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The politics of death, burial is awash with opportunism

By Vision Reporter

Added 19th October 2005 03:00 AM

I serve on the management committee of the African Centre based in Covent Garden in Central London. It was established by a group of Christians as a part-penitence for the abominable trade in African slaves.

I serve on the management committee of the African Centre based in Covent Garden in Central London. It was established by a group of Christians as a part-penitence for the abominable trade in African slaves.

Dr. Abdul Raheem TajudeenA PAN-AFRICANIST VIEW

I serve on the management committee of the African Centre based in Covent Garden in Central London. It was established by a group of Christians as a part-penitence for the abominable trade in African slaves.

It is based in an area that was close to the old market where Africans used to be auctioned as wares. The former President of Zambia, Mzee Kenneth Kaunda opened the centre which had always housed a restaurant, a bar, a meeting room, resource centre, a gallery, bookshop, handicraft store and offices for a number of Africa-related educational organisations. It is a window on Africa at the heart of London.

If walls could speak, the meeting rooms could spew out volumes of speeches, debates, discussions, angry exchanges, roars of laughter, boos, jeers and cheers from all kinds of Africans and groups, opposition and government, exiles and refugees, from across Africa, over its four decades of existence.

Although it has been facing a number of challenges in recent years, it still remains an important and symbolic place for Africa and
Africans in the United Kingdom. It is a big shame that the centre is facing financial problems despite the fact that the British Arts Council has pledged to support its redevelopment plan to the tune of 3 million pounds, on condition the centre can get matching funds elsewhere. Where else could it turn but to African states? Yet, despite all the valiant efforts of the Ghanaian director, Dr. Adotey Bing, it is has been promises upon promises. Yet the same African states spend huge sums of money on useless public relations firms to promote the image of their countries in the West!

Even the OAU and now AU support for the centre has not yielded any positive results. The few exceptions in the past has been the government of Nigeria under Babangida and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

Gratitude to Uganda and a caution not to offend a benefactor, but more importantly jeopardise diplomatic relations with African embassies (who have seats on
the Management Council) made Dr. Bing look for me last week.

Some members of the UPC in the UK had approached the centre with the intention of opening a condolence book. The centre has not got much historical memory on this type of death protocol and the controversy on Obote’s life and death makes the situation even more tricky. Fortunately, the politics of the burial in Uganda itself released the centre from
any caution.

By the time I spoke to Dr. Bing, the Uganda government had already decided to accord a state funeral to the former president.

Unfortunately, the UPC group that had approached the centre soon after his death had not been in touch again. With or without state burial for Dr Obote, I think it would have been right for the centre to have allowed a book of condolence to have been opened.

It will not be because the centre approves of all that the former president stood for but a time-honoured universal tradition of respect for the dead. There is no law that says one should write good things in the book anyway.

The continuing controversy about Dr. Obote’s state funeral scheduled for Monday is further proof, if any is needed, that historical figures are often divisive in their impact on peoples. As saintly as many must have regarded and still regard, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Junior or even their contemporary replica,
Madiba, (Nelson Mandela) there will be others who intensely dislike them. One man’s meat is indeed another man’s poison!

Hence, the politics of death and burial is full of opportunism. When Kwame Nkrumah died in exile in April 1972 in Guinea, where President Sekou Toure had made him a Joint president after his overthrow by local reactionaries and their imperialist backers in 1966, there was a three-week stand-off between the military government led by Acheampong and the government of
Guinea. In life, the generals did not subscribe to Nkrumah’s politics and aligned themselves with anti-
Nkrumah groups and hounded his party and supporters.

However, once Nkrumah died, the same government became saprophytic on his body making the most from it because it made good politics with the people! These must be the same considerations in the reported marathon meeting of the cabinet of Uganda that finally decided to give state funeral to Obote. But whatever the NRM government did, it will be damned.

If it had not accord the state funeral, it would have been accused of being mean and vindictive. Now that it has done so, critics, including many of its own loyalists, will see it as being either insensitive or opportunistic or both. It could not have been an easy decision for President Museveni personally, given his pathological hatred for Obote and UPC. His statements swinging between continuing criticism and ‘forgiveness’ since Obote died, betray the ambiguity. Even hegemonic presidents have their own political limits.

The NRM stand to lose more from not honouring Obote in death than it did when it denied a state funeral to Idi Amin. Both were political decisions made in different contexts.

If there was no ‘sad term’ in sight, the same reasons given for denying state funeral to Amin could have been deployed against Obote but these are no ordinary times in Uganda! While many are remembering Obote for the atrocities against Buganda, massacres in the Luweero Triangle and other parts of the country others will remember him for his progressive policies immediately after independence.

At a Pan-African level, Obote was in the camp of progressive anti- imperialist leaders, who favoured political union and he was one of a few who supported Nkrumah in exile despite the cold war of the times.

It is not true as Shakespeare wrote that the good men do are interred with their bodies while the bad is all that remains to be remembered. Politically, victims and beneficiaries remember both.

It is the balance of both that determines our place in the politics of memory which is often selective.

The politics of death, burial is awash with opportunism

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