A true story from Africa in the early sixties.
Authorities agree that there have been over thirty military coups in Africa, mostly in the Sub-Sahara, since the early sixties. Most often outsiders don’t get to meet the predominantly young leaders until they’ve well established their usual domineering governments This is a true story of one of those rare exceptions.
The word among the few Europeans remaining in the capital city was that meeting with the “Colonel” was impossible. Diplomats who did have audiences uniformly reported he was very smart and fully in control. What that meant was debatable. One thing was clear: no one mentioned anything about his good humor or pleasant manner. The Colonel was accepted as a bona fide tough guy. At least that was the line from the U.S. .
The Colonel had been in charge for a very short while before he had quickly turned over the day-to-day governance to a group of civilian university graduates and the previously appointed, relatively powerless, president of the country. The Colonel remained holed-up in a camp known to English-speakers as Camp Coke Bottle. Foreign journalists in general and English-speakers in particular tend to give odd names to places and people that have African names. Of course there was also the rumor that the Colonel’s soldiers enjoyed smashing the heads of unruly civilians with empty Coca Cola bottles. This was supposed to be the way in which they protected their clean rifle butts.
There had been many reports of rape, looting and murder during the initial phases of the coup d’état. The favorite of the foreign press had been the assaults on nuns. There weren’t many nuns about as they had been ordered to leave before the coup, but the point was never questioned. Raped nuns are always good copy. There certainly had been attacks against both African and European women according to the one overworked doctor left in the vastly overburdened university hospital.
Abandoned villas and burnt vehicles lined the once peaceful streets of the European sector of town. The Africa township was laid low by tribal fighting and general mayhem. The sad faces of now impoverished indigenes told all that was necessary. And yet there were small stands already set up selling pitiful, neatly arranged, spoiled food products.
All this already had been covered by the newly arrived press corps ensconced in the one remaining hotel with a working bar and regular food service. No one questioned how these supplies were obtained. As the fighting died down, the story went cold and the powers-that-be in the home office wanted something fresh — perhaps an interview with the Colonel. Several phony interviews were published, but they were quickly denied. There was one possibility — the cold approach.
In the first days of the successful takeover of the government there had been a clamor for interviews. Every string was pulled. Intermediaries were contacted. Money passed hands. Better contacts were made. Money passed hands. Diplomatic pressure was applied. The respective embassies reported that money must pass hands. No one yet had tried just going up to the front gate of Camp Coke Bottle asking to see the Colonel.
The first step in such an approach is to get a cab driver (using one of the few working stolen cars) who was not afraid to talk to the camp guards. That took time and, of course, money. The next step is to be properly dressed. The uniform for such a mission is a pair of clean pants and shirt with a tie, a bush jacket and a large notebook That’s what makes you recognizably serious in the Sub-Sahara.
The taxi driver spoke rapidly in one of the local languages to the guard at the gate. Nothing seemed to happen. The guard moved on to me. The cabbie translated his questions into French. “Hello, I’m here for a meeting with the Colonel,” I said in my African French. The taxi driver translated my remarks into Lingala, the local lingua franca. The rest of the exchange went as follows passing through several languages: “Appointment?” “I believe so.” “Papers?” “Here.” Passport, I.D. cards, and anything else that looked official I handed over. Much study by the soldier, but he eventually waved us on after he returned the papers. Off we went with a very snappy salute from the soldier. I was impressed.
The Colonel’s office had to be the one with the crowd of para-commandos slouched outside. The cabbie parked his vehicle some distance away and indicated I had to walk the rest of the way. Apparently he didn’t want to get too close to the commandos. These guys were the Colonel’s personal bodyguards and, well, scary. Better not ask the gunslingers any questions, I decided. Just walk in with the notebook as if you belong there. Eyes straight ahead, a quick bound up the stairs and into a small anteroom. “Hello, I’m here to see the Colonel,” I said again in my special African French. “Un peu negre,” I once was told in Paris.
“Do you have any papers?” Out comes my collection of credentials. “Hmm,” says the uniformed desk clerk, perhaps a sergeant. “Wait here, ” he points to a straight-backed wood chair. The office only had that one extra chair. Very G.I. The room had nothing on the walls to give me a clue as to the level of sophistication I was about to encounter. No one knew what the Colonel spoke, though as a former journalist it was generally accepted he had some European language or other.
I was meditating on whether I should bow or salute the Colonel when the sergeant returned and I was caught practicing my salute bow. The Sergeant ushered me into a larger, but still sparsely decorated, office. The big man — he was tall — sat behind a large wooden table. There were no papers on the table — just a large bayonet stuck about in the middle but more to his side. Well, that set-up took care of the first part of what I was going to ask: “So how are you enjoying your new job, Colonel, sir?”
The Colonel sort of smiled as I stood silent in front of him. He gestured me into another wooden chair at the other end of the table. He spoke French very clearly so even I understood nearly every word. I replied in French, though after a while he also tossed in some English. What a relief. The rest was quite anti-climactic. He asked me something about how my work was going. I told him it was going pretty well. “So how’s your work going, sir?” I asked. “Okay,” he said in English.
We exchanged some more questions and answers on the state of things — mostly economic — in his country. He said everything would improve very soon. He noted that he expected the United Nations to arrive with a large supply shipment of food, medical things, and lots of good intentions. That was his big joke and we both laughed. The interview was over. I took one last look at the bayonet and left.
I wish I could have had a photo of the table with that portentous symbol stuck in it, but you can’t have everything. After all I did get to have a private meeting with the Colonel. In the years that followed the signs became clear that the other side to this intelligent former journalist was far darker and uncontrollable than what had appeared in our brief encounter. His transformation into a brutal, megalomaniac dictator would stunt his nation’s growth for decades. That path too often has been the modern story of the continent. Malheureusement, c’est l’Afrique!
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