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50 years of telling the African story

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50 years of telling the African story

As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations we will be selecting articles “from our archives”, in a retrospective that will show what has changed, what hasn’t and to revisit some of the great stories from Africa’s recent history. We hope you enjoy the journey down memory lane as much as we have.

Anatomy of a coup

Just over 30 years ago, Major General Buhari led a coup that toppled the administration of President Shagari. New African’s then Associate Editor, Eddie Iroh covered the events of New Year’s Eve 1984.

Eddie Iroh begins his story with an account of how those celebrating festivities were confronted by the military.

“Many of Lagos’ weekend-party, bitter-enders were among the first Nigerians to know that something was afoot – and it was not the imminent New Year.

“ ‘Where are you going to?’ soldiers asked. The armed men seemed in no mood for jokes.”

As the coup unfolded, Iroh explains how ministers were either detained or made frantic efforts to flee.

“One top politician, Uba Ahmed, Secretary General of the National Party of Nigeria, just back from a trip to Japan and West Germany, was among airplane passengers met by soldiers who had taken over the airport, and one report said he ‘fainted’ on comprehending the situation.”

The public’s comprehension of the coup was one of almost weary acceptance, Iroh notes.

“For a people that have witnessed four successful military coups in 18 years, there was no cross-checking that there had been a military takeover. The question on many minds was whether it had been successful. 

“Politicians all over the capital (those that had not gone out of town for the holidays), began to scamper under various undignified disguises, abandoning their usual black Mercedes limousines in preference for the inconspicuous, low-profile VW Passat and Peugeot 504 saloons.

Some private residences, like the Enugu home of ex-Biafran chief of state, Emeka Ojukwu, were put under military guard. Ojukwu, however, was in CÔte d’Ivoire.

But it would not be long before the men who led the coup would make themselves known.

“Major-General Muhammed Buhari, 42, had masterminded the northern operations of the military takeover. Major-General Ibrahim Babangida, also 42, and until the coup, director-general of military equipment, Nigerian Army, thanked both the armed forces and the civilian population for their ‘obvious solidarity’.”

Iroh writes that Nigerians were assured that the Shagari Administration was now well and truly overthrown.

“They began to jubilate. People wished one another not ‘Happy New Year’ but ‘Happy New Regime’.”

 

What next, Mandela?

Over the past 50 years there have been few stories as momentous as the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. As we can see from the following extracts, a peaceful outcome was still far from certain and there was still plenty to do to ensure a smooth transition.

“In his very first public statement after he came out of prison, Mandela began to lay out his thinking. He said there was no option but to continue the armed struggle. He also called on the international community to maintain sanctions.

“Meanwhile, even as FW de Klerk’s sternest critics and opponents agree that his speech to government on 2 February broke new ground…clearly, De Klerk went nowhere near far enough to satisfy Mandela or his other critics.”

New African editor Alan Rake explains why:

“De Klerk’s stance was in reality only to be expected. In the first place he had to preserve security, or as he said in a later interview ‘avoid revolution’, while confirming that he really meant change.”

Co-author Colin Legum then introduces the subject of land, which was the most contentious issue at the time.

“Three crucial issues sharply divide the majority of White and Black South Africans,” he explains. “White South African fears about their future in a democratic political system based on a universal franchise; the scrapping of the 1913 Land Act which appropriated two-thirds of the land for exclusive White ownership; and the insistence of government on ‘group rights’.

“The abolition of the Land Act is a thorny subject, but it is sine qua non for all representative African leaders. However, throwing open land to free purchase by all citizens, may not in the the end prove as intractable as it now seems provided it does not mean the compulsory redistribution of land, dispossessing a large number of White farmers.”

And our editors went on to explain the difference between the situation in South Africa and other African countries: “South Africa, after all, is not Zimbabwe, Namibia or Kenya: its future is almost certain to be a ‘non-racial’ government rather than a ‘Black’ government.”

 

Two decades of economic change

In January 1980, 36 years ago, two African intellectuals, Abdul Rahman Mohamed Babu and M Mlamali Adam, looked back over two decades to discern Africa’s progress.

For Africa, the 1960s was a decade marked by major social, economic and political changes. The language might seem archaic, with talk of the ‘Third World’ and ‘peasant labour’, but the writers talk about circumstances that seem all too familiar.

“The worsening of the state of income distribution with African societies is also part of the system. Taking the ‘relatively developed’ countries of Black Africa as a whole, 7% of the African population gets more than 40% of the total income.”

They also talk of the marginalisation of the masses in relation to the development process.

“The pattern of externally-oriented development, stimulated by the developed countries’ demand for raw materials has only proved feasible for a small number of countries.”

After 36 years, has the situation improved, or even got worse? A later
piece of phrasing also resonates with Africa today.

“Since the vast majority of commercial agricultural production is for export, Western capitalism has been able endlessly to reduce the remuneration of peasant labour through a constant worsening of the terms of trade.”

The writers also draw attention to another “disturbing problem” which it might be argued is still with us.

“So the most disturbing problem of our time is the immense gulf which is opening up, not between the developed countries and the underdeveloped countries considered as a whole, but between the even more impoverished and numerous masses that constitute the majority of the Third World population, and a minority of the human race comprising not only the greater part of the inhabitants of the developed countries, but also a minority of those of the Third World itself.”

 

The ‘new’ scramble for Africa

In 1981, New African’s Deputy Editor, Mark August Nyirenda wrote of foreign military presences on the continent. It is a theme that has continuously been revisited over the past 30 years.

Mark August Nyirenda begins his article looking at French military, economic and political interests and influence.

French policy and its machinations in Africa are increasingly coming under criticism,” he writes. “French presence is total complete with military, economic and political interests. The policy is maintained by a network of military bases, military surveillance and rapid intervention operations.” 

The article points out that France had never been slow in replacing its erstwhile allies when they showed a little too much inclination towards independence. But the influence of Quai d’Orsay did not always hold sway.

“There is little doubt that Libya’s ability to bring Goukouni Oueddei to power in his fight against former Chadian minister of defence Hisseine Habre, has undercut French influence in the region. It also amounted to political embarrassment for French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing who is seeking re-election.” 

Nyirenda’s analysis indicates that French policy is compromised by its appetite for Libya’s oil. Nevertheless, it flexed its muscles.

“France has beefed up its complement of soldiers in Francophone countries. It intended this to be a warning to Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi not to spread. Gadaffi has tried merging his country with several Arab states but without success. Among them were Egypt, Mauritania, Tunisia and Syria. The failure of these mergers was a major setback for Gadaffi’s dream for a “united Arab World”.”

Perceptively, Nyirenda comments: “It is feared that he may now have chosen to turn his affection to Black Africa.” 

Africa, in general, was struggling economically, even as the ‘new’ Scramble was taking place. Nyirenda writes:

“During 1980 the prices of all of Africa’s principal commodities – copper, coffee, iron ore, rubber and tea were in decline, with only sugar improving after its own disastrous performance in the 1970s.

“Africa was forced to try and increase the volume of exports to make up for these downtrends in prices. But the growing recession in the West has made this a difficult if not impossible task.” NA

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