the examples show: Charles Taylor of Liberia, Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire, Abdulaye Wade of Senegal, Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic ← 59 | 60 → of the Congo, or Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia. They each faced criminal charges and even imprisonment.
In Giorgio Agamben’s definition and reworking of the notion of the state of exception, sovereignty is the power to decide the instauration of state of emergency to create a new Constitution (Agamben, 52–55). The instrumentalization of state of emergency as a permanent condition legitimizes a ‘state of exception’ as the dominant paradigm for governing in contemporary politics. Agamben observes that crisis and state of emergency have become the predominant forms of life of modern nations. Agamben’s State of Exception (2005) investigates the increase of power by governments which they employ in supposed times of crises. Agamben defines the ‘state of exception’ as follows:
In every case, the state of exception marks a threshold at which logic and praxis blur with each other and a pure violence without logos claims to realize an enunciation without any real reference. (Agamben, 40)
The political power over others acquired through the state of exception places the government outside of the laws. During such times of extension of power, certain forms of knowledge are privileged over others and the circulation of information is limited. The suspension of democratic rule comes at the price of intelligible and meaningful discourse. Physical violence instigates semiotic violence.
Power and agency are morphing into newer forms that cannot be completely captured by notions such as the ‘state of exception’ (Giorgio Agamben) or ‘biopower’ (Michel Foucault). Achille Mbembe furthers our understanding of an all-out-violence through his notion of ‘necropower’ (Mbembe 2003). Mbembe’s necropower explains technologies of control through which life is strategically subjugated to the power of death. In Henry Giroux’s more hopeful revision of necropower, it operates alongside technologies of discipline and the power to make live. For an increasingly authoritarian politics which governs through economics and with the aid of images, as Henry Giroux explains: ← 60 | 61 →
Power now resides as much in the production of images as it does in the traditional machineries of violence colonized by the state. At the same time, terrorist spectacles illustrate how important it is to speak to the very forces that undermine them that is, to engage in struggles to defend democracy and reclaim the social from the death-dealing necropolitics of state-sanctioned and stateless terrorists. (Giroux 2015: 68)
For Giroux, the emancipatory role of culture aids the ‘force of social power’:
[T]he spectacle of terrorism makes clear that culture deploys power and is now constituted by a plurality of sites of domination and resistance, offering up not simply ideological machineries of death but also new ways for progressives, not only terrorists … to nurture the development of new forms of solidarity and modes of critique … (ibid)
Recent forms of resistance to terrorist acts and totalitarian rule have made use of the power of culture as evident in the works of African filmmakers and musicians.
In an interview, Jean-Pierre Bekolo commented on the power of popular culture for post-independence generations in Africa: ‘It was through the small screen that he [Biya] punctuated every moment of my life!’, referring to television and news media that had influenced generations of Cameroonians. Banned in Cameroon, Bekolo’s film questions the phenomenon of African ‘dictators for life’ (see Murray, ‘Review’). The young Cameroonian filmmaker Richard Djimili was kidnapped and tortured for his film entitled 139 … The Last Predators (2013) that critiques a dictator who has been in power for 139 years (see Rossman, ‘Review’). Jean-Marie Teno, the Cameroonian documentarian also addresses the imprisonment and harassment of those who critique the president. Teno’s documentary Chief! (1999) chronicles daily life under dictatorship.
Bekolo’s film continues the experimental style of his previous films, Quartier Mozart (1992), Aristotle’s Plot (1996), and Les Saignantes (2005). He was the creator of the video installation Une Africaine dans l’Espace at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, 2009. His ← 61 | 62 → latest film also uses techniques of multiple perspectives and the mixing of genres and media; this time, he splits the movie screen to three, five, seven, and eight TV-like screens simultaneously projecting conflicting perspectives on the same event: the disappearance of the long-ruling president of a fictitious Sub-Saharan country, much like Paul Biya of Cameroon. The simultaneous screens speculate the president’s location and suspect his death according to the formula of a crime story that features a criminal, a victim and a series of detectives to find out the truth. Bekolo often uses the formulas of film history to publicly ponder issues specific to Africa. In Le Complot d’Aristote (Aristotle’s Plot) he referenced the urban gangster movie formula of Hollywood films to satirize and celebrate the hundredth’s anniversary of moving images and the coming of age of African cinema.
Le Président is a mix of genres and perspective and a cacophony of voices. The movie opens with the puzzling news that the President disappeared, only a few days before the elections. The disappearance is so fantastical that there is no logical explanation for it, therefore rumor circulates that he had gone to heaven to be with his late wife. In response to the mysterious disappearance, Cameroonians are free to comment on corruption and the lack of opportunities to make a living during his long presidency. Bekolo all but names Paul Biya and the Big Man syndrome of Africa in general. Another long-ruling president, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, was deposed by a popular movement led by musicians, unions, and the military in 2014. The film’s soundtrack features the song ‘Le chapeau du chef’ (the chief’s hat) by Burkinabé rapper Smarty from his album Afrikan Kouleurs (2012) musically linking the two dictators.
Bekolo’s film is set during the 50th anniversary of Cameroon’s independence, less a celebration than an accusation: ‘Why are all the unemployed youth driving motor-taxis? Why are babies being stolen in public hospitals? Why does no local hero still have their name on streets or monuments dedicated to them? Why is such a beautiful country in so much despair? Why has the old president never been to Soweto or to Harlem?’ Similar ← 62 | 63 → questions have been aimed at dictators in Africa elsewhere by filmmakers, musicians, and revolutionaries, such as the rappers, Didier Awadi of Senegal, Smockey of Burkina Faso, Billy Billy of Côte d’Ivoire, or General Valsero in Cameroon. The fusion of cinema and music has been an effective tool to get across revolutionary critique and to mobilize the youth in West Africa. Bekolo’s film is an attempt to mobilize the masses by mixing fiction with reality, image with music.
While the reference is specific, the phenomenon of African dictatorship after independence from European colonization is not. Agamben explains the normalization of modern ‘states of exception’ in Europe and the US through a legal and discursive manner while similar cases in Africa are given to explanations through culture, custom, and tradition. Agamben views rule by the ‘state of exception’ as generalized and the product of modernity, but in Africa it is diagnosed as the pathology of the ‘Big Man’ syndrome. The syndrome is suspected to be a left-over of pre-modern models of leadership and tribalism. This discursive divide between Europe and Africa is the tired continuation of Hegel’s dismissing of Africa from world history, repeated again by Nicolas Sarkozy in a speech to university students in Dakar in 2007 or in a press conference by current French president Emmanuel Macron at the G20 summit in July 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. As the writers for the blog Africa Is a Country Sean Jacobs and Camilla Houeland explain:
One ready-made explanation usually trotted out to explain this behaviour [of the oft-repeated habit of African leaders to extend their mandate and break or change electoral rules], is that of the so-called ‘big man’ syndrome, which sources it to African ‘culture.’ However, this disease is rather a product of recent African history. Colonial administrators utilized African traditional structures for ‘indirect rule,’ but deformed them by promoting the power of the chief or the traditional leader at the expense of the precolonial checks and balances mechanisms. Post-independence African presidents have just perfected these systems. (http://africasacountry.com/ March 11, 2016) ← 63 | 64 →
They also comment on how internal and external circumstances influence African leaders’ breach of power:
The Presidency [in Africa] is a family business and there is no future or monetary gain outside politics. Accumulating wealth and business opportunities are tied to controlling the state. So, is the economic fortunes of your allies, party officials and, crucially, the President’s family. Once you are out of office, you lose your ability to steer contracts or get a cut from profits. After tenure, the then former President—or, even more so, his allies—also risk prosecution either for embezzlement or human rights abuses. (http://africasacountry.com/ March 11, 2016)
The writers for the blog list several recent successful or failed attempts by African presidents to stay in power after their terms ended, in Uganda, Rwanda, the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), or in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Hence, in the African context, the permatized condition of social precariousness of the masses, preconditioned by colonial intrusions into economic, political and social fabrics, facilitates dictatorial political models, not the other way around. Similarly, Achille Mbembe dedicates a chapter entitled “The Aesthetics of Vulgarity” in On the Postcolony to the “banality of power in the postcolony,” specifically discussing the semantic and physical violence of the phenomenon of the “President for Life” of Paul Biya, and others (Mbembe 2001: 102–141).
Smarty’s song lyrics of ‘Le chapeau du chef’ (The Chief’s Hat) synch the body politic with the body of the leader: ‘Our sovereign king is sick’ – his imminent death would cause deadly civil war. Smarty, whose song became the rallying anthem of the 2014 revolution in Burkina Faso, warns of a looming civil war:
Little by little like a magic effect
Every notable discovered his ethnic difference
Each child was told the ingratitude of the race coming from the north or that coming
from the south
Between wise and notable – two camps
The sons the brothers the cousins of the king – two camps
Between aboriginals of the village – two camps ← 64 | 65 →
No one was going to the fields anymore
The machetes were sharpened every morning.
(Smarty, ‘Le Chapeau de chef’)
Bekolo uses songs by Smarty and the Cameroonian rapper General Valsero as commentary on excessive of power.
As the opening credits of Le Président roll, the viewer watches three simultaneous screens: one with busy streets and motorcycles, another with the President watching from a hill top above the city, and the third, with the city celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of independence. The juxtaposition of the bustle of the city and the quiet of the President’s environs up high escalate the disconnect between the president for life and his subjects. Eventually, the three screens are further fragmented and speculate the absence of the President. The news reporter Jo Wood’ou of ‘Canal-D’ leads the broadcast competing with Info TV Le JT (a mockery of the real French TV channel Canal +). Because the center of power is vacated, news organization can only broadcast rumors and commentary: the opposition charges that France and the UN were asked to intervene in the turmoil of the leaderless state, while others report that there was a sighting of the President on his way to NYC. The sensational headline of the Info TV Le JT flashes: ‘Turmoil at the palace after the President’s sudden disappearance.’
To explain the disappearance, the camera turns to the serene countryside where the President arrives in his kidnappers’ car at the village of his birth and family. The President was kidnapped and taken back to his village before the elections. The President’s old comrade who is now in prison takes on the role of the omniscient narrator. The Old Man and the President, who studied law together in the 1960s, ‘dreamed to change this country where everyone would have a place; we had just won independence, we could finally decide our future’ (Bekolo) – a theme revisited again at the end of the film.
Besides the economic differences enabled by the dictator, there are also generational differences. The youth, un- or under-employed represented by footballers and musicians (played by the rapper Valsero) or the MTV-style ← 65 | 66 → reporter Jo Wood’ou, know dictatorship as normalized and have seen the President only on television. The disconnect between the population and the ‘President for Life’ is emphasized through his virtual overexposure to Jo Wood’ou’s generation:
You speak of this man as if you knew him, through TV, the Internet, you knew the President, my friends… Through the small screen he punctuated every moment of my life. When I was born, he was already the president, all the way through university, now I am on television too and the President is still the president. His disappearance is important for a whole generation. (Bekolo, Le President)
Wood’ou represents the youth that inherited independence along with a President: ‘The first choice of a new generation; a television choice, which, in turn, is a presidential choice’ (Bekolo). Since they only know the dictator through TV, he is much like a celebrity: ‘television means star: our president is a star; he has the most beautiful women, the nicest car, all the country’s money, he has groupies, security. Being president here means living the Hollywood dream’ (Bekolo). The youth have no access to historical perspectives, Jo Wood’ou’s generation only sees the present through TV and popular culture. Dictatorial rule flattens the past into the present and erases the future. Under dictatorship reality is mediated through televised images, truth through fiction, documentary in feature film.
Following in the tradition of Sembène’s revisionist historical filmography (most poignantly his Camp de Thiaroye), Bekolo also uses art to mend the gaps in colonial and dictatorial historical storytelling. The voices of the President and the Old Man add the missing historical perspective to Jo Wood’ou’s generation who only see synchrony and surface. The Old Man comments on the President: ‘He wanted the status quo, I wanted serious reform’ (Bekolo 2013). The film uses the colors of blue and yellow to punctuate the emotional and moral values of the plot. The President and power wear blue while the youth are associated with yellow and the tricolor of the Cameroonian flag. Since dictatorship flattens the past into a single-story in the present, Bekolo appropriates the narrative formula of the ‘whodunit’ detective fiction to call attention to the missing past and the intangible future. Reality and fiction are a mash-up of ← 66 | 67 → speech without a referent. Space is a labyrinth. The President’s driver cannot find the familiar route to the village where his first wife awaits him: ‘I feel like we’re turned around,’ to which the President responds: ‘Yes, it is like we’re lost’ (Bekolo).
The President revised the constitution to stay in power after his mandate would end. The film points to the change of the constitution of Cameroon in 1996 that named the President of the Senate to take power in case of a power vacuum: but the film informs that after the 1996 revision ‘the Senate was never established.’ Jean-Marie Teno’s documentary Chief! (1996) focuses on the constitutional change and its consequences on daily life. In Bekolo’s mockumentary, discussions about the disappearance of the President rage on TV, in prisons, on the streets, and in the nominal places of power. Administrators in the President’s Cabinet look in vain for documents that would spell out a smooth transition in case of an emergency. In fact, by not naming a governing body to circumvent absolute power, the President made the exception the rule. A female administrator, when asked about the succession of power: ‘What is in your file?’, remains silent. Academia, played by the real-life academic ‘Mathias Owona’ comments on INFO-TV that in a case where the president is no longer able to govern, a provisional leadership would be named: ‘The President should not name his own replacement’ (Bekolo). The TV news concludes: ‘In reality, this President is a sovereign; acts like a monarch.’ The real-life Eric Mathias Owona Nguini is a Cameroonian political scientist who has a widely publicized career of critiquing Paul Biya’s regime. There were several attempts on his life. Others have also suffered for openly critiquing Biya’s continued rule, among them Jean-Marc Bikoko, a Cameroonian Unionist, who has been arrested, beaten, imprisoned, his pay forfeited, threatened to be dismissed from his teaching position, and whose car was burned and office burglarized over the years. Most recently, June 26th of 2016, his residence was set on fire while he and his family were sleeping. The Burkina Faso based human rights ← 67 | 68 → organization that films and reports violations interviewed Bikoko on Droit Libre TV in Ouagadougou (Njikam 2016).1
When political public discourse is unreliable, rumor and hearsay take hold, hence the telling name of the reporter Jo Wood’ou that I interpret as a play on words: the name is a reference to Hatian Vodun that communicates between the dead and the living and explains what is not explainable, such as zombies or the sudden disappearance of a president. The reporter is tone deaf as ‘wood’ ‘where/où?’, since he understands politics as a packaged TV script: ‘The criminal always returns to the scene of the crime’ (Bekolo). The logic of ‘deontology,’ what the D stands for in ‘Canal D’ of a fictional French news channel, guides the dissemination of public information. Wishfully, Jo Wood’ou considers news reporters ‘soldiers of truth.’ The role of modern day griots who are less praise singers and more critics of the status quo falls onto activist journalists, musicians, and filmmakers. Bekolo’s film adds to the visual and informational cacophony via an accompanying soundtrack of English and French language rap. Smarty’s song comments:
Our sovereign is sick. The king’s crown floats in the air, heads bump to see who shall wear it. Little by little public figures discover ethnic differences; two camps, machetes sharpened, problem of the king, the distance between his truth and what the people think of him. (Smarty in Bekolo)
Simultaneously with the lyrics, Bekolo juxtaposes the music with a graffiti image of Paul Biya to bring the message home.
General Valsero, a real-life Cameroonian rapper (also known as Abe Gaston), becomes the expert on politics for the MTV generation on the fictional Canal-D and is interviewed by Jo Wood’ou in search of any information on the state of affairs of the country. Valsero wears the national ← 68 | 69 → team’s football jersey with the team’s mascot the lion in the middle. Rappers and footballers are the new heroes and heirs to the aging generation of Independence. Valsero’s appearance on TV is the result of his real-life song ‘Lettre au President’ in which he lampoons President Biya’s policies that had left Cameroon’s youth without opportunities for education and employment. Valsero raps:
Excuse president, your policies have excluded us the youth from national life; I have spent years studying only to be met by unemployment upon graduation. Did you still remember you told us there was light at the end of the tunnel…? (Interview with Continental Radio Station – June 26, 2016)2
The song ‘Letter to the President’ appears on the album Politikement Instable.
Valsero’s latest album Motion de Sutient [Motion of Support] (2016) is a collection of eleven songs that enumerate the misery, poverty, unemployment, corruption, nepotism and tribalism that ensued after Paul Biya took power in 1982. The title song of the album is accompanied by a music video that mixes documentary footages with cartoons that comment on the current state of Cameroon.3 Valsero laments, Cameroonians are left with no alternative but revolt or drown their misery with ‘33 Export’, Cameroon’s popular beer: ‘Don’t compromise your future, cast your vote or else you will never be heard’. The song entitled ‘Hold Up’ on the same album, Valsero condemns Paul Biya for his thirty-three years in power: ‘Biyaism has been 33 years of waste and drunkenness’ (CRS interview). Reactions to his album have been mixed, some view Motion de Soutien as an anthem of despair, while others claim Valsero has given them the support to take matters in their own hands through voting or even violence. He is respected as the local Bob Marley of Cameroonian politics, referring to the heightened political message that characterized Bob Marley’s career before his untimely death. ← 69 | 70 → The real Valsero has been in hiding since his first album Politikement Instable [Political Instability] (2008) catapulted him to prominence. His second album entitled Autopsie (2009) contains the song ‘Rèponds’ in sequence to the emblematic song ‘Lettre au Président’ of the album Politikement Instable. His latest album Motion de Sutient [Motion of Support] (2016) was released on YouTube and other social media platforms.
Mashing up reality with fiction, Bekolo imagines a meeting between Valsero and the President where the rapper dressed as a footballer is offered the responsibility of the presidency. The filmmaker joins the rapper in his demand to find a solution to giving the youth the means to live in their country: ‘If eighty percent of them are unemployed,’ Valsero in the film declares, ‘the system failed.’ The film zeroes on the skewed priorities of the current regime: while prisons are full, the country has only one run-down sports stadium, no concert halls or cinemas. The economy runs on informal businesses, like motorcycle taxi drivers or street venders who make 100–500 CFAs (less than $1) a day. The demands on the government mount from the mundane to the absurd when a woman turns to the camera and asks: ‘How can a child go missing in a hospital? The Government is unable to find him?’ (Bekolo). Valsero, now wearing a Tupac Shakur T-shirt, concludes his monologue for the TV camera with the condemnation of the dictator:
In Africa, is it the ability to decide between life and death, or to decide who should live well and who shouldn’t? In Cameroon and most African countries power has been reduced to dictatorship and the ability to manipulate a people. But we have the power to stop it… Excuse me Presi, but I have I’ve got to talk to you. (Bekolo)
With reality mimicking fiction, recent events follow Bekolo’s script: President-elect of Liberia, George Weah, is a former international football star, who tapped into a yearning for change and widespread discontent to win Liberia’s presidential runoff in a landslide in December 2017. On his agenda: to boost the economy, since many of his supporters – young, perennially unemployed or underemployed, and struggling financially – are those most in need of opportunities, as commented Robtel Neajai ← 70 | 71 → Pailey, a Liberian academic (Kester-D’Amours, Al Jazeera December 30, 2017). Valsero and Bekolo echo the philosopher Achille Mbembe’s reassessment of power and sovereignty in postcolonial states as ‘Necropolitics’ (Mbembe 2003).
Mbembe addresses the most extreme form of biopower, the power to decide life and death: ‘To exercise sovereignty is to exercise control over mortality and to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power’ (12). Mbembe defines ‘necropolitics’ in terms of ethnic, racial, and tribal conflicts and economic violence, such as life in the shantytowns and townships of South Africa. Mbembe relies on Franz Fanon’s biopolitics in the colonial context, the specialization and compartmentalization of colonial occupation he describes in The Wretched of the Earth, cited by Mbembe (26). The colonized space functions on the premise of ‘reciprocal exclusivity’. Mbembe understands necropolitics as the postcolonial form of unfreedom and deformed subjectivity, void of agency and sovereignty: ‘In this case, sovereignty means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not’ (Mbembe 27). Using Fanon, Mbembe defines necropower in the ‘special reading of colonial occupation, the late-modern colonial occupation in Gaza and the West Bank’ (Ibid.). In line with Mbembe’s notion of subjectivity through death, Judith Butler coins the use of the term precarity as the vulnerability or precariousness of the subject (Butler 2009). Franco Barchiesi re-defines vulnerability as the now permanent state of social precarity: ‘the result of an entire normative, political, and discursive order forcing persons and communities to depend for their survival on uncertain and unrewarding employment prospects’ (Barchiesi 2016: 876).
Mbembe’s theory accounts for the zero-sum definition of subjectivity under the conditions of necropower in the act of martyrdom, as ‘the relation between terror, freedom, and sacrifice’ (Mbembe 2003: 37). To make sense of slavery and colonial occupation where ‘death and freedom are irrevocably intervowen’ and where ‘terror is a defining feature of both slave and late-modern colonial regimes’ (38), necropower goes beyond ← 71 | 72 → state-sanctioned discipline and biopower. The current state of politics, given the extreme examples of unfreedom, focuses less on manifestations of and access to human potential: ‘To live under late modern occupation is to experience a permanent condition of ‘being in pain’’ (39). Citing Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, Mbembe relates the practice of suicide by slaves (also noted by C.L.R. James in The Black Jacobins) as the extreme form of agency. For Mbembe, late-modern notions of sovereignty are narrowed to ‘contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death (necropolitics)’ (Ibid.). He reworks Foucault’s biopower that sees agency even in extreme circumstances to necropower that renders subjects to zombies, the ‘living dead,’ or freedom in death (Mbembe 40). He concludes: ‘under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred’ (Ibid.). Bekolo’s film literalizes the postcolony that is still run as colony. Achille Mbembe locates necropower in places like Palestine, Rwanda, Angola, Liberia or South Africa – with mention of Cameroon in the chapter on “The Aesthetics of Vulgarity” in On the Postcolony. He was also the consultant to the documentary film by Valérie Osouf and Gaëlle Le Roy, Cameroun: Autopsie d’une Indépendence (France 2008). Cameroun: Autopsie takes a critical look at the mockery of independence in Biya’s Cameroon. The uncanny of Cameroon’s ‘unfreedom’ is addressed in Bekolo’s film and Valsero’s music. But unike Mbembe, they still see hope for retaliation and survival. According to the reporting of the fictional Canal-D:
The President used power to destroy the elites, chased all thinkers out of the country. We no longer think here. The President intentionally made poor appointments in order to crush the competents; Cameroonians now demand excellence. If the President used disorder to better manage the people, Cameroonians now demand order. He pitted the elites of villages against one another; unite them. Pitted the old against the youth; tied down the brilliant; now he should set free the geniuses of Cameroon; increase production to eat! (Bekolo)
Bekolo concludes his visual manifesto by panning the camera on the new leader of Cameroon he imagines for his country: a woman president who would distribute wealth justly and eliminate the territorial boundaries between the poor and the rich, who would ‘stop relying on men and on God’ and make Cameroon a ‘normal country’:
No stealing, I shall deliver you to the owners of embezzled goods. Homage to those who served name the streets … All those who attack the diaspora, no one deserves his nationality more than anyone else; even foreigners with the heart to work with us on our plantation are welcome. (Bekolo)
Since the youth grew up with tightly controlled television images and soundbites under circumstances of ‘unfreedom,’ they have to take control of their own future. The film ends with the suggestive note:
Jo Wood’ou and Canal-D are to invent the future that was stolen from us forty-two years ago.
When will it end?
1982 to 201?’ (Bekolo)
With the question-mark after the hoped-for end to Biya’s regime within the decade, the film cuts to the credits. Bekolo’s film literalizes the postcolony that is still run as a plantation. The film ends with the suggestive message that the new generation ‘are to invent the future that was stolen from us forty-two years ago’ (Bekolo). With that, the film ends and names its locations for filming: Yaoundé, Douala, and the village of Ebogo. Ebogo is advertised on the internet for tourists as a model for sustainable development and an eco-tourist site. Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s docu-fantasy echoes the message of the late Burkinabé revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara, urging young people to be audacious and ‘dare to invent the future’ (Harsch 2017). The work of culture answers to Mbembe’s apocalypse in an alternative universe of hope. ← 73 | 74 →
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Valsero, ‘Lettre au Président’, song (2009) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a28WhRWrrx4> accessed 17 January 2018. ← 75 | 76 →
1 See link: Emmanuel Njikam, ‘Cameroun : le syndicaliste Jean-Marc Bikoko et sa famille échappent à la mort dans un incendie criminel’ droitlibre.tv <http://droitlibre.net/cameroun-le-syndicaliste-jean-marc-bikoko-et-sa.html> (28 June 2016) accessed 19 January 2018.
2 See link to the interview with General Valsero on Continental Radio Station: <http://www.continentalradiostation.com/news/general-valsero-does-autopsy-on-president-biya-of-cameroon/> (June 26, 2016) accessed 19 January 2018.