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Fictions of African Dictatorship

Cultural Representations of Postcolonial Power

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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 Among the questions the contributors ask: what are the implications of reading a novel for its historical content or accuracy?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.

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6. Mythical Representations of Dictatorial Power and their Real Referents in the Novels of Ahmadou Kourouma (Bindi Ngouté Lucien)

← 116 | 117 →

BINDI NGOUTÉ LUCIEN

6    Mythical Representations of Dictatorial Power and their Real Referents in the Novels of Ahmadou Kourouma1

In the majority of cases, being President of the Republic has been considered the privilege of an elected minority, especially since in a democratic context the word ‘elected’ refers to somebody who has been chosen among many others for his distinctive characteristics. From the moment a population projects this image of a distinct being onto those who govern them, mechanisms by which to mythicize their power are clearly established, and result in establishing a particular image of the ruler in the collective memory. In the context of a dictatorship, the mechanisms that bring myth to the fore are magnified, and give a certain aura to the Father of the nation. A myth is generally considered a true story depicting exceptional beings, which comes to serve as an example to be used to justify a current state of affairs. Mircea Eliade believes that ‘le mythe raconte comment, grâce aux exploits des Êtres Surnaturels, une réalité est venue à l’existence, que ce soit la réalité totale, le Cosmos, ou seulement un fragment: une îIe, une espèce végétale, un comportement humain, une institution. C’est donc toujours le récit d’une «création»: on rapporte comment quelque chose a été produit, a commencé à être. Le mythe ne parle que de ce qui est arrivé réellement, de ce qui s’est pleinement manifesté’ [myth recounts how a reality has come into existence, thanks to the actions of Supernatural Beings. This can be a complete reality, the Cosmos, or just a fragment: an island, a plant species, human behaviour, an institution. It is therefore the tale of a ‘creation’: it ← 117 | 118 → explains how something was produced, how it began to exist. Yet myth does not speak of what has really happens, of what truly occurs].2

Yet, in Ahmadou Kourouma’s texts, this initial and original definition is distorted, perverted even, in a postcolonial and post-independence context that departs from this tradition. The figure of the President of the Republic has become a mythical figure, retaining the best parts of the myth and adapting them to the tough demands of the newly independent African societies they control. Kourouma’s novels depict several African dictator figures and most of those who control the fate of these countries employ mythic strategies if not to rest in power ad vitam aeternam then, at the very least, to preserve the rights linked to that power.3 The central question here then is how these heads of state use myths. This question leads to others: which images do the dictators spread in the collective imaginary? What are the consequences of the mythic strategies they use? Which strategies does the author use to speak about these dictators?

Men, beasts, and myths

Reading Kourouma’s fictional works allows us to see that those who govern people’s destinies develop specific mechanisms by which to embellish their image in the eyes of the population. This kind of marketing policy relies heavily on animals, which hold an important place in the imaginary of African people. En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages (1998) is a novel which paints portraits of various African dictators. As the title suggests, in portraying these presidential figures, the author constantly links them to particular beasts. For example, we can read that President Bossouma sees the hyena as his sacred animal, Tiékoroni prefers the caiman, the King ← 118 | 119 → of the Djebels likes to be called the jackal man, and finally Koyaga the President of the Gulf uses the falcon as a totem. These power holders go beyond the simple use of animal images; they come very close to the beasts by foregrounding some of their qualities and flaws. This brings us to the question of totemism.

Traditionally, totemism refers to a heterogeneous type of relationship between the individual or group on the one hand, and an animal or plant on the other. This concept implies the worship of the animal or the thing in question. In Totem et Tabou Freud defines the totem as ‘Un animal comestible, inoffensif ou dangereux et redouté, plus rarement une plante ou une force naturelle (pluie, eau) qui se trouve dans un rapport particulier avec l’ensemble du groupe. Le totem est, en premier lieu, l’ancêtre du groupe ; en deuxième lieu, son esprit protecteur et son bienfaiteur qui envoie des oracles et, alors même qu’il est dangereux pour d’autres, connaît et épargne ses enfants’ [an animal that is edible, inoffensive, or dangerous and feared, rarer than a plant or natural force (like rain, water), which has a particular relationship with the whole group. In the first instance, the totem is the ancestor of the group; secondly its protective spirit and guardian which sends oracles and, although it is dangerous for others, knows and spares its children].4 Yet, the Presidents of the Republic that we have in En Attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages do not use totems in this traditional sense. Rather, each totem found here serves the image and the interests of the person who has it, and this is how these animals consolidate the power of different Presidents of the Republic. Furthermore, they bring benefits linked to the qualities of their sacred animal, and in this way the populations perceive them to be extraordinary beings. This aura bestowed by the totem reinforces the worship of the president. In making the animal sacred, the characters make it an alter ego; a double that ought to be treated with deference. Tiékoroni, the man with the caiman totem, the master of the Republic of the Ebony, grants more honour to his caiman totems than to individual people. The citizens are relegated to the background and languish ← 119 | 120 → in poverty while the animals are treated with every possible respect: they eat what they like and live in a marble lake (VBS, 187–8).

As we have said, the link between the sacred animal and the individual is so strong that the holder of the totem adopts certain characteristics of the animal. Koyaga’s totem is the falcon. It is a bird of prey, a hawk; elsewhere it is used by men for hunting. It is known for its exceptional speed and its stubbornness in never letting go of its prey. Koyaga works in the same way. In his youth, he gains the reputation for the fighter who always leaves scars on his victims (VBS, 26). When he becomes President of the Republic, he will truly act like his totem; he is an exceptional hunter who possesses several hunting trophies and who has rid several regions of dangerous animals. All those who conspire against his regime are hunted down and assassinated with unmatched violence, even if they are part of his family (VBS, 304). Koyaga’s brutality and ferocity are even more pronounced given the damned souls he keeps for company. The image of the falcon is matched with the image of the lycaons who make up his guard. This is why the battle for power happens in an atmosphere of bloodthirsty and murderous madness.

Nkoutigui Fondio, President of the Republic of the Mountains, has the hare as his sacred animal. In the Republic of the Mountains, the regime’s propaganda paints him as the best husband of the Republic. Yet he is a man of abnormal lustfulness. He is so driven by sex that not even the widows of those he orders dead are spared. He establishes a ritual of making love to the wife of each man condemned to death at the very moment he is executed. According to the narrator, this is to adopt the vital energy of the condemned man (VBS, 167). The President of the Republic adopts animal behaviour in exercising his dictatorial and esoteric power. Many sacred texts present a husband and his wife as one and the same being. Spiritually what may happen to one will have consequences for the other. Through this act, then, Nkoutigui, satisfies three different needs. Firstly he physically eliminates a political enemy then, obsessed as he is with sex, he can satisfy his libido. Finally, via the sexual act, he fulfils an essential aim; by a process of transfer, via the intermediary of the wife of the condemned man, he acquires all the powers that had until then stood in the way of his authority. We understand from this point that the figure of the ← 120 | 121 → sacred animal (in this case the rabbit) becomes the epicentre of all the dictator’s acts. Thus Nadia Julien’s comments about the hare or the rabbit prove correct. Symbolically, these two animals are directly linked to the woman, and to libido. This is why the author underlines the following: ‘Leur incroyable faculté de procréation fait du lièvre et du lapin des symboles de la fécondité et de la puissance fécondante de la lune, qui régit […] le cycle menstruel de la femme. […] Mais sexualité et incontinence font également partie de l’interprétation symbolique de ces animaux à sang chaud.’ [Their incredible capacity for procreation makes the hare and the rabbit symbols of fertility and of the productive power of the moon, which controls […] the menstrual cycle of the woman. […] But sexuality and incontinence are also part of the symbolic interpretation of these hot blooded animals.]5

The President of the Republic of the Great River is strongly attached to the leopard. Most of the objects he uses are linked to this animal. He always has something on him made of leopard skin: hats, shoes, and caps, for instance. Elsewhere the skin of this animal is one of the signs of his power (VBS, 243). But the links do not stop there. The character’s behaviour itself reflects the characteristics of the totem animal. Most of the time, he shows violence and cruelty towards individuals. Even his wife is the object of a brutal attack while she is pregnant. He breaks her arm and kicks the foetus out of her body, leading to her death (VBS, 249–50). In this way the dictators accompany their exercise of power with images of the animals that grant them particular powers. The heads of state also convey a certain amount of information about their lives which tends to consolidate further the supposedly mysterious side of their power.

Most of the dictators have unusual childhoods which set them apart from ordinary humans. The President of the Republic of the Great River, the leopard man, has predictions made about him during his initiation. All the holders of occult knowledge see him as an exceptional being who will leave his mark on the history of his country: ‘Tous les sorciers ngandis prédirent que le jeune initié serait le plus grand de leur race. Ils lui attribuèrent de nombreux talismans et fétiches et lui apprirent les paroles ← 121 | 122 → secrètes de beaucoup de prières de protection contre les maladies’ [All the ngandi wizards predicted that the young initiated man would be the greatest of their race. They gave him several talismans and fetishes and taught him secret words, many prayers to protect him against diseases] (VBS, 233). Koyaga, the dictator of the Republic of the Gulf, is ‘de la race des hommes qui ouvrent, des hommes qui se font suivre, des maîtres, de ceux qui doivent savoir s’arrêter à temps, de ceux qui ne doivent pas rester en deçà ou aller au-delà’ [from the race of men who lead, who are followed, masters, those who must know how to stop time, those who must not remain behind or go beyond] (VBS, 64). Koyaga’s birth is the subject of a whole legend. The Paleos, the president’s tribe, have two kinds of marriage: marriage by engagement, and marriage which is the result of an abduction. The latter is prized by proud warriors and ends in a ritual rape. The fight between the two champions of the initial battle (Tchao, Koyaga’s father, and Nadjouma), takes place somewhere that is transformed: ‘Ce lieu depuis ce jour est devenu une clairière. Jamais, jusqu’au dernier jour du monde, aucune herbe ne repoussera dans le cercle où fut perpétré le viol par lequel vous, Koyaga avez été engendré’ [On that day, this place became a clearing. Forever after, until the last day on earth, no grass would grow on the circle where that rape was perpetrated, the rape which led to your birth, Koyaga] (VBS, 42). Koyaga is carried for twelve months by his mother who is then in labour for two successive days (VBS, 21). The birth of Koyaga will forever mark Nadjouma; this is a baby like no other and this is why the mother experiences atrocious pain and trauma during labour (VBS, 42–3). The prophets even predict certain death for the young mother if she tries to have a second child (VBS, 43). It must be noted that at Koyaga’s birth, Nadjouma becomes frigid and even feels afraid in front of men. According to the marabout Bokano, the spirits decided that Koyaga would be his first and only son. By this beginning and ending of the maternity of the mother, Koyaga symbolically and in a real way becomes the alpha and omega, the one by whom everything begins and ends. This round cycle which definitively closes her maternity is extended and reinforced by the abnormal events which punctuate his childhood (VBS, 22).

In this way the dictators convey to the populations images of men who are invincible and invulnerable. They repeatedly claim that bullets ← 122 | 123 → cannot harm them. Some of these power holders are part of the hunters association of West Africa. The initiation rites for entry into this secret society are shrouded in mystery, but we can learn from General Tieffi, one of rebel Foday Sankoh’s right hand men, that at the end of the initiation ceremony they consume human flesh. According to him, ‘Ça rend le cœur dur et dur et ça protège contre les balles. La meilleure protection contre les balles sifflantes, c’est peut-être un peu de chair humaine’ [it strengthens the heart, and it protects against bullets. The best protection against hard bullets, is perhaps a bit of human flesh] (APO, 188). The same cannibalistic practices are found among Charles Taylor’s troupes, who appear in Allah n’est pas obligé. In the civil and possibly ethnic war which destroyed Sierra Leone in the 1990s, soldiers were initiated into anthropophagic practices which were supposed to grant them powers of invincibility and invulnerability. Since the systematic consumption of human flesh then became a necessary ritual in the collective imaginary, we can see that this practice stands as a model for all initiation processes.6 Because of this, a number of beliefs are held about hunters: that they are capable of going beyond the reality of the felt world and to transform things such that they can conquer the enemy. This is why the President of Sierra Leone Ahmad Tejan Kabbah employs hunters. In light of repeated coups d’état and the splitting of the country into rebel factions, he believes that the association of hunters can turn things around (APO, 189–90).

Men in power surround themselves not only with hunters, but also with marabouts whose role is to protect them. All the dictators in the novels examined here use the services of these individuals to gain power or to retain it.7 Magico-religious practices are adopted by characters like Samuel Doe, Prince Johnson, Charles Taylor, Foday Sankoh, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, and Johnny Paul Koroma in Allah n’est pas obligé. These marabouts are tasked ← 123 | 124 → with creating fetishes which will protect soldiers and child-soldiers from bullets; these give them unmatched courage in battle, as we see with the child-soldier Tête Brûlée (APO, 129).

In addition, the unique and exceptional status of dictator presidents leads them to believe that those they govern are worthless. Tiékoroni the President of the Republic of Ebony does not refrain from declaring that the people have nothing to analyse: ‘Les peuples écoutent ce qu’on leur dit, ce qu’on leur commande. Ils n’ont pas le temps de tourner, de soupeser les actes d’un président. Quel croyant juge-t-il les volontés des divinités avant d’exécuter leurs paroles?’ [The people listen to what we tell them, to what we order. They don’t have time to consider or weigh up the actions of a president. What believer judges the will of the gods before obeying their words?] (VBS, 197). This question is central to understanding how the system works. The presidents consider themselves gods who owe no account to their faithful ones (the people). They position themselves as transcendental beings with absolute value who must evoke ardent faith in their actions, given that faith needs no proof. Presidents are gods, and the people must consider them as such without trying to understand anything beyond this. In this sense, we realize that the presidents themselves have seriously internalized what they see as their natural authority over common people. Since the boundary between human and divine is crossed, myth becomes similar to the sacred story of any religion which should be lived by faith. This is confirmed by the exceptional childhoods they speak of. This unusual childhood is found in Koyaga but also, and primarily, in the President of the Republic of the Great River, who is not born of a woman but comes straight from heaven: ‘Dans l’imagerie, le dictateur ne coulait pas de sa mère Momo: il descendait directement du ciel ; il déchirait de laiteux nuages sur fond bleu’ [In the imagery, the dictator did not come out of his mother Momo: he came down straight from heaven, parting the milky clouds against a background of blue] (VBS, 249).

We realize that most of the dictators foreground the animal they have made sacred along with stories relating to their respective childhoods. In other cases, they are surrounded by people considered exceptional, such as hunters. In building exceptional stories and personalities, these power holders change facts: thus myths become ‘des récits imaginaires et imaginés. ← 124 | 125 → Comme de sortes de d’illusions, “d’erreurs admises”, structurées en systèmes dans une communauté donnée, et auxquelles la société tout entière adhère irrationnellement, parce qu’elles constituent des éléments déterminés de la cohésion sociale’ [imaginary and imagined stories. Like a kind of illusion, ‘accepted mistakes’, structured in systems of a given community, and which the whole society irrationally believes, because they are made of elements which create social cohesion].8 Thus these heads of state no longer act as beings completely set apart, but as men entirely caught up in the supposedly mystical and mythic aura which surrounds them. Evidently this has consequences on those who are governed and on the whole society.

The decline of conscience

The images and beliefs put forward by the dictators have serious consequences for the population’s thinking. Many citizens no longer engage in critical discussions of the regime, since speaking means setting oneself apart, being different to the norm, to what is allowed. Since the population think of them like gods, the dictators easily impose their logic of power. In this way they can present themselves as the best in all areas. Nkoutigui, President of the Republic of the Mountains, along with many others, writes his books and programme manuals for every level of education:

L’homme en blanc était un insomniaque et un versificateur médiocre qui pour se relaxer entre deux dossiers griffonnait des lignes sur des pages de cahiers d’écolier que les services de la présidence qualifiaient de poésies ou pensées, assemblaient et éditaient en livres richement cartonnés. Ces livres étaient les seuls à être lus, étudiés et commentés dans les écoles, instituts et universités de la République des Monts.

[The man in white was an insomniac and a mediocre poet. In order to relax between two files, he scribbled lines on the pages of schoolbooks, which the president’s services ← 125 | 126 → considered poetry or philosophy, gathered together, and edited into richly bound books. These were the only books read, studied, and discussed in the schools, institutes, and universities of the Republic of the Mountains.] (VBS, 170)

The derisive quality of these texts is indicated in the pejorative words and expressions used by the author: insomniac, scribbled, mediocre poet, qualified as poetry or philosophy. But these thoughts coming from a supposedly exceptional being are also considered exceptional in the collective imaginary. The introduction of the president’s books into school programmes leads to a conditioning and shaping of minds from childhood. Generations who are conditioned in this way will only replicate and affirm the ‘sacred’ words and acts of the ruler. Because of the mythical images, every student becomes a kind of creature of the god-president who will sing his praises the whole of their life. No longer able to demonstrate creativity, the citizens function with a herd mentality. Thus the submission and passivity of the citizens is obtained via the indoctrination of a political ideology which has morphed into a religion. After that it becomes impossible for citizens to analyse their socio-political situation. This practice is described by Pierre Ansart in his work Idéologies, conflits et pouvoir: ‘Dans le cas d’une idéologie de maintenance, l’occultation exercerait un effet en quelque sorte hypnagogique détournant les agents d’une analyse critique de leur propre situation: à la façon d’une religion, l’idéologie construit un univers imaginaire qui détourne et assoupit les consciences dans la passivité’ [In the case of an ideology of maintenance, hypocrisy has a somewhat hypnotizing affect turning subjects away from a critical analysis of their own situation; like a religion, the ideology constructs an imaginary universe that distracts and numbs consciences into passivity].9

We can see that this mythical imaginary allows dictators to establish archetypes that are not innate, as Carl Gustav Jung suggests, but acquired, and ‘ceux-ci apparaissent en quelque sorte comme des représentations inconscientes des instincts eux-mêmes; ce sont des modes de comportement instinctifs’ [that which appears as an unconscious representation of ← 126 | 127 → instincts themselves, these are instinctive forms of behaviour].10 This behaviour clearly imitates the model of the Prince whose behaviour is absolutely exemplary. At the moment when the people’s attitudes become instinctive, we can easily understand the welcome enjoyed by Koyaga when he is visiting the inland region: ‘Des groupes de femmes criaillant, chantonnant vous entourent, se saisissent de vous. D’autres vous essuient, vous éventent avec leurs fatras, étalent leurs pagnes sous vos pas. Elles ne veulent pas que vos pieds frôlent le sol. Elles vous soulèvent, vous déchaussent, lavent vos pieds et s’abreuvent de l’eau avec laquelle vos arpions ont été rincés’ [groups of moaning, humming women surround you, grab you. Others wipe you down, fan you with their clutter, spread out their skirts beneath your feet. They don’t want your feet to touch the earth. They lift you up, take off your shoes, wash your feet, then drink the water used to rinse your toes] (VBS, 178). It is clear that this is the result of the mythical images that push these women to acts of worship no less than those received by Jesus Christ on entering into Jerusalem.11 So the dictator is a sacred being, a god who gives all his power to the myth, as Mircea Eliade explains: ‘Les personnages des mythes sont des Êtres Surnaturels. Ils sont connus surtout par ce qu’ils ont fait dans le temps prestigieux des « commencements ». Les mythes révèlent donc leur activité créatrice et dévoilent la sacralité (ou simplement la « surnaturalité ») de leurs œuvres’ [Characters in myths are Supernatural Beings. They are known above all for the ‘beginnings’ they have brought about. Myths reveal their creative activity and disclose the sacred (or simply ‘supernatural’) nature of their works.]12 This supposedly ‘supernatural’ quality that comes through tales of exceptional hunting, of having magical powers and so forth, has a negative influence on people’s consciences. This illustrates just how the myths (which are falsified, perverted and spread by dictators in newly independent societies) have a particular effect on the people. The story of the characters’ origins becomes sacred according to the will of individuals who make it up, rather than through facts of nature. ← 127 | 128 →

In En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, after thirty years in power, Koyaga’s acts are described by the griot Bingo and the respondant Tiécoura, in a ritual of purification and recuperation of power. Tiécoura’s is the voice of bitter criticism, but in addition he speaks lucidly, clinically analysing the politics Koyaga plays out in the Republic of the Gulf:

La politique est une illusion pour le peuple, les administrés. Ils y mettent ce dont ils rêvent. On ne satisfait les rêves que par le mensonge, la duperie. La politique ne réussit que par la duplicité.

    Vous répondez aux habitants, sous des applaudissements, par des promesses mensongères de président fondateur de parti unique. Vous justifiez le coup d’État, l’assassinat du président démocratiquement élu. L’armée est intervenue, vous avez pris le pouvoir pour sauver le pays de la catastrophe qui le menaçait, pour l’arracher aux mains des racistes, des voleurs, des népotismes.

    Les mêmes discours, toujours les mêmes balivernes … Vous terminez votre oraison par d’autres fausses promesses ; celle de restituer par des élections libres le pouvoir au peuple à qui il appartient.

[Politics is an illusion for the people, the governed. They make of it whatever they dream of. Dreams only come true through lies and cheating. Politics only succeeds via cheating.

    You reply to the citizens, amidst applause, with false promises from the founding president of the single party. You justify the coup d’état, the assassination of the president who was democratically elected. The army intervened, you took control to save the country from the catastrophe that was threatening it, to tear it from the hands of the racists, thieves and nepotism.

    The same speeches, always the same nonsense … You finish your oration with other false promises; saying you’ll return power to the people it belongs to with fair elections.] (VBS, 278)

Tiécoura also knows how to ridicule, and how to show that the people are not fooled. When the tenth coup fails, he says the following, and by doing so disproves the official version of events: ‘Personne n’a cru à la thèse du suicide, personne n’a cru à la version officielle. La version qui a prétendu que les désespérés, pris de remords, dans une rage sanguinaire se sont d’abord amputés de la masculinité avant de mettre fin à leur vie par la pendaison’ [Nobody believed the suicide theory, nobody believed the official version. The version that claimed that the desperate people, full of remorse, first cut off their own manhood in a bloodthirsty rage, and then ← 128 | 129 → hanged themselves] (VBS, 270). Bingo the griot is the voice of balance and reason. He criticizes but at the same time praises Koyaga’s actions. Maclédio justifies and explains. Speaking about the aforementioned coup d’état he calls out the bravery of the plotters and the happiness they’ll have in the afterlife: ‘Que les vivants aient ou non cru importe peu. Les morts étaient morts et déjà heureux dans le ciel, très heureux près de Dieu. Le Coran n’annonce-t-il pas, ne répète-t-il pas que les braves qui meurent les armes à la main en défendant leur conviction périssent dans la Djihad et vont directement au paradis?’ [Whether the living believed or not, matters little. The dead were already dead and happy in heaven, very happy close to God. Does the Koran not promise repeatedly that the brave ones who die fighting to defend their belief will die in Jihad and go directly to paradise?] (VBS, 270).

In the rest of the text, Bingo the griot is the one who really has the most powerful words. Although as we pointed out above, his is the voice of balance and reason, Bingo is ‘parfaitement capable de manipuler d’une façon très raffinée la parole […] en feignant la candeur la plus totale, et en donnant l’impression d’approuver les horreurs ou les hontes qu’il décrit’ [perfectly able to manipulate speech in a sophisticated way […] by acting completely innocent, and appearing to approve the horrors and shame he describes] (Nissim, 2001, 62). The following extract illustrates this: ‘Autour de Koyaga, ivres également du fumet du sang, frétillait une meute de lycaons. Lycaon signifie chien sauvage. Ils étaient tous aussi assassins, criminels que leur chef’ [Around Koyaga, drunk on the smell of blood, was a fidgeting pack of lycaons. They were all as murderous and criminal as their master] (VBS, 119).

In short, these voices reveal that the speeches disseminated by the dictator do not always win unanimous support. Several points of view are given, beyond that of the dictator, since a number of characters narrate the text. In effect, the stories that the different presidents want to present as exemplary models are the product of rational strategies which allow them to establish their power in the collective imaginary. ← 129 | 130 →

Presidents of the Republic and their mythical sheen

The permanent and sacred nature of the dictators in power is the result of an expert orchestration of the regime. Most of the presidents surround themselves with individuals responsible for caring for and transforming their image. Throughout En Attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, two people are almost always ruling the nation: the President of the Republic and his right hand man, who is generally in charge of propaganda. This is true for Koyaga and Maclédio, the leopard man and Sakombi Inongo. To impose on the population the image of a great ruler, those in charge of propaganda systematically create a personality cult for the president by using ploys to make the population believe he is simultaneously omniscient and omnipresent. In every town, on every street, wherever an attack happens, the different Supreme Guides erect statues and each civil servant must demonstrate their love for the ruler. This practice is widespread in Koyaga’s country (VBS, 306). Undeniably, with this strategy, the power holder systematically invades the life of his citizens as well as each place, since even the furthest flung corners of the republic carry a trace of the dictator. This omnipresence is coupled with a certain omniscience. Those making decisions claim to be prophets, and clearly that must come with perfect knowledge about everything. Speeches to prove this begin with the president himself, who considers himself first in all domains. This is obviously well received by the populations who are gripped by the monologic speeches as in the tale about Nkoutigui Fondio: ‘Dans sa république socialiste, Nkoutigui était appelé le premier footballeur, le premier médecin, le meilleur agriculteur, le meilleur mari, le plus pieux et le plus grand musulman, etc. Il aimait parmi toutes les adulations, celles qui le qualifiaient de plus talentueux écrivain, de plus grand poète de son pays’ [In his socialist republic, Nkoutigui was called the top footballer, the top doctor, the best farmer, the best husband, the greatest and most pious Muslim, etc. Among all these adulations, he liked those which labelled him the most talented writer, the greatest poet of the land] (VBS, 170). Knowing that he has a plethora of mistresses and is one of the most run-of-the-mill writers of the Republic, the danger in ← 130 | 131 → this eulogizing discourse is notable. Yet the adoration of the ruler is not limited to the portraits and statues which are seen everywhere.

Koyaga’s experience shows us that even the national anthem is for the glory of the president and his party (VBS, 285). Where national anthems are supposed to be songs which unite the people and express all their aspirations, here one sole individual is glorified. The glorification of the president and the party are in keeping with the pure and simple adhesion to the Guide’s ideas. This acknowledgement of imposed ideas is the result of the powers of persuasion of the systems of propaganda. Indeed, every president sets up a system for spreading the party ideology. This is why, in these regimes, there are always ministers whose job it is to hammer home the president’s speeches and the images which accentuate his value. Sakombi Inongo, the Orientation Minister for the President of the Republic of the Great River, gives all sorts of soothing names to the president who has the leopard totem. Terms like ‘le Président-soleil, le Génie du Grand Fleuve, le Stratège, le Sauveur, le Père de la nation, l’Unificateur, le Pacificateur’ [President-sun, the Genie of the Great River, the Strategist, the Saviour, the Father of the nation, the Unifier, the Peacemaker] come up regularly in his speeches (VBS, 243).

In order to spread their messages better, those in charge of ideological propaganda use a strategy to make people believe that they adhere to the regime’s ideas out of pure conviction; for them, it’s spontaneity rather than manipulation through propaganda which leads the people to support the single party. But this is an illusion. The producers of these messages have no qualms showing the citizens that they have ownership of truth; whether by force or subtler methods. Such manoeuvres are helpful for managing the emotions of crowds which are often hard to navigate. Hence why Serge Hutin finds propaganda ‘sera tantôt subtile, voire insidieuse, tantôt délibérément déchaînée, envahissante. Les propagandes totalitaires savent fort bien, quand elles en sont à ce stade, canaliser les aspirations messianiques qui, chez d’innombrables êtres frustrés, ne demandent qu’à s’épanouir. D’où l’omniprésence des portraits de l’«Homme-Providence», autour duquel s’organisera la convergence des élans messianiques des masses déboussolées’ [as subtle as it is insidious, deliberately unleashed, and invasive. Totalitarian propaganda manages, at a certain moment, to channel the ← 131 | 132 → messianic aspirations which only want to flourish in the lives of countless frustrated souls. Hence the ubiquitous presence of portraits of the ‘Saviour Man’, around whom the messianic desires of the disoriented crowds come together].13 At the same time, an information network is put in place to ensure effective adherence to the ruler’s ideas, and to ensure that images dear to the dictator are reproduced faithfully. These networks incorporate the police, with military and presidential intelligence services. On the other side, ordinary citizens can also provide information and, in most cases, be rewarded (VBS, 333). This is how under Koyaga’s reign, everybody is known. The slightest gestures, attitudes and words are known. Information gleaned by each different service is faithfully transmitted in person to the president who acts in turn with intimidation or pure and simple repression (VBS, 303).

This is a situation experienced by many African countries in the aftermath of independence. Denunciation and propaganda become trustworthy mediums for heads of state to look after their image. Whether through terror or spontaneous support for the system, one thing is clear: the ruler is magnified, idolized, made sublime and even sacred. This is also a way for the group to reassure itself and in spite of everything to find in their ruler this Saviour figure. Pierre Ansart underlines this in Idéologie, Conflits et Pouvoir: ‘Dans le discours d’amour à l’adresse du héros, dans le culte spontané de sa personnalité, le groupe confirme sa gloire et l’intensité de ses relations internes: il invente une nouvelle forme de sacré à travers laquelle il se réassure. Il invente les héros, les saints qui illustrent sa propre gloire’ [In the language of love in the hero’s address, in the spontaneous worship of his personality, the group confirms his glory and the intensity of its internal relationships: it invents a new sacred form through which it reassures itself. It invents heroes and saints which demonstrate its own glory].14 By establishing such a cult of personality, the president denies individuality and instead makes himself the epicentre of a whole people’s aspirations. He becomes the leader in every area. This denial of distinctive characteristics leads directly to the decline of consciences. Citizens are no longer able to ← 132 | 133 → reflect on their situation, and become incapable of contesting the existing order. This absence of a critical mind visible in the novels can also be noted in several African countries following independence; many of Kourouma’s characters have close links with the historical reality of Africa.

Beyond the myth, real referents

The exceptional aspects seen in most of the characters in these novels by Kourouma have links with real facts. Reading the experience of Koyaga, we can find similarities with Gnassingbé Eyadéma the former President of Togo. In the novel, the character is born in Ramaka. Eyadéma is born in Lama Kara, a small village in the north of the country. Ramaka could be an anagram of Lama Kara. Koyaga’s love of hunting and robbing the people to build up a wildlife reserve in En Attendant le Vote des Bêtes Sauvages (VBS, 317) are things which actually happened in Togo. Koyaga escapes an attempted assassination when a soldier shoots at him from point-blank range and misses (VBS, 285). Later there are two plane accidents which he miraculously survives. These two events serve to reinforce Koyaga’s mythical side but also point to Eyadéma in Togo. In 1967 he miraculously escaped the point-blank shot of a soldier who missed him. He was also involved in two plane accidents near Sarakawa in the north of Togo, one in 1973 and the other in January 1974. The second one turned Sarakawa into a place of pilgrimage. Thus Koyaga’s trajectory was almost identical to that of Gnassingbé Eyadéma. In both cases, a myth of invincibility and invulnerability was built which made the people believe that the president was an exceptional human. Each failed rebel attempt reinforced the myth formed around the dictator, in particular the mystical aura which surrounded him. Following the failed attack of 2003, François Soudan wrote of Eyadéma in Jeune Afrique l’Intelligent, ‘Aux yeux de nombre de Togolais, une sorte de halo méta-religieux entoure le personnage, comme si seule la maladie pouvait un jour le terrasser.’ [in the eyes of many Togolese people, a meta-religious halo surrounds the figure, as if only illness could one day bring ← 133 | 134 → him down] (Soudan, 2003, 24). The well-known journalist was right, and Eyadéma was struck down by illness, rather than the multiple coups d’état against him during his presidency.

In En Attendant le Vote des Bêtes Sauvages, the narrator draws particular attention to the assassination of Fricassa Santos, the President of the Republic of the Gulf. This murder has an air of great mystery, since the fight that precedes Koyaga’s victory is the one between the two talented magic students (VBS, 100). This ambiguous link to Fricassa Santos’s murder provides Koyaga with the legitimization and sense of myth that he needs, since he won power through fighting. His action comes in the wake of the sorting and rebuilding of a fair society. Koyaga presents himself as the Saviour figure come to restore a former peace which was disrupted by what he sees as a system of profiteers, injustice, and crimes. It is the exact same context that sees Eyadéma assassinate Sylvanus Olympio on 13 January 1963. That conquest distorts and transforms a horrible criminal act, turning Eyadéma into a mythical character:

Le mythe proprement dit déforme le passé ; celui qui fonde le pouvoir du général Eyadéma altère le présent en le rapprochant du passé mythologique. En mythifiant ce passé tout proche, le général Eyadéma se donne le moyen d’épurer l’acte criminel qui était à l’origine de son pouvoir de tout aspect répréhensible en le présentant au peuple comme salvateur. La légitimité du pouvoir du général Eyadéma opère dans ce champ déformé et fondamentalement mythifié.

[Myth, strictly speaking, distorts the past; the foundation of general Eyadéma’s power adapts the present in drawing it closer to a mythological past. By mythifying the recent past, general Eyadéma enables himself to cleanse the criminal act, which insured his power, from any objectionable element, presenting it instead as the people’s salvation. The legitimacy of general Eyadéma’s power works in this distorted and fundamentally mythical sense.]15

As with Koyaga, the same is true of other character pairings: Tiékoroni/Houphouët Boigny, Bossouma/Bokassa, Nkoutigui Fondio/Sekou Touré, the leopard man/Mobutu Sese Seko, the jackal man/Hassan II. Kourouma uses names to mask well-known figures. In an interview, the author admits ← 134 | 135 → that ‘Eyadéma, le dictateur du Togo, a été un des modèles qui m’ont servi pour décrire Koyaga, le dictateur du roman’ [Eyadéma, Togo’s dictator, was one of the bases for my description of Koyaga, the dictator in the novel].16 Drawing inspiration from real people, Kourouma also ridicules the different presidents included in his novels. This can be seen in the names he gives his characters. When speaking about Bossouma in En Attendant le vote des Bêtes Sauvages, the narrator always highlights the smell of excrement that accompanies the character. Looking at character names reveals the correlations between Bossouma in the text and Bokassa in real life. In the novel, the narrator explains the meaning of Bossouma: this name means ‘puanteur de pet’ [fart stench] in Malinké (VBS, 208). But, according to the Inventaire des particularités lexicales du français en Afrique noire, Bokassa means the same thing. With these transitive links, Bossouma and Bokassa are synonyms. By playing with meanings, Kourouma draws a subtle but direct link between the fictional character and the real life person. The author explains his choice to ridicule his characters in an interview with Jean-Fernand Bédia. He speaks about Tiékoroni (Houphouët-Boigny):

Tièkoroni, ça veut dire, c’est petit […]. C’est le diminutif de Tièkoroba.[…] Quand on dit Tièkoroni, c’est dans le but de réduire l’importance de la personne. Il y a une ironie terrible. Tièkoroni, ça signifie deux choses: d’abord, il est vieux, mais surtout quelqu’un qui est petit en taille. En outre, il est combinard. Il n’est pas franc, il n’est pas clair. C’est tout le contraire de Tièkoroba qui incarnerait la vérité, la sagesse.

[Tiékoroni means little […] It’s the diminutive form of Tièkoroba […] When you say Tiékoroni, it’s in order to reduce a person’s importance. There’s a terrible irony. Tiékoroni means two things: firstly, he is old, but mostly it describes somebody who is small. But he’s also a schemer. He is not candid, nor clear. He’s the total opposite of Tièkoroba who embodied truth and wisdom.]17

The author intentionally gives the name as a summary of the character (in the novel, Tiékoroni is a short, old man, a liar and a dictator). But according ← 135 | 136 → to the author, the real life referent shares the same characteristics. Knowing that Houphouët-Boigny, President of the Ivory Coast, was presented as a monument of wisdom, we understand Kourouma’s irony in deconstructing the myth and mystery around his character.

In Allah n’est pas obligé, Kourouma uses the names of real people. Reading the book, we recognize the well-known names of Charles Taylor, Samuel Doe, Prince Johnson, Foday Sankoh, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and Johnny Paul Koroma. In the armed conflicts of Sierra Leone or Liberia, they always emphasized their stature as strong men with exceptional powers. So as well as characters who stand before the people as redeemer figures come to re-establish a disrupted order, Kourouma depicts the real actors of Africa’s history.

Kourouma makes these choices to shed new light on the dealings of certain historical figures who use fantasy to shape the people’s thinking. The author himself does not believe in all these imaginary manoeuvres:

Je ne crois pas au fétichisme. Pour une raison très simple: si ce qu’avançait la magie était vrai, notre histoire ne serait pas aussi tragique ! […] Si les Africains avaient réellement le pouvoir que leur promet la magie, ils n’auraient pas accepté l’esclavage, ni la colonisation. La tradition explique que si la magie ne réussit pas toujours, c’est à cause d’une faute commise dans le rituel. Le malheur viendrait d’une erreur dans la méthode utilisée dans la pratique fétichiste. Mais je n’y crois pas.

[I don’t believe in fetishism. For one simple reason: if magic could really make a difference, then our history wouldn’t be so tragic! […] If African people really had the power that magic claims to offer, they wouldn’t have accepted either slavery or colonization. Tradition explains that if magic doesn’t always work, it’s because of a mistake made in the ritual. Misfortune is supposedly because of a mistake in the method of fetishist practice. But I don’t believe it.]18

Thus we understand that myths, fetishes, and other totems present in the postcolonial societies of Kourouma’s novels are to be understood as imaginary, rather than having any hold on the writer’s reality. ← 136 | 137 →

Conclusion

Close reading of Kourouma’s novels allows us to see several characters using animals as totems to protect them from adversity. As well as this protection, these figures adopt all the characteristics of the animals. Displaying those characteristics, as well as recounting their unusual childhoods and expertise in hunting, make them stand out as exceptional beings. Yet as we have seen, the totems and myths are distorted for personal gain in these fractured, post-independence societies. Systems of propaganda validate the mythical images of leaders who present themselves as Messiah, come to save the people from injustice, corruption, and every kind of evil. Hammering these distorted images home has immeasurable consequences for the psyche of those citizens who believe the lies. But as this analysis has shown, certain characters retain enough lucidity to reveal the huge flaws in these dictatorial regimes. Through name choices, Ahmadou Kourouma has his narrators ridicule these characters, in turn undoing the myths and mystery that surrounds them. Beyond the fictional characters, we have seen links with many actors from African history. The parallels I have drawn reveal just how close the fictional events are to the real ones. In this way, the novel becomes a space to invert those falsely mythical images that many African dictators have disseminated and continue to show off throughout their reigns.

Bibliography

Ansart, Pierre, Idéologies, conflits et pouvoir (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1977).

Armel, Arliette, ‘Ahmadou Kourouma: «Je suis toujours un opposant»’, Magazine Littéraire n° 390, pp. 98–102, 2000.

Bédia, Jean-Fernand, ‘Janjon pour Ahmadou Kourouma’, Africultures N° 65, October 2005. ← 137 | 138 →

Bindi Ngouté, Lucien, ‘De la chair au pouvoir de destruction aveugle: les repas initiatiques chez Ahmadou Kourouma’, in Joseph Ndinda (ed.), Écriture, jeu et enjeux, mythes et représentations de l’alimentaire dans les littératures africaines (Yaoundé: Éditions CLE, 2011).

EDMA, La psychanalyse (Paris: Charles Henri Favrod, 1975).

Eliade, Mircea, Aspects du mythe (Paris: Gallimard, 1963).

Equipe IFA, Inventaire des particularités lexicales du français en Afrique noire (Paris: Edicef/Aupelf, 1988).

Freud, Sigmund, Totem et tabou (Paris: Payot, 1965).

Hutin, Serge, Les techniques de l’envoûtement (Paris: Belfond, 1973).

Julien, Nadia, Grand dictionnaire des symboles et des mythes (Alleur: Marabout, 1997).

Kourouma, Ahmadou, Allah n’est pas obligé (Paris: Seuil, 2000).

——, En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages (Paris: Seuil, 1998).

Ndinda, Joseph, Le politicien, le marabout-féticheur et le griot dans les romans d’Ahmadou Kourouma (Paris: Harmattan, 2011).

Ngandu, Pius Nkashama, Kourouma et le mythe: une lecture de les Soleils des Indépendances. (Paris: Silex, 1985).

Nissim, Liana, « 1968–1998: Ahmadou Kourouma des Soleils des indépendances au Vote des bêtes sauvages », Littérature francophones: Langues et Styles, Acte du Colloque du Centre d’Études Francophone, Université Paris XII-Val de Marne (Paris: Harmattan, 2001).

Soudan, François, « Eyadema ressuscité » Jeune Afrique l’Intelligent Nº2228, September 2003.

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1 Translated by Hannah Grayson.

2 Mircea Eliade, Aspects du mythe (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), p. 17.

3 The works in question are En Attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages (Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1998) and Allah n’est pas obligé (Paris, Edition du Seuil, 2000). They will be referred to respectively as VBS and APO.

4 Sigmund Freud, Totem et tabou (Paris, Payot, 1965), p. 13.

5 Nadia Julien, Grand dictionnaire des symboles et des mythes. Alleur (Belgique), Marabout, 1997. pp. 192–3

6 On this subject, see Bindi Ngouté ‘De la chair au pouvoir de destruction aveugle: les repas initiatiques chez Ahmadou Kourouma’, in Joseph Ndinda (ed.) Écriture, jeu et enjeux, mythes et représentations de l’alimentaire dans les littératures africaines (Yaoundé: Éditions CLE, 2011).

7 On the role of marabouts, see Joseph Ndinda, Le Politicien, le marabout-féticheur et le griot dans les romans d’Ahmadou Kourouma (Paris: Harmattan, 2011).

8 Pius Ngandu Nkashama,, Kourouma et le mythe: une lecture de les Soleils des Indépendances (Paris: Silex, 1985), p. 11.

9 Pierre Ansart, Idéologies, conflits et pouvoir (Paris, PUF, 1977), p. 233.

10 EDMA, La Psychanalyse (Paris, Charles Henri Favrod, 1975), p. 56.

11 In the Bible in Luke 7: 37–8, John 12: 3/12–14.

12 Eliade, Aspects du mythe, p. 17.

13 Serge Hutin, Les techniques de l’envoûtement (Paris, Belfond, 1973), pp. 173–4.

14 Pierre Ansart, Idéologies, conflits et pouvoir (Paris, PUF, 1977), p. 140.

15 Comi Toulabor, Le Togo sous Eyadéma (Paris: Karthala, 1986), p. 16.

16 Armel, Arliette, ‘Ahmadou Kourouma: «Je suis toujours un opposant»’, Magazine Littéraire n° 390, pp. 98–102, 2000 (99).

17 Jean-Fernand Bédia, ‘Janjon pour Ahmadou Kourouma’, Africultures (65), October 2005 <http://www.africultures.com? accessed 25 May 2018.

18 Armel, Ahmadou Kourouma, p. 100.