As President of the United States, leader of the Western World and most prominent political figure in the world, Donald Trump was a shock experience, but only for youngsters. From the day in 1970 when my primary school teacher Mr. Obinwe handed to me his newspaper when he noticed that I sneaked up and was reading the back page while he read the front page, I have read stories about thousands of world leaders. Some of them were queer, some were nasty, others tyrannical, some others comical, many were despotic, still others incredulous, while some others were garrulously expensive. To my then young mind, they looked at a time like they will be here forever. Most of them are gone now, so I am no longer entertain fears about permanency when a man like Donald Trump comes around.
Being around here for several decades and reading newspapers, magazines, books and surfing the net has almost taught me the patience of Chinese. Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs that the most patient statesmen he ever dealt with were the Chinese. With 5,000 years of civilization behind them, they have a very patient attitude to life, unlike our old comrades the Soviets. When, in 1898, the British forced China to lease Hong Kong to them for 99 years, some other countries will go to war over that, but the Chinese patiently waited until 1997, and told the Brits that the time was up.
Americans themselves never thought that they would ever have another president as crookish as Richard Nixon, who stonily covered up the Watergate scandal perpetrated by his men. When Trump came along, his lying, philandering, immorality, arrogance, impatience, egotism, tax evasion, bullying, racism, autocracy, nepotism, revolving door appointments, aversion to media scrutiny, subversion of justice and diplomatic tradition, abuse of office for personal gain and concerted effort to subvert the will of voters suddenly made Nixon to look like a saint.
From our standpoint here in the Third World, US President Ronald Reagan was another nightmare that we could not wait to see the back of. In the 1980s when Africa’s top quest was to dismantle apartheid rule in South Africa, that arch-conservative resolutely stood in the way. He blocked all efforts at international sanctions. We also feared that Reagan could start a nuclear war with his anti-communist obsession. One day when he was asked to test a microphone before a studio interview, he said, “I will sign a law to outlaw the Soviet Union and we will start bombing in five minutes.”
Reagan’s fellow traveler, equally hated here in Africa, was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She was hard as steel towards labour unions and immigrants, and just as resolute as Reagan against imposing sanctions on Apartheid South Africa. Although Mrs. Thatcher ultimately hosted the 1979 Lancaster House talks that led to Zimbabwe’s independence, she did so when Ian Smith and his White minority Unilateral Declaration of Independence [UDI] could no longer stand.
We Africans patiently tolerated other Western leaders while they lasted. French Presidents Charles DeGaulle, Georges Pompidou, Giscard D’Estaing, the socialist Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac were all exceedingly patronising to Africa, kicking Francophone African nations about like a local football made of bull’s bladder. German Chancellors Willi Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel treated us as their lost step-children, as if we were the ones who told the Kaiser to start and lose a war in 1918.
We Africans were grateful to the Soviets and their East Bloc allies who, together with Cubans and Chinese, gave us material support to rid Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa of colonial rulers. Apart from Fidel Castro, those guys were hardly genuine friends. The veteran Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, for example, never set foot on any African country except Egypt during his nearly 30 years as Foreign Minister of USSR. I can however still see the picture of Fidel Castro attending Ethiopia’s revolution day anniversary parade in 1977. He was suffering from jet lag after the long flight from Havana to Addis Ababa and he drew his famous cap over his face and dozed off during the parade.
During our lifetime, we saw the coming and going of General Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay. This father of sit-tightism was elected to five consecutive seven-year terms as president of his country. He had one Interior Minister for 30 years. Nasty Latin American rulers such as General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, General Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, the murderous El Salvador right-wing politician Roberto “Major Bob” D’Aubisson, Haiti’s Jean Claude “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his equally despotic and highly corrupt son “Baby Doc” Duvalier have all passed into history, so who is Trump?
For decades it looked like the Shah of Iran will never go away. Mohammed Reza Pahlevi had accumulated more American weapons than anyone else in the Middle East. He made all his soldiers to swear an oath to “Zhoda, Shah and Mihan” [God, King and Country]. Please take note of the order of allegiance. The Islamic Revolution suddenly swept him away in 1979. His wife, Empress Farah Dibah and his sister Princess Ashraf were probably the most expensive women in the Third World.
After Mrs. Imelda Marcos, I am sorry. While Ferdinand Marcos tyrannically ruled over the Philippines, his wife Imelda was the top customer of the most expensive Western shops. When they fled to Hawaii in 1986 following the People’s Power revolution, Imelda left behind 6,000 pairs of shoes, after taking some along with her. Her husband defended it in an interview, saying she may not wear all of them but it gave her a choice whenever she was dressing.
Marcos was only one of the South Asian totalitarians that, during our young lives, we thought will never go away. Ngo Dinh Diem, Madam Nhu, Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky all of South Vietnam, South Korea’s Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, Indonesia’s Suharto, Malaysia’s Tunku Abdurrahman, Burma’s Ne Win and Senior General Than Shwe, Bangladesh’s Mujibur Rahman, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Prime Ministers Kriangsak Chamanand and Admiral Prem Tinsulanond, not to mention Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge ruler Pol Pot, were all so much etched in our minds during our youthful years that it looked like they were here to stay. What is Donald Trump’s four years?
Look, in Africa here, Apartheid Prime Ministers John Vorster and “Der Grut Krokodil” (the great crocodile) P.W. Botha once looked like they will never go away. In North Africa, Egyptian Pharaohs [sorry, presidents] Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak each looked like eternity. Other North African rulers King Hassan of Morocco, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia and Hoari Boumedienne of Algeria all looked eternal to us. When Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia visited Nigeria in 1972, his white beard suggested that this grandson of the biblical King Solomon was there for eternity, until soldiers shoved him out in 1974.
Sergeant [sorry, President] Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo, Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone, General Aboubacar Sangoule Lamizana of Upper Volta [now called Burkina Faso], General Moussa Traore of Mali, Emperor Jean Bedel Salim Ahmed Bokassa of Central African Empire, Marshal Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Zabanga Mobutu of Zaire [now called DR Congo], Mzee Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, our neighbours Diori Hamani in Niger Republic, Ahmadou Ahidjo in Cameroon, Mathieu Kerekou in Dahomey [now called Benin Republic] and N’garta Tombalbaye in Chad, not to mention Agostinho Neto of Angola, Samora Machel of Mozambique, Siad Barre of Somalia and Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada of Uganda all looked to us like they were here to stay.
In 1989, I first heard on BBC of the death of Japanese Emperor Hirohito. I read much about this man, who became Emperor in 1926 and disastrously steered his country into World War II. Our military president Ibrahim Babangida took off for Tokyo to attend the funeral, which Margaret Thatcher boycotted and said Hirohito was a war criminal. These days I tend to think like a Chinese Confucian philosopher; time does not scare me.