Politics in Africa takes different shades and forms! it’s temperament often varies from windy, stormy, sunny, wet to dry. However, whichever form it takes, it is always bound to be filled with intrigues. Belly politics, which was popularized by Jean François Bayart, points to the propensity of politicians to hoard and greedily consume resources in things and people. Many politicians are interested in amassing much more wealth than they will ever need. This shade of politics is fast spreading within the shores of Africa and gathering immense momentum, which can only be stopped by the heavily intervention of an ‘angel’.
Helon Habila, one of Africa’s finest novelists examined the unenviable role Nigerian military leaders played while at the helms of affairs. In the book, ‘Waiting for an Angel’, Habila exposes the follies of the military government and the negative impacts their regime had on people. Ngozi Chuma-Udeh was right when he described these leaders as “a group of ‘black power’ elite cult that had stepped into the vacated seat of the colonial masters. These leaders started where their masters stopped. Theirs was the same, if not worse than the colonial pattern of politics. The ruling class were the products of the same evil they fought against.” While many would have thought, there would be an emergence of succour and relief; it was shameful that the masses had to be exposed to a life of misery and hardship. The leaders were concerned only about themselves and of course, their bellies.
Born November 1967
Kaltungo, Gombe State, Nigeria
Alma mater University of Jos
University of East Anglia
Notable awards 2001 Caine Prize
Helon Habila’s novel, “Waiting for an Angel”, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for First Novel Award in 2004 was centered on a journalist and frustrated novelist named Lomba. He was a political prisoner that was starving in a Lagos prison. Habila exposes us to the ordinary lives of the citizens of Lagos, living on Poverty Street. He tries to portray some iota of hope in a rapid increasing hopeless society. Lomba, who had been jailed for two years without trial has suffered so much grief and now filled with anger, which Habila carefully described as “the baffled prisoner’s attempt to re-crystallize his slowly dissolving self,” and entered “a state of tranquil acceptance” of his fate. Lomba spent his time in prison writing poems and journal entries; the jailer, however, saw the writings which Lomba had written and hidden. He asked Lomba to write for the better-literate woman he is courting, some love poems. There was a temporary ray of hope as the educated woman was able to recognize Lomba’s coded messages and comes to the prison to see him. The novel, through its chronological arrangement, takes us back to the years before Lomba was arrested; and just as the episodes showcase, Habila shows us the effects of the actions on the lives of the ordinary citizens by the dictatorial government. Life became difficult and there seemed to be no opportunities, but the young people still believed their dreams were valid. Later on in the novel, Lomba and his friends met a poet who told them their fortunes. One of the young men asked to know the day he would die, which he hopes will be “spectacular and momentous”, just as he put it. He was assured he will know the day when the time comes – and does. Lomba also had another friend, whose parents had been killed in a car crash; he was so grief-stricken that he made a ‘hot headed’ speech and was arrested, beaten ‘so well’ and driven insane. Lomba, who had no chance of getting his own novel published, takes a job writing for the Dial, for which he sometimes reports on political demonstrations; one of them was a demonstration in which people peacefully protest the neglect of their neighborhood. At the demonstration, his friend Joshua said “we are dying from lack of hope.” The unarmed protesters were ruthlessly attacked by armed riot police, tear gas was used to disperse them and those arrested were severely beaten; and for women and children, who managed to run, they got killed on the adjacent highway by speeding cars.
The state of the continent is appalling; one cannot but agree with W.B Yeats who asserted that ‘things are falling apart, while the centre seems not to hold’. While the book ‘Waiting for an Angel’ narrates the ordeals under the oppressive military government, it is only embarrassing to admit that we are still wailing in the valley of the unknown, even now under the civilian government. Nothing seems to be working and it is taking forever for an angel to arrive. Will there even be an arrival of any angel? Things are getting messier; embezzlement of funds is on the rise; killings seem to be a norm and sometimes, it looks as if we have all lost our conscience. Just as Habila rightly pointed out, “the people copy their rules, just as children ape their parents. Violence is a symptom of a dysfunctional system, where people have no patience for or confidence in due process. The poor don’t believe they can get justice from the courts, because usually they can’t; the elite know the system is rigged because they rigged it. The ones at the top keep the door shut because they don’t want to share the spoils of office. Actual violence, or the thread of it, helps to keep the populace in check, just as poverty does.” And here we are, Africa! While you think you have seen it all, the ‘stakeholders’, as they are being called, come up with new strategies every political year – A fight for the soul of the nation and a struggle for food, for the belly. The belly politics is summed up in the words of Thomas Sankara, who stated that “whoever feeds you, imposes their will upon you.” As election period draws nearer, politicians carry their goody bags, filled up with commodities for the electorates. They distribute food items and cash in exchange for political ‘favours’ at the polls. Most times, the electorates see it as an opportunity to have a share of the ‘national cake’, as they call it. Just like in Habila’s ‘Waiting for an Angel’, where “there was nothing to believe in: the only mission the military rulers had was systematically to loot the national treasury; their only morality was a vicious survivalist agenda in which any hint of disloyalty was ruthlessly crushed.” Such mindset is still inherent in our supposed leaders but now rulers; their bellies are of priority to them and they would do anything to fill their already ‘potted’ belly. Some scholars even believe, our ‘leaders’ made us poor so they could take advantage of us. Who wants to stay hungry? We sell our rights for the sake of our bellies and languish in pains or become ‘wailing wailers’ just as someone rightly categorized.
Habila’s ‘Waiting for an Angel’ preaches freedom even in the face of tyranny and death. Just as Habila puts it, “every oppressor knows that wherever one word is joined to another word to form a sentence, there’ll be revolt. That is our work, the media: to refuse to be silenced, to encourage legitimate criticism wherever we find it.” It is disturbing to see a lot of writers, journalists, activists disappear everyday in Africa. Protesters all around Africa get dispersed from demonstrations through ruthless means by security operatives; while many get injured and others lose their lives. Whoever bewitched us is cruel. There are no regards for lives and sometimes, one begins to wonder if this is a better time to be a ‘cow’…whatever that means. Most politicians are on a struggle for the sake of the belly which can only be filled with public funds. While some countries in Africa seem to be getting it right in terms of governance, it is still shocking to find opposing voices disappearing. While politics is seen as a dirty game, we could be the detergent to clean it up. It is paramount that we continue to speak the truth and act with good conscience. In the course of our actions, we would be faced with threats to our lives and while we wait for an angel to save us – sometimes, the Angel of Death is bound to show up; but who is scared of death?