Friday, December 12, 2014

The Assembly of the Former Heads, by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo.

I lifted this jewel of a short story from the all famous Where the funkiest African stories are told. “Gentlemen, we must move forward.” The Speaker said, hitting his gavel on the table repeatedly. He was screaming but his voice was drowned by the argument in the hall. “Order!” He screamed louder, rising to his feet and striking the gavel harder. The dull sound of wood landing on wood finally got the attention of members. The din receded gradually until the hall became silent. “Gentlemen” He began after allowing a whole minute to pass. “I don’t expect this kind of behaviour from you. If Celestials are acting this way, what makes us different from mere mortals?” He paused for a few seconds again, moving his head from one end of the room to the other, trying to make as much eye contacts as he could. Most of the heads were bowed low as if in guilt. “There must be something that differentiates us as Celestials.” He continued. “What do you think The Master will make of us if he sees us screaming like children over such a flimsy issue?” His eyes met with those of Celestial Thomas who was one of those leading the commotion and he let it linger there for a bit. “Gentlemen, we must proceed now. Members like I said before are free to use whatever name they prefer.” “Mr Speaker” Celestial Thomas who felt the Speakers lingering gaze was some kind of accusation had jumped to his feet. “The main issue here is that Celestial Muammar is being very unreasonable. His allegation was derogatory and I demand that he withdraws it before we proceed.” There were acknowledging shouts of “Yes! Yes!” “I will say it again because it is the fact” Celestial Muammar said jumping to his feet too. He was a tall man with a silk turban loosely tied around his head. “All of you who retain colonial names remain stooges of the West, full stop. Tell us Celestial Thomas, why did you change the name of your country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso in 1984? Was it not because you wanted to exert your sovereignty as a nation? What then stops you from exerting your sovereignty as an individual and use a real African name like my friend Celestial Mobutu who did not only change his country’s name but also discarded the meaningless name the Whiteman gave him when he was a baby?” The murmurs and arguments started again. “Order!” the Speaker screamed. They were quite a handful, the members of the Assembly. When he first arrived from the other side just over three months ago, he had been shocked to find that the African Assembly Hall was under lock and key. It had been so for over a year. The Master, he gathered was angered by the member’s inability to agree on anything and had ordered the Hall to be sealed preferring to share African matters between the European and American Assemblies for deliberations. The Speaker thought it was unacceptable that Africans could not deliberate on their own matters even on this side of life, so he led a team of two other respected members, Nnamdi from Nigeria and Julius from Tanzania to the Central Palace to appeal to The Master for the reopening of the Assembly. The Master gave one condition, that he Nelson would lead the Assembly and become responsible for ensuring peace in the House. The Speaker had accepted the task, confident that after surviving twenty seven years in jail, there wasn’t much else he could not handle. Even more, most of the members revered him back on the other side and would rally round his leadership he thought. Now, as he watched them screaming at each other, ignoring the gavel which was landing repeatedly like a carpenter driving a nail into dry wood, he wondered if he had not made a mistake taking up the position. “Order!” he felt his longs squeeze against his rib cage. The hall quietened a bit. “I have made my ruling on this matter. Members can use whatever name they chose. You all know, I used Nelson all through my life time and it did not make me any less African than any of you here. That is my last word on this matter.” He paused as if to dare anyone to speak again. No one did. “Now gentlemen let us proceed.” He began to read from his note pad “The main item on our Order Paper for today is this letter from The Master that requires urgent attention.” Before he could resume his seat someone screamed “Point of Information” The Speaker was reluctant but the House rules said Point of Information must be observed at all times and he did not want another long argument. “Yes, Celestial Kamuza” “Thank you Mr Speaker for addressing me properly” Kamuza said a mischievous smile on his face. “Yes, it is Kamuza now, not Hastings. All documents here and in the world before including Kwacha notes with my face, remain valid.” There was laughter and cheering in the room. “I want to quickly make a clarification to the House” He continued after raising a fist in the air as though he was acknowledging cheers from supporters at a campaign rally. “That future female member of this house who was defeated in the election last weekend is no relation of mine. We only happen to share the same last name....” Laughter greeted his comment, interrupting him. “No, no, seriously, I have to say this because some people have been coming to condole me saying Celestial Bingu’s brother defeated my daughter, some said she is my daughter in-law or whatever, making it sound like I am a failure. I have to correct this impression before it tarnishes my image and reputation. Even in death, I remain invincible.” A section of the members began to cheer again. The Speaker looked up from the pad on which he had been taking notes. Celestial Kamuza was one of the pioneer members, the senior Heads, who sat on the front row in the Assembly as a mark of respect and who were permitted to address the Assembly while sitting. Even though Kamuza had maintained full diplomatic relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa, the Speaker still liked him. The black bowler hat he always had on and the way he spoke, slowly like he controlled time, made him very likeable. It was this effortless grace about him that had made it difficult for many during his lifetime to decide if he was an African hero, or a tyrant. “So I guess congratulations are in order to Celestial Bingu” The Speaker said deliberately shifting the discussion away from Kamuza’s comment. “O, yes Mr Speaker” Celestial Bingu jumped to his feet all smiles. “The good people of Malawi spoke resoundingly last weekend. They showed the great love they have for me even in death. By enthroning my brother, Peter, they showed how angry they are at how that Banda woman was rubbishing my legacy, making Malawi look like a pauper’s enclave. Now the world will see we are not half as poor as she made us look. We will start by buying a befitting Presidential jet after that woman sold mine and used the money to purchase those heaps of cloth she always carries on her shoulder.” There was another round of laughter and cheering in a section of the Hall. Celestial Bingu shook the hands of those around him jubilantly, before taking his seat. “Alright, let us move forward” the Speaker said feeling some guilt for chuckling at Bingu’s comment. The lady in question, Joyce had delivered a moving eulogy at his final memorial service in Qunu for which she got a standing ovation. She was someone he was very proud of but he had always known that the forces that had tried to prevent her from becoming President after Bingu’s death were going to ensure she did not retain the seat after the elections. “As I was saying, there is a letter here from The Master.” He waved a brown envelop in the air then he stood up, put his glasses on and began to read. The letter was about the approaching football World Cup. The prayer unit of The Master’s office was being inundated with requests from people of the five countries representing Africa, requesting that their country makes it to the semi-finals. The Master was willing to grant this request but wanted the Assembly to decide on which of the five countries should be chosen. “So gentlemen, the task is simple.” The Speaker said after reading the letter.“This is a fantastic opportunity for an African country to reach the World Cup Semi-finals. I would have loved that it happened in 2010 when we hosted but all the same, it is never too late. So we are to decide on which among Algeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Nigeria should be chosen.” He took off his glasses and dropped them on the notepad before him. The murmur in the room had resumed. Celestial Julius was the first to indicate interest in speaking. “I listened attentively to the names you read out Mr Speaker, did you say these countries are representing Africa?” The Speaker nodded. Celestial Julius cleared his throat loudly. “I don’t know much about football but I am at home with Geography and from what I know, that does not seem like a fair selection to me. The West alone has three or four countries. What happened to the Center, What happened to the South and the East?” The murmurs had now grown into chatters. There were more hands up. The Speaker pointed at Celestial Levy but the more boisterous Celestial Idi who was sitting behind him jumped up instead. “Mr Speaker, I am honestly not comfortable with the list too, particularly about Nigeria. Everything goes to Nigeria. Largest population, Nigeria. Largest economy, Nigeria. Richest man, Nigeria. Everything, Nigeria. The Master is playing partiality. Why don’t we see Uganda anywhere?” Voices rose. The Speaker landed his gavel repeatedly to quieten them. “Gentlemen” he said rising to his feet even as the chattering continued. “I need to make a clarification here. The countries on the list were not picked by The Master or by anyone else. These are the countries that qualified. There was a qualifying round earlier. So please members, we must choose from them.” He pointed at Celestial Felix on the front row to speak. The man turned to look at the other members behind him in the room like you would at kids making noise in the yard while you listened to the news on a transistor radio, as if saying can you little ones not see I have been pointed to speak? His demeanour amused the Speaker. Not many people knew that long before the Nobel committee decided to honour the Speaker and former President De Klerk with the Peace prize, they had both won a Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize instituted by and funded by Celestial Felix who was known then, as the Sage of Africa. “There shouldn’t be much argument on this matter Mr Speaker.” He said gliding from side to side. “Cote d’Ivoire is the best team on the continent, no questions about it.” The room was silent but it was not the kind of silence that implied concurrence but one that suggested they had not heard what he said. The first to react was Celestial Ahmadou who was sitting right next to Felix on the front row. “Mr Speaker, I believe my friend Felix here is a little out of touch with reality. Who knows Cote d’Ivoire in World football? Do we not all remember the exploits of Roger Miller at the World Cup? Cameroon was the first to ever reach the quarter finals. We should be the natural choice here.” Somebody in the back rows screamed “Nigeria!” “No! Nigeria should focus on finding the missing girls” The sharp retort was by Celestial Muammar. The Speaker frowned at him. “Please indicate you want to speak by raising your hand” Celestial Muammar jumped up with his hand in the air like a school boy. The Speaker smiled at him. They were good friends so much so he named one of his grandsons Gadaffi. After his release from prison and becoming the first black President of South Africa, he had rejected pressure from the West to sever ties with Libya. In one televised interview he had asked all those irritated by his friendship with the Libyan leader to go jump in the Atlantic. “Muammar” The Speaker acknowledged. “Yes, Mr Speaker, I was saying Nigeria has no business even going to the World Cup especially when their army have failed to find the school girls abducted by the rebels in their country. The disgrace they have brought to us is too much, we should not even be considering them on the list.” Several hands shot into the air. There were murmurs of disagreement. Some members were on their feet pointing in the direction of Muammar and speaking angrily. One of them was Celestial Nnamdi who also sat on the front row. The speaker pointed at him to speak. “This goes beyond a pot calling a kettle black Mr Speaker.” Nnamdi’s American accent was still rich after all these years. The room was suddenly quiet. Nnamdi was one of the most respected members and when he spoke, everyone listened. “I take serious exceptions to characters like Muammar standing up here and opening their buccal cavity to speak all sorts of calumny about Nigeria with the intent of ridiculing our great country. Need I remind him that it is arms from his war ravaged Libya that is being used to fuel insurgency on the continent? Need I remind him of how he failed woefully to save himself from dethronement despite boasting of being powerful and entertaining the United Nations with his rambles. I expect to hear him apologising to Nigeria not insulting our sensibilities.” Muammar jumped back up, but the Speaker eager to avoid another round of arguments asked him to sit down. Surprisingly, he obeyed without arguing. There were three other hands in the air. Two of them were regulars, Celestial’s Frederick and kwame. The Speaker was pleasantry surprised by the third hand. Celestial Sani was a reclusive figure who rarely spoke nor betrayed any emotions. It was hard to tell what was behind those dark goggles he always had on. Words had it that he was still very bitter at the way The Master cut short his reign just when he was preparing to take off his army khaki and become President for life. “Yes, Celestial Sani?” The man stood up slowly, his body language smirking of arrogance. The Speaker disliked him very much. The man was responsible for his biggest foreign affairs blunder, an incidence he continued to regret until his death. In 1995 human rights activists had begged him to openly condemn the man’s murderous regime but he had chosen instead to speak to him in private hoping to convince him not to go ahead with the execution of human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight comrades on trumped-up murder charges. They had a long phone call and the man promised to see what he could do. The very next day on November 10, Saro-Wiwa and his comrades were taken out of their cells and hanged. “Mr Speaker, in reaction to the accusation by Muammar, I want to state for the records, that the army of which I was once Commander in Chief is neither incompetent nor an embarrassment. Our military is renowned for their exploits since the Second World War. When our neighbours needed help, I sent them to Liberia and Sierra Leone and they excelled. In fact, we all know that this kind of rubbish could not have happened under my regime. I would have smoked those criminals out a long time ago and taught them a lesson of their lives. But that is not the issue here Mr Speaker. The real issue is that we have sufficient reasons to believe that the entire Boko Haram or whatever they call themselves insurgency is a covert CIA operation. Just in the same way they sponsored my death by recruiting those prostitutes and arming them with poisoned apples. The CIA has been doing these things in Africa. They were behind the removal of some other members like Celestial Patrice and my big brother Kwame. The whole thing is orchestrated to weaken my country and cause chaos so as to pave way for Western occupation of our land. Their eye is on our oil. This people are not comfortable with a stable Nigeria. I believe this is an issue The Master must look into urgently.” “I am sorry Mr Speaker but describing this as a CIA operation, will that not amount to stretching logic?” Celestial Jomo interjected without waiting to be called on by the Speaker. He was also one of the front row members who could speak while sitting. “The issue of terrorism is a global challenge. It is about the clash of ideologies. Some people are bent on spreading their ideology of fear and hate and they are strategic in their approach. See what they did in Mali. Look at Somalia. You are aware of how they embarrassed my son Uhuru and the peace loving people of Kenya in the Westgate Mall siege last year. Mr Speaker, blaming it on the CIA will be living in denial. This is Al Qaeda we are fighting.” “We are saying the same thing.” Celestial Sani who was still standing responded “Who is Al Qaeda in the first place? Who trained Osama bin Laden? Is it not the same Americans?” Some voices rose in the room. The Speaker rose to his feet again. “Celestial Mobutu can you please sit down” The Speaker said. Mobutu made to protest, and then changed his mind, grumbling inaudibly as he adjusted the leopard skin cap and sat down. “Celestial Emmanuel or is it Kwasi now, you have the floor” “I prefer to be addressed as Kwasi actually Mr Speaker” “Alright Kwasi, please go ahead” “Thank you Mr Speaker. Mine is a clarification. I want to react to an allusion made by Celestial Sani about the CIA involvement in Ghana. I have said it before and I will say it again, I was not working for the CIA when I and my comrades decided to execute Operation Cold Chop to free Ghana from the corruption and misrule of politicians. I think that point has to be made.” “Point of Order Mr Speaker” Celestial Kwame screamed jumping to his feet even though he too could speak without standing up. “The last speaker is deliberately trying to distort facts and create an alternate history of his own. The whole world knows that he and his gang of usurpers truncated by their act of malfeasance on 24thFebruary 1966, one of Africa’s earliest democratic experiments and strangled in the process, our brightest chance at creating a Pan-African state through the help of the CIA.” Many members rose to their feet, hands in the air, voices rising in argument. The Speaker knew it was no use trying to stop them. He stood and watched. Celestial Kwasi and Kwame stood facing each other, pointing and screaming into each other’s faces. The sight reminded him of how they used to argue in the ANC on tactics, how he used to insist that there was no alternative to armed and violent resistance. He felt like Sisulu must have felt, moderating some of those meetings, trying to accommodate all divergent views while subtly voicing his own. Back then, they would lock themselves up in the thatched room in Liliesleaf Farm and shout themselves hoarse. But it all stayed within the walls of that room, their disagreements. Outside, they were one united front against apartheid. “I am ruling Celestial Emmanuel, sorry Kwasi, out of Order” he said when the argument finally died down and members resumed their seats. “The issue you brought up is one that is personal and clearly outside of the topic being discussed. Members must keep all personal differences out of our sittings. May I remind us that The Master depends on us to guide him on decisions that will affect over a billion people back home and when we come here and waste all the time arguing over little things we are doing our people a disservice. It is bad enough some of us here failed them while alive, we should not fail a second time in death.” An unusual silence descended on the room. The Speaker knew he had struck some nerves. It was a guilt most of the members lived with, the knowledge that back on earth, the people did not have fond memories of them. It was a sharp contrast to what they always believed while in power, that they were loved by the people, that they were truly respected by their foreign friends. The Speaker allowed some minutes to pass before speaking again. “Now back to the agenda of our sitting. What is our resolution on the request from The Master?” Celestial John’s hand was the first in the air. They called him The Prof in reference to his long career in academics before his foray into Politics. He was known to have completed his doctoral thesis in taxation and economic development at the age of 27. The Speaker pointed at him. “Without sounding biased, I will pick my country Ghana for obvious reasons. Ghana has a long history of successes in football. You will recall Mr Speaker that at the last World Cup in your country, we missed the Semi-finals by a hair’s breadth. I was President then and I knew how painful it was for my people. Getting to the Semi-finals this time will heal our wounds.” The three hands that went up after Celestial John’s passionate appeal were all Algerians. They all did not speak much on the floor. Their preference for the newly formed Middle East Assembly was well known. But the topic was football and all three of them had something to say. “Celestials Ahmed, Houari and Rabah. It is good to see all three of you are very African today.” The Speaker said chuckling. There was laughter in the room. Celestial Ahmed who sat on the front row did not seem to share the joke. His protest was drowned by the din. The Speaker tried to calm things down. “Alright Celestial Ahmed, let us hear you out” “There is a good reason why we should settle on Algeria Mr Speaker. Besides the fact that we also have a rich football history, all the other countries on the list are in the West. So we are a good compromise.” “Clearly we all have our biases so I suppose we have to put it to vote” The Speaker said after the jeers and cheers that followed Celestial Ahmed’s contribution receded. He was making to rise up and conduct the vote when Celestial Idi’s hand went up. “Yes Idi?” “Mr Speaker, I have a question. “Go ahead” “Why Semi-finals, why not champions or is The Master saying Africans are not good enough to win the cup?” The Speaker thought it was an intelligent question, something rare for Celestial Idi whose comments were always either narcissistic or aimed as an insult at another member. “I thought of that too” the Speaker said. “But The Master said it is so because that’s what the people are praying for. They are all asking just to get to the semi-finals.” Celestial Idi shook his head. “You see why this slot should go to Uganda? In Uganda we do not tolerate inferiority complex. They know what I did to all of them white people in Uganda. As Field Marshal I made the Queen bow down to me, that is why I have CBE at the end of my name, Conqueror of the British Empire. Black people should be proud and conquer the world not fighting for fourth position.” “Celestial Idi should stop this Field Marshal nonsense.”Celestial Laurent was fuming. He had not waited to be picked by the Speaker. “When real soldiers talk he should not even show his face there talk more of claiming to be a Field Marshal. We all know how he ran away like a coward in the face of defeat in the hands of Celestial Julius, a civilian leader.” “Like you would know anything about being a Soldier” Celestial Mobutu countered rising to his feet too. “Were it not for the support you got from your Tutsi brothers Yoweri and Paul, I would have exterminated you and your rebels in days.” “Look who is talking. Same person who could not withstand my gallant ADFL forces. Are you not ashamed that you died in exile?” It was Laurent again. “And you lasted for how long? Four years. Just four years. Such a weakling you are. Which African leader lasts for just four years? Even your son, Joseph has lasted far longer than you. And you say you are a soldier?” “Enough, gentlemen!” The Speaker was on his feet. “We are derailing once again. All personal issues must be kept out of our sittings. Please sit down Celestials.” He paused as Mobutu and Laurent reluctantly sat down. “Can we now have our vote?” Another hand was up. It was Celestial Murtala. “Mr Speaker, are you not going to allow us make our own case? Or is Nigeria no longer on the list?” The speaker was shocked. “Sorry about that. Our brothers from Nigeria are yet to make their case, we must allow them do so before we vote. Will you be speaking on behalf of your country Celestial Murtala?” The man who the International Airport in Lagos was named after was pleased by the opportunity the way he beamed a smile.“You see Mr Speaker” he began, “there is no need for long stories on this matter. As we say in my country, the god of soccer is a Nigerian. We do not even need to waste time voting. I am sure that if you check well, you will find that some of the people from these other small-small hungry countries on the list are actually rooting for Nigeria not their own countries. ” Celestial Murtala was stirring the hornets’ nest and he knew it. No sooner had he finished speaking and several members were up on their feet pointing at him and screaming in disapproval. The Speaker felt pressed. He raised the gavel and dropped it. There was no point. The argument was not going to end any time soon. Like children defending their mothers cooking. So he decided to sneak out to the restroom hoping that perhaps when he returned, it would have eased out. They did not notice him step down from the dais and leave the room. As he neared the door of the rest room The Master’s messenger, Gabriel who apparently had been lurking around the corner, approached. “Greetings Madiba” the messenger said smiling “I see it has been a busy afternoon.” The Speaker shook his head in a way that indicated frustration but did not speak. He was shocked to see Gabriel and was worried because his appearance meant there was an important message from The Master. “The noise from here is heard all the way at the Central Palace.” Gabriel said gliding across the space between where the speaker stood and the door of the rest room.“The Master has not been able to take his siesta because of it so he has asked me to tell you to end the sitting immediately” “But we are yet to reach a decision as requested by Him” “He knows. And He is not happy to have lost the bet either” “How do you mean? What bet?” “Well, this was just a test, to see if you people could be united for once on an issue. We had this argument at the Central Palace. Some of us said Africans could never unite on anything. The Master argued that you could agree on football. So we made a bet.” “But...but we’ve not failed to agree yet. The sitting is still in progress. We were just about to vote” “A vote is hardly the kind of resolution we are talking about here. Votes don’t inspire unity. It numbs it instead and for a people already divided like you are, a vote simply puts a knife through the weak string that still holds you together.” There was a loud bang from inside the Assembly Hall, like a table crashing to the floor, then the scream of someone in pain. “You better hurry back there now before someone gets hurt.” Gabriel said adjusting his halo. The Speaker made to dash off in the direction of the Hall. “One more thing Madiba.” Gabriel said, “I thought you should know that The Master does not fix the outcome of football matches. The Speaker’s eyes widened in disbelief. “But..but, our prayers before the matches, what happens to it? Gabriel hissed. “Well, they all end up in the waste bin and are incinerated the next morning” The Speakers mouth hung open in shock. “Yes. No one attends to them. We are unable to save many dying of war and sicknesses and you think we will waste our time on who wins a football game? We watch them though. Whenever there is a game, we all gather around the large screen in the Central palace with our packs of pop corn to watch like mortals do.” “So why do some teams win and others don’t” Messenger Gabriel smiled. “There are certain things you should really not bother yourself about. Go now and stop the madness going on in there before someone dies a second time.”

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