Saturday, February 28, 2009


A short story

The connection was scratchy, but the voice was clear, “I’ve been watching you, you know.”

“Yes,” I replied with more bravado than I felt. “I know. Should I be afraid?”

He chuckled, “No, don’t fear us. I needed to find out if I could trust you.”

“Trust me?” I queried. “You were on the verge of being arrested. Why does scaring me help you trust me.”

He laughed again. “I watch out for them even more than I watched you. Your movements, your contacts indicate that you are not one of them, or part of their apparatus. Even if you did not know it, they are not watching you, or listening. So now, we can safely meet.” He paused. “I am a democrat and a freedom fighter.”

This guy was careful I thought, much more than most dissidents I encountered in this dusty African capital on the southern fringe of the Sahara where I plied my trade as political officer at the U.S. embassy. The James Bond aspects of his approach were odd, but opposition figures did have much to be suspicious about. The reach of the president’s secret police was astonishing; and their tactics brutal. Critics of His Excellency disappeared into the jails, or more frequently these days before even getting to jail, with disturbing frequency.

“Okay,” I agreed, “but it will have to be my way.”

Two days later in the late afternoon I sat waiting at a small table on the terrace at the Golf Club. Because of the heat and the fact that the course was mostly windblown sand and dirt, the club did not attract many players. A few hard core drinkers, however, were well into their beers. A tall very black African approached. “It’s me,” he said, “Call me Jean Claude.”

I suggested a walk, so we strolled out the first fairway, found a bench and talked as the sun turned fiery red and sank into the Chari River. Jean Claude told me he represented southerners, the black Africans of the nation, who had been its educated class, its first administrators and provided the first president. In later years, all the progress and leadership provided by the south was swept away by desert warriors and their brutal rule. Now was the time Jean Claude asserted to reclaim their birth right. He acknowledged some southern participation in government. “Stooges,” he called them. But they too, he alleged could be brought into his movement. He sketched out a vision of political power based on mobilizing the southern majority to act as a coherent whole, break the stranglehold of the capital and assert regional autonomy. Once done, the south could strengthen its own institutions and evolve into its own independent state. He saw the process as one paralleling the evolution of southern Sudan, but without the need for a nasty war.

I heard him out and asked about the oil. His solution to that was revenue sharing. “All the president wants is money; money to buy arms and feather the nests of his cohorts. We will use the money to better the lives of our people.” Jean Claude closed with the pitch that I knew was coming. He wanted Americans to know of the struggle. He wanted our support – moral, if not material. Mostly he wanted assurances that we would restrain the government from using U.S. trained anti-terrorism forces or equipment against southern patriots. I said I took note of his ambitions and promised I would not betray his confidence, but that I could not promise either support or that the embassy could dictate how to employ the anti-terrorism troops. We agreed to stay in touch.

Jean Claude slipped out the gate of the golf club. I ordered and nursed a beer while thinking it over.

“Patron,” the club manager interrupted my thoughts, “please, don’t bring that man here again. It could go bad for me.”

“Why?” I responded.

“He’s a political ghost. He is the first president’s grandson.”

In following months the political temperature went up. Broadsides appeared vilifying the regime, editorials in the quasi-free press got tougher, new web sites appeared, especially one called action sud that blatantly called for southern autonomy. There was talk of tribal oathing, creating action cells, lots of agitation in southern towns. Southern politicians in the capital too began to adopt a more militant stance. Throughout I kept in regular contact with “Jean Claude;” mostly by phone, but and we met occasionally. He stayed out of the limelight, but seemed to be the motor of the movement. I heard that the security police were after him. I did note that anti-terrorism troops were deployed to two southern towns.

National legislative elections were approaching. They offered the opportunity for some success for southern power. I told Jean Claude of Stalin’s observation that it does not matter who votes, what matters is who counts the votes. He nodded grimly, but assured me that party poll watchers and international observers would be vigilant.

Lo and behold! The elections were okay. Southern power parties swept their home region and held a near majority in Parliament. Jean Claude’s first phase succeeded.

I tried to call to congratulate him, but could not get him on the line. After several days of futile efforts, finally, he called back. “I’m done,” he rasped wispily. “Finished.”

“No,” I rejoined, “Every thing is going well. Your plans are working. You cannot quit now.”

“No, my fate is death.” He coughed. “I have SIDA and the infection has spread. Victory is now up to others.”

A week later he died.

1 comment:

darkmuse said...

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