Few books I’ve read have opened in a more chilling way than this slim novel which was published after his assassination in 1998. In his preface Zongo, the country’s most respected journalist and publisher of the L’Indépendant newspaper, describes being beaten by Burkina Faso’s special police force who had discovered the novel and judged it subversive. What followed was a period of solitary confinement, persecution and attempts on his life, culminating in his murder. An Independent Commission of Inquiry later concluded that he had been killed for purely political reasons because of his investigative work into the death of a driver who had worked for the brother of President Blaise Compaoré.
A few pages into the novel it becomes evident why the government forces considered this work to be an incendiary piece of writing. Zongo portrays the fictional West African nation of Watinbow which is led by the corrupt and immoral President Gouama. Gouma has grown rich by diverting IMF and world aid funds into his private Swiss bank account. He’s surrounded by sycophantic representatives from an unnamed country and advisers who are more than happy to collude in any plans he devises to stay in power, even if this involves fire bombing opponents or removing the organs from prisoners. Alerted to a potential challenge to his authority Gouama has two of his senior army chiefs killed while taking part in a parachute drop. But he still gets toppled from power in a military coup d’etat and tries to flee the country disguised as a peasant so that he can regroup and try to regain power.
History has brought us many examples of this kind of political leader in Africa, the kind that drives around in expensive cars and stays in luxury hotels while their countrymen starve. What this novel gives is an insight into the mind of such a person and the inherent instability of a country ruled via fear and military strength.
At the beginning after the initial coup that brings the new regime to power, the early disputes are always about gets appointed to the limited number of governmental posts that open up. But there is a far more subtle struggle for position that takes lace, to see how the ‘courageous’ men will line up behind the president. These are the strong men in the making, only some are more strong than others. The battle of the heroes goes on behind the scenes: hero number five wants to become hero number two, hero number form wants to become hero number one; hero number one wants to eliminate all those who dream of taking his place. In this way the fighting begins anew. The heroes systematically obliterate one another. Each in his turn crashes and burns until a new strong man emerges.
At times like this the book veers towards the polemic so for example we have an encounter between Gouma and a poor fisherman in which the latter dispenses with the ex-President’s vision of his land as one of contented citizens he has heeled make wealthy. Other times it borders on black humour as government aides discuss the various options for eliminating their opponents. There’s too much of the former and not enough of the latter or sufficient depth of characterisation to make this story really come alive.
An important novel if only for the fact that it was ever published but not a particularly satisfying read.