The late French playwright, Jean Anouilh wrote perhaps his most famous play Antigone during the Nazi occupation of France. The play reprises the eponymous Greek tragedy by Sophocles about the clash between idealism and power, the ensuing battle for the remains of a dead traitor – and dead brother – and the unravelling of it all.
With the Nazi censors keenly watching and the French Resistance forces not far behind, Anouilh colours his narrative so that in later years arguments would revolve around whether the play was, as it strongly suggested, a parable urging on the latter or whether it was a subtle endorsement of the pragmatism of the Vichy regime’s collaboration with its occupiers.
Anouilh, already coming under the influence of the likes of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the novelist, Paul Camus, attempts to outmanoeuvre his critics with the trick of surrealism: “Each person has a role,” says Antigone to her sister, Ismene. “[Creon, the King] must make us die, and we, we must go and bury our brother. That is how it has been distributed.”
This was the fatalism of occupation, inescapable as much in the drama, as in the lived reality of the audience that understands its echoes.
Occupation literature, or its twin, liberation literature is decades out of fashion. Its heroes are dead, have exited the stage. (Or else have not; they took power, overstayed and have soured into it, setting up the stage for a new tragic drama, which is to say, a farce.)
As is conveyed across this issue, the realities of occupation have rarely ever been so apparent. If the novelists are unavailable for comment, the drama lies elsewhere – in the dizzying intricacies of dollars and cents with many zeroes attached to them. Exit the poet, enter the bean counters and the removal men.
At the end of May, the African Development Bank (AfDB) issued a caution that the debt levels in several African countries had reached unsustainable levels. Much of that debt was private commercial paper sold though bond issuances on the cheap – the now notorious Eurobond flotations. Now that the value of African currencies were falling, mostly on the back of sinking commodity prices, the real danger, said the AfDB, lies in the fact that the repayments will have to be made in hard currency, precious little of which is coming into the coffers. At least 15 African countries find themselves in this rather sticky situation. Sound familiar? No? I’ll remind you: the debt defaults of the early 1980s that led to the 30 years of occupation (aka debt-fuelled austerity, aka structural adjustment programmes) out of which we only recently emerged.
Kukopa ni harusi, kulipa matanga, say the waSwahili. Very loosely translated: the party’s over.
In East Africa, coffee farmers find themselves at the mercy of a global system controlled by a Western oligopoly. Its relentless domination of what is, after oil, the most valuable commodity on earth, means that they cannot even afford the luxury of withdrawing either their labour or their coffee trees; they have been tied up in a casino of debt, a racket in which the multinational coffee trader is creditor, marketing agent, principal dealer at the auction, exporter of the raw commodity and manufacturer of the finished product.
Coffee started its journey into the world as a slave crop. It still is.
That is how the roles have been distributed. After a year in office, President Muhammadu Buhari must surely struggle with a strange sense of déjà vu – that this is 1984 all over again. Through no fault of his own, he finds himself facing an almost identical set of challenges to when he first seized power three decades ago. A tanking economy, its coffers pilfered beyond the dreams of avarice, its nest-egg shattered and a populace pushed to the wall.
And yet, this is not the time for either despair or self-pitying introspection. In the late 1960s, Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima arrived in the US. Determined to tell the African story without the luxury of Hollywood budgets – what he calls the “Hollywood plantation system” – he has over the years developed his own narrative style and a business model to accompany it, achieving all this in the face of real and latent hostility from a juggernaut movie industry that is instinctively suspicious of independent thinking.
We are under occupation only to the extent that we accept to be.