From the Past

The tyrant as a democrat

By Uthman Shodipe.

IN an enlightened reaction to the seizure of power by the goon-squad adventurers in Sierra Leone, the Times of London illuminated the unenviable dilemma of the world confronted with two tyrannies, forced to align with one which claimed a moral superiority over the other. It was a classic case of moral challenge, the burdensome grasping for a greater good. There was no clear divide. True, the contention was obvious and universally validated. The restoration of the infant democracy was immediate and paramount. Beyond this, the grapple was clumsy and unenviable.

Whereas the legitimate government had been hurled into exile by the scud¬ding motion of artillery fire, the world rose in condemnatory clamour, pitiably gestural in the verbal campaign to re¬store constitutional authority. Diplomats scurried about with the peremptory weight of the crisis, invoking the democratic paradigm of the contemporary ethos, glowered that the use of force is a legitimate tool in the removal of an illegal regime. And then, nothing more. The crusaders became hoarse, muffled in hollow refrain. There was a gradual yielding of the ground, an unsubtle desertion from the fray. There was no single constitutional power willing to commit its resources to the severing of the military yoke. The initial response had been a fancy, a mechanical symbolism without content.

It was in this absence of a credible salvage that an equally odious arbiter seized the messianic banner, flaunting the pretences of democratic appreciation, struttingly assuming a lustrous civility. The cruel irony was not lost on the Times which contemptuously described the subsisting spectacle as a con¬test between two evils. But even at that, the world had to make a choice, had to lean, though uncomfortably, towards the converted defender of democracy.

Unfortunately, it was the indifferent vigilance of the just world which unwittingly legitimized the usurping license of the bigger tyrant, decorating a awesome power in democratic filigree. There is that feverish alert now in the crusade against the puny junta in Free¬town. There had been martial skirmishes and repelled sorties. The fury of artillery fire had been hurled from the coastal waters into the seat of the errant power. Conciliatory conferences had been held, sustained and then foundered. Sanctions regime had been canvassed, the border sealed and naval quarantine mounted on the mighty ocean. And what does Koromah do? He seems unswayed, untroubled. He is permanently resplendent in equivocating activism, ingenuously manipulative, thoroughly inventive in survivalist campaign.

With the full complement of loose brigands and uniformed rogues, with the riot and the unsteadiness of early days, there was that instant consensus which believed in the quick dismemberment of the adventurous band. Well, it has not happened. It’s been three months now and Koromah is still there, firmly woven in an uncompromising vision, treacherously graduating into a fait accompli while the Kabbah government wanders in exile companionlessly, uncertain of the future, unsure of the fidelity of its friends.

And yet, the rebellious horde cavalierly cultivates legitimacy from a melange of opportunistic merchants from Ukraine to China to Libya and to the hidden fortune seekers even within the sub-regional coalition. It is this concert of subversive alliance which has strengthened the certitude of the Koromah regime, infusing the leadership with psychological boldness, affirming a defiance, not of the world, but of the spear-head of the democratic campaign.

There is a natural logicality in this daring and contention. It is an evocative instance of mutual evaluation and penetrating judgment. la the measure of moral consciousness where every tyrant is instinctively aware of his own devaluation, there is no gradient of benignity. No tyrant is better than the other. Tyrants hold each other contemptible, more so the pretender who assumes a righteous fury, profiling himself in more civil attraction.

This, of course, is a futile, unimaginative mask, deluding no one. In fact, it is this dubious claim of righteous elevation which heightens the hostilities and suspicions between the disputing tyrants, encouraging in the small tyrant the genuine perception of a victim, harassed by a more monstrous power. W.H. Auden, the English poet who was the most luminous intellectual shepherd amid the political ferment of the 1930’s, had long articulated an insightful construct in the grapple between two tyrants. Born a Briton, but a naturalized American, Auden spent a year hi Germany, witnessed the early stirrings of Nazism, observed the tyrannical ruptures in Italy and Spain, followed the rivalries among the autocracies with keen, poetic discernment. It was in the sapient depths of this experience that Au¬den declared that “small tyrants, threatened by big, sincerely believe they love liberty.”

Surely, it is this poetic illustration which is now haunting the stalemate in Sierra Leone. Koromah, even in his primitive, darkling portrait, is still conscious of the credentials of the intervening power, inherently believes that the equally unreformed arbiter lacks the sanitising legitimacy to redeem a tarnished polity. Woven in this mould, the small tyrant perceives himself as ah unobtrusive, conscientious missioner harassed by an intrusive bully. This, of course, is a fraudulent perception. It is merely a reactive refuge. But, unfortunately, it subsists.

Koromah’s refuge would have been tenuous and in fact non-existent if the grand reformer is illustrated in ennobling sincerity, if those who flourish the democratic franchise are believable, demonstrative in civilized reference, blossoming in liberal doctrines that they could cite as a moral guide. And what does Koromah see? Nothing to learn, save a contemptible replication of his own portrait.

It is true that the supremo has a noble cause in Sierra Leone. The salvage of a democracy from the sordid clutches of a-primitive rump is an enlightening legacy capable of rectifying the tarnished toga of the Supreme One. But the ultimate redemption of the big tyrant would not be achieved in the martial swagger across the Atlantic, but here on the native soil where power should be seen in full reformative nuance, genuinely accommodating the liberal verities of the civil order. Let power fling open the gulag of terror, voiding the dreadful garrison across a captive land.

First published Tuesday, August 26,1997.

About the author

Uthman Shodipe

Uthman Ademilade Shodipe, a descendant of King Ado, the first King of Lagos, is from the Dosunmu Royal House. A student of Classical Antiquity and History of Political Thought, he studied Comparative Literature and Intellectual History of Europe 18th Century at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).