Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, Vintage, UK. Random House, 2005, 445pp
With recent elections in Edo and Ondo states, thelagosreview.ng takes a backward glance to Ahmadou Kourouma’s critically acclaimed ‘Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote’ in trying to understand why elections are a do-or-die affair in Africa.
Ahmadou Kourouma’s epic and rambling narrative is a masterpiece of the satiric genre. Employing the oral narrative format, Kourouma uses the story of an African potentate and dictator to tell the depraved and sickening story of African dictators and managing to in the process, plumb the decrepit depths of debauched power, chicanery and deviousness.
There is something to be said for satire; in its benign malevolence and ability to reach under the skin and provoke angst without seeming to cause outward offence. Satire creates the impression of being a whip and balm all at once; a rat that bites and soothes all at once by blowing on the exposed skin as it gnaws at it.
Kourouma speaks of an African dictator who seized power on a Monday as a Colonel. “On Tuesday morning, he awarded himself the rank and stars of a General. When he was advised that there were four other dictators of that rank on the continent, he declared himself field marshal on Thursday evening. When two other generals joined him as marshals, he requested that France, together with his army and his people, crown him Emperor.”
And in what is almost a prophetic foretelling of what has become the fate of Zimbabawe, Kourouma writes of a nation where no one steals money anymore because “the value of the money one could take was always less than the cost of the means of transporting it.”
In the eyes of Ahmadou Kourouma, Africa is one huge farce and our leaders are village idiots who create portfolios for “suppliers emeritus of marabouts, sorcerers and other experts in the occult to the dictator.”
The award winning Ahmadou Kourouma is at the height of his powers in Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote which paints a depraved and pathetic picture of the African continent, the debacle that is self rule, and the insidiousness of neo-colonialism and madness of dictatorship.
Employing multiple narrative voices from the sora, Bingo – palace idiot and griot – to his acolyte or responder, Tiecoura and Macledio, the Minister of Orientation and then Koyaga himself, the President of the Republique du Golfe, potentate and dictator whose totem is the Falcon, each of these characters offer their voices to this colourful, irreverent, sad, fantastic, generously imagined and laugh-out-loud funny tale of impunity, debauchery and perversion.
The story of Koyaga, soldier, hunter, coup plotter and shape shifter is the story of every sit-tight African leader who appropriates not just power but the wealth of his nation as his own. Soon after his successful coup against President Fricassa Santos, Koyaga embarks on a tour of Africa and it is on this tour that we learn how African leaders actually “lead,” devoting “too much money to armaments, more money is spent on defence than on the ministries of Health and Education.”
The rough and rugged Koyaga is sometimes humbled, appalled and troubled by the things he sees from friends and family members of dictators incarcerated within the precincts of the presidential palace, to terrible torture, prodigal licentiousness as well as foolhardy and elephantine projects embarked upon to massage outsize egos.
The story takes place during the Cold War between the West and Communist Russia, at a time when “African countries were better known by the names of their dictators than by their own names.” Kourouma is a master of understatement, a key weapon in the arsenal of the satirist. By understating the fact, the fool can speak truth to power and instead of provoking rage he teases out laughter.
Koyaga’s ascent to power, his maniacal hold on power and survival of many assassination attempts are well known to Africans living under the sway of a dictator and is in many ways the story of Eyadema of Togo who once survived a tragic air crash that claimed so many lives. Indeed many of the leaders to whom Koyaga goes for tutelage bear direct similarities to well known African dictators from Houphouet Boigny and Idi Amin to Mobutu Sese Seko and there is even a clear allusion to Patrice Lumumba and the CIA conspiracy. Lumumba is represented here as Pace Humba, a great Nationalist from the Republique du Grand Fleuve.
Fortified by the charms and incantations of his mother, Nadjouma and marabout Bokana, Koyaga lives a charmed life, surviving over 90 assassination attempts in the course of thirty years in power and this is symptomatic of African countries and their leaders; they usually ascend through bloodshed and exit the same way.
Ahmadou Kourouma’s epic novel with its wide gaze across Africa is at once a panygeric and a dirge, extolling the heroic deeds of African leaders whose every act unfortunately causes pain and brings untold misery to their own people.
The novel is a wide ranging history lesson which tells the story of neo colonial African states by linking their present malaise to the story of the potentates that rule over them. It is a scathing indictment of African leaders, their insatiable lust for power, greed and the complicity of the West in creating wild neo-colonial beasts who continue to impoverish the people long after colonialism has ended.
The picture he paints of Africa is a dismal one.