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How musicians kept African tyrants in power

By | March 5th 2011


The year was 1998, it was the 62nd birthday for Gabonese president Omar Bongo in Libreville, Gabon. The tres riche (very rich) in the mineral-rich but poor country waltzed in a tastefully set venue, covered with tents of diverse colours.

Waiters served exotic wines in silverware, under beautiful lighting from magnificent chandeliers.

Madilu System electrified the crowd as he sang in praise of Gabon and its then leader and wife …dith Lucie Bongo Ondimba, a daughter of Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

"Viva Gabon (Long live Gabon)," belted out Madilu, whose real name is Bialu Makiese, in a mellow voice.

In the song Bon Anniversaire (Happy Birthday) during the occasion in the 1990s, Madilu hailed Bongo as a democrat, who would win the General Election.

Cheerful guests

The authoritarian president who ruled the West African country for 42 years (comparable only to besieged Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi) danced rhythmically, surrounded by hundreds of cheerful guests. The women swayed their ‘behinds’ and swung their headscarves in the air. Most of them wore glitzy, long, turquoise dresses.

Standing about six feet and adorning pearl earrings and necklaces Edith danced romantically with her five feet tall husband. Bongo died two years ago.

Madilu, who died three and a half years ago, is not alone in composing praise songs for sitting Heads of State. Several artistes have travelled that route before and most of the songs have been used as propaganda tools to cover the misdeeds of the despots.

Rumba maestro Franco Makiadi with his TP OK Jazz composed a 35-minute song that was in two parts for Zaire (present-day DRC) tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country for 37 years.

Candidat Na Biso Mobutu (Our Candidate Mobutu) became like a national anthem during Mobutu’s one-man presidential election in the 1980s. In the song he asks who does not know Mobutu has done good things in DRC. Franco further asks if there is anything wrong with Mobutu’s re-election.

Franco also beseeches Dieu (God) to give Mobutu long life. Franco had a love-hate relationship with the Mobutu government, which plundered a country extremely rich in natural resources.

The singer was arrested on several occasions, but after this particular song, the relationship with the government became cordial. Franco was named Grand Master of Zairian music by the government in 1980.

This was an honour that put him at par with the ruling elite.

The song is still very popular, despite the fact that Franco sang it more than 25 years ago. Mobutu died 14 years ago.

Robert Mugabe

Last year, a Zimbabwean choir, Mbare Chimurenga, composed a song in praise of Robert Mugabe, and his Zanu PF party, while deriding Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change party. The choir’s more than 30 singers dance vigorously and adorn clothing emblazoned with Mugabe’s pictures.

The song Nyatsoteerera frequently plays on national TV and radio stations. Mugabe, 87, has led the South African country since independence 31 years ago.

And a Zairian group, Bana OK, a few years ago, composed a song extolling former Zambian President Fredrick Chiluba.

Chiluba was Zambia’s second president, and served five-year two terms. He faced a long investigation and trial regarding alleged corruption soon after leaving office, but was acquitted in 2009.

Some of the lines in the song include, Asante sana baba Chiluba, Mungu akulinde milele mtoto ya Africa (Thanks a lot father Chiluba. The Almighty God take good care of you, baby of Africa)-sic.

However, there are musicians who have sang genuine praise songs about the iconic Nelson Mandela, now aged 92. Among them is performing artiste Mzwakhe Mbuli who composed Madiba, dedicated to Mandela.

Closer home, Tanzania oldies legendary Mbaraka Mwinsheshe in the early 1980’s paid tribute to assassinated Zanzibar president Sheik Abeid Amani Karume.

In the song, Karuma’s death in 1972 is said to have left a gap in leadership in Africa. The late Mwinsheshe sings that Karume fought for good leadership and contributed to Ujamaa (socialism) in Tanzania.

Some musicians have used their music to lambast their governments. For instance, Nigeria’s Fela Kuti often scathingly attacked the military leadership of the West African state. In 1977, Kuti and his group Afrika ’70 released a hit album Zombie. The song was metaphoric, as he likened methods used by the military to a zombie. It infuriated the government, but became a hit with many Nigerians.

But this kind of music brought the musician misery. An attack on Kuti, a pioneer in Afro beat, left him injured. His mother was also seriously injured, leading to her death.

Fela’s response to the attack was to deliver his mother’s coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, near General Olusegun Obasanjo’s (then president) residence.

Besides, he wrote two songs, Coffin for Head of State and Unknown Soldier, in reference to an inquiry that claimed the attack was by unknown soldiers.


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