After the Tea Party
By V.U. Umelo (Gambia)
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( This simple short story is a tribute to the hard working journalists across Africa and the world at large who pay the ultimate price in the course of upholding the tenets of their fourth estate. Especially, I remember Mr. Deyda Hydara, editor of the Independent Newspaper who was felled a few years ago in his native country, The Gambia. To date, his killers remain at large …probably inhabiting the most exalted positions in society.
The story, ‘After the Tea Party’ is pure fiction, figments of the writer’s imagination and should be treated as such. Any resemblance to actual situations is merely coincidental, not intended).
When the people of the city went to the news-stands that Saturday morning, they were told, ‘there may be no papers today.’ The people were angry. They wanted to know why might there be no papers today. Why can’t they have ordinary papers to read? They insisted, ‘we must have papers to read. How else can we know what is happening in our country if we have no papers to read? We must have papers to read.’
At every street corner where papers were sold, they gathered, waiting for the papers or news of the papers. Sometimes, the papers came out late. But it had never been this late. The time was well after nine. They waited, ready to scramble for the papers when it did arrive. Reading the papers was the only thing that kept them occupied over the weekends. The radios did not broadcast; their licences having been seized. The only radio that broadcast was the government radio. The people would rather listen to funeral songs than listen to the government radio. Watching TV was painful too. All that was shown in it was the President and his wife going to and coming from abroad on vacation; or commissioning one white elephant project after another; or from their state-of-the-art farm harvesting watermelon and pumpkins, farmed with machinery that the ordinary farmer had not set his eyes on before.
In readiness for the scrambling which they hoped to do, the old men pulled up their sleeves as they eyed the young men who flexed their muscles. At exactly ten o’clock, they were told, ‘The papers won’t be coming at all.’
‘The paper is our only eye,’ the people cried in one voice. ‘What is wrong?’
‘Everything,’ the newsvendor, just arriving from the press said. ‘Everything is wrong.’
‘Pray, tell us something,’ the people pleaded. ‘You are frightening us with your talk.’
‘Everything is wrong,’ the vendor repeated, shaking his head.
‘Should we pack our belongings and families and leave town then?’
‘Last night, they killed DH,’ the vendor announced. ‘That is why the papers will not be coming out today. Or even tomorrow.’
The people were confused. They searched each other’s faces. They found no answers there.
‘Pray, tell us,’ they cried, ‘who is this DH? Who killed him? What was his crime?’
‘It was last night that they shot him dead. As he drove home after the tea party.’
That was all the answer the newsvendor could offer. The people were more confused now. They wanted to know - what tea party? But the newsvendor had disappeared. He slinked into one dark alley, out of sight, his empty bag slung over his shoulder. The people began to talk in hushed voices. They didn’t understand at all. Was there an attempted coup last night? But who was this DH? Why would killing him prevent the newspapers from coming out? Instead, the papers ought to appear to tell people about the killing and why he was killed and who killed him. The papers were not doing their job properly, the people concluded. They began to disperse. Perhaps the government-controlled radio would give details about this DH and why he was killed. They would go to their radios to learn what there was to learn. But they did not have any hope of learning the truth. Not from the government radio. Or TV.
Later that day, around noon, the street began filling with men wearing battle fatigues. A truck painted in camouflage dropped them at fifty meters intervals around the city. They looked fierce, some bearing AK 47 guns, others SMGs. They did not smile. Their eyes were blood shot. Their heads were protected with heavy helmets. Their black boots shone. Afraid, the people asked themselves, ‘Is our country expecting a foreign invasion?’ Soon, the streets emptied. Parents rushed to the various playgrounds to withdraw their children. Market women locked up their stalls and rushed home. Public transport operators packed their buses and taxis at home. Rumours filled the air: Coup! A coup was attempted last night. This DH was the ringleader. The government is searching for two women, thought to be his co-plotters. Transistor radios crackled everywhere. People tuned to the BBC, VOA and RFI hoping to hear something. Nobody heard anything.
The government had reasons posting military and anti-riot police everywhere around the city. Intelligence reports reaching them had said, ‘The people are planning a huge demonstration.’ The government knew that they must not let the demonstration hold. It would create a conducive atmosphere for looting and mayhem. They must protect the citizenry. ‘Shoot any demonstrator at sight,’ the men bearing guns had been ordered. ‘You are indemnified.’
A huge hush had since permeated the six newspaper houses scattered over the city. Reporters preferred to hang outside their newspaper houses. Most unclipped their press cards from around their necks and breast pockets, finding better places for them inside bags and purses and drawers and brassieres. They avoided the stern gaze of the military who like vermin, crawled everywhere. Inside stalls and bars they hung out, talking in low tones, heads touching, eyes shifting, not trusting anyone, even members of their own fourth estate.
‘What exactly happened?’
‘I don’t know the full details.’
‘But what did you hear?’
‘That a strange saloon car with tinted glasses and without plate numbers overtook them and blocked their way. Then two men wearing hoods bounced out and approached their car. The two men shot DH through the head. He died instantly.’
‘I heard that there were two of his junior workers with him.’
‘The ladies managed to escape.’
‘Where are they now?’
‘Hiding in one of the western embassies.’
‘Nobody is saying.’
‘I heard the Secret Police is searching frantically for them. What for?’
‘To eliminate them.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘They are too dangerous to be left unattended.’
‘You don’t mean the government-’
‘They had the motives. He wrote too much against them. He challenged their every decision: he was against the Media Commission Bill; he was against the Newspaper Amendment Act; he criticised the way they handled the last trading season, robbing the farmers of their produce, paying them peanuts for their peanut; he said the bi-election in Bukutu district was rigged in favour of the ruling party. They had every reason to silence him, especially as another general election is around the corner.’
‘But there is no proof that the government was responsible.’
‘Are you looking for a proof?’
‘He may have been involved in a shady deal.’
‘That is what the government is saying. That a business associate he cheated may have done him in. Already they are holding a Nigerian.’
‘You don’t say!’
‘Who does that mad dictator and his henchmen think they are fooling?’
By 7pm that evening, the slain body of the veteran journalist, DH, is lying at the morgue in the general hospital in the centre of the city. It is riddled with bullet holes. Members of Union of Journalists counted eighteen such holes. His nose and eyes and mouth are occluded with blood. Only one half of his head remains, the other having been blown away. No one has touched the body since it was brought in and dumped on the floor last night. They are waiting for the Chief pathologist to come back from the province where he has gone for official matters. Only the Chief pathologist can say the cause of death. The government is determined: for security reasons, only the Chief pathologist would be the first to examine the body and give a verdict about the cause of death. But no one is in doubt about the cause of death.
‘But at least, give the man some respect,’ the Union leader pleads. ‘Preserve the body in the fridge.’
‘Some vital evidence may be lost which may jeopardise the investigation we hope to mount for his killer, or killers,’ the Chief of Secret Police says.
‘The body is already decomposing. His flesh is torn in several places.’
‘We will wait for the Chief pathologist to return,’ the Chief of Secret Police insists.
That night, members of the Union of Journalists gathered. They decided to assemble the next day at eight for a march to State House. Government must be pressured to hunt for the killer or killers of their fearless brethren. They assign responsibilities quickly: a communiqué was quickly drafted, to be typed and sent to the various diplomatic missions that same night. Vests bearing the picture of the late DH to be printed overnight and distributed to journalists the next morning, the route of the planned march to be determined the next day. Before they could conclude their plans proper, the meeting is broken up by Secret Police.
‘If you want to hold a meeting,’ the officer in charge of the operation says, ‘you must first get clearance from headquarters.’
Thanks to cell phone and the accompanying text message facility, news of the meeting was well publicised. It was a large gathering the next day. Journalists and non-journalists alike. Jobless youths in their thousands, school children, market women, taxi and bus drivers. The murder of the popular journalist had attracted so much attention that overnight, foreign press had sneaked into the country, thanks to the porous borders. The government decides that for the sake of democracy, the journalists’ march should be allowed to hold. Not that they could have done much to prevent it. The cameras were already rolling, feeding TV stations all over the world.
The Minister of the Interior and Inspector General of Police were at hand to receive the grieving journalists. Both men were dressed for the occasion: the Minister in an impeccable, flowing white Xaftan, his companion in starched black shirt, black trousers, police cap, glittering medals, staff and all. Both men were nearly crying, dabbing at their eyes every now and then with handkerchiefs. Everyone was touched. The State regrets the senseless killing of such a high profile journalist as DH, both men said. He was a fine gentleman; a true son of the soil; a fearless defender of human rights. A true democrat. He fought for equality, for fairness, for good governance. Government has already put all machinery in motion to apprehend the culprits, the cowards who perpetrated such a barbaric act. When caught, they would face the full weight of the law. Citizens should go back to their businesses. Their security was guaranteed. No cause for alarm.
Both men fielded questions from the press: How soon can the people expect result? As soon as possible. Last time a vocal, high profile Supreme Court judge was shot through the heart at close quarters with his wife watching, the government promised to track the killers as soon as possible. Ten months have flown by, still the public has been told nothing. That was because investigations were still on going and to be more specific, things have not gone smoothly because the public had failed to cooperate and assist the police. How can the police do their work properly if the citizenry fold their hands? People are pointing accusing fingers at the government for the murder of the veteran journalist, DH. Such accusations are baseless. Of what use was a dead lion to anyone? The government stands to gain more with a living DH that with a dead DH. DH was a stern opposition of the government. The government welcomes opposition from all fronts. That was what democracy was all about, wasn’t it?
The journalists went home more confused than before. That night, unidentified men torched the house of the RFI stringer in the outskirts of the city. While the meeting was going on at State House, the stringer was prowling town, poking his dirty nose where it did not belong, letting every ignorant Tom, Dick and Harry talk into his useless microphone. Who did he think he was, brandishing his tape recorder here and there? If he wanted to learn the facts, did he not know the way to State House? His Excellency, the President would have granted him audience. Who was in the best position to know how the slain journalist died if not the Chief Commander, His Excellency, the President who was constantly briefed about state matters? The RFI stringer was lucky to have escaped through a side window with his life. He fled the country that same night through the southern border. Unknown to him, at precisely that moment he was criss-crossing through the forest disguised as a hunter, the editors of the Daily Chronicle and the Herald were making their ways out of the country through the eastern and northern borders respectively, each disguised as a farmer and a trader respectively. The Daily Chronicle and the Herald, together with DH’s paper, ‘Salt of the Nation’ were the most fervent antagonists of the ruling party. The editors feared that a similar fate may befall them if they remained in the four walls of the country.
DH was a big man; so full of life. He was a man who did not like to be complimented. But for once he laughed, acknowledging the compliment being showered on him. It was a laugh that emanated from the bottom of his stomach: full, throaty, resounding. It carried all over the newsroom, venue of the tea party. The young men and women present halted in mid action and mid sentences, throwing the room into silence; only the throaty laugh of the big man remained. The big man was their boss. They stole a glance at him; and smiled encouragingly. They loved him. They respected him. He was their mentor, their father. They saw his potbelly; struggling against an undersized packet shirt heave up and down as he laughed and a thin film of tear coat his bloodshot eyes, hidden behind thick medicated glasses. They resumed their hushed discussion, none daring to speak too loud. They knew it would be rude; the ambassador of the United States was their guest.
‘I mean it,’ the ambassador said again to the big man. ‘You have courage. Great courage.’
The big man removed his glasses. He dabbed his eyes several times with a piece of white cloth from his breast pockets. Then he polished the glasses with the white cloth. He polished for a long time. The ambassador watched and waited. The big man threw his head back and laughed again; this time for only a brief moment.
‘You have to be courageous,’ the big man said.
‘No buts,’ the big man said, looking at the ambassador squarely in the face. The big man was all seriousness now. ‘You have to have courage to do the work we do. We are fighting against the system.’
‘The system is bad.’
‘That would be putting it mildly. The system is stinking. It is fouling everywhere and everybody: the innocent, the hard working, the unborn, humanity. The system is enslaving us. We must fight it.’
‘But your methods-’
‘That is the only way I know. How else can I …how else can we hope to boot out dictatorship if not by that means. They have the guns and gun batteries. We have the pen and paper.’
‘Some say you are maligning him. Because he is from a minority tribe.’
‘You mean His Excellency, the President?’
The big man was silent. The ambassador waited. Time crawled. The big man inched forward in his seat, took one of the ambassador’s hands, rubbed it warmly for awhile. Releasing it, the big said in a hushed tone, ‘What do you say, Mr. Ambassador? What do you say?’
It was the big man’s strategy to court the sympathy of all western diplomats. He was on first name terms with the ambassadors of Britain, France, Russia, Germany. He was on first name terms with the ambassador of the Vatican. He had been on first name terms with the just gone ambassador of the United States, Ambassador Schultz. Now, he hoped to be on first name terms with Dr. Hill Freeman, only just arrived as a replacement. The tea party was his idea to win Dr. Freeman over.
The ambassador, an Emeritus Professor of International Politics knew he had been cornered. He sipped his tea; his brow furrowed. The big man watched and waited. He smiled encouragingly. He said to the ambassador:
‘Dr. Freeman, be free. This is an informal gathering, in your honour. I can never quote you.’
‘No, no, no,’ the ambassador protested. ‘I wasn’t thinking of being quoted. You are a gentleman-’
‘Oh yes I am a gentleman.’
Both men laughed, the mounting tension diffusing.
‘Oh no, thank you,’ the ambassador said, relieved; he had been saved from giving his personal opinion about the ebullient editor. He wasn’t sure how Washington would have reacted.
Later the ambassador gave an eloquent speech. He played it safe, extolling democracy and pointing out its fruits. In no uncertain terms, he condemned the enemies of democracy; he condemned those who with impunity inflicted pain and suffering on the poor and unsuspecting masses. The big man, as usual was fearless. He condemned his country’s government for its disrespect of democracy; italicised and underlined its poor human rights records, its looting of the public treasury; asked the ambassador of the United States to encourage his country to institute sanctions against the ruling class.
The tea party dispersed by 10 p.m. By half past eleven, DH was a dead man, his robust body riddled with bullets from unlicensed, automatic sub-machine guns; his two young female companions scampering blindly through the thick undergrowth, not sure if their pretty skulls had been hit or not. Had DH lived another two days, he would have celebrated his forty-eight birthday. Left to mourn him were his young wife, seven months pregnant and his cataract-troubled aged mother.
The Union of Journalists agreed to suspend publication and transmission for one week. To honour their fallen hero, their father and mentor, they said. The government, through DOSI, the Department of State for Information, sent out a strongly worded memo. It advised all journalists working in its establishment not to partake in any such boycott of rewarding work. Any journalist disregarding the injunction would be summarily dismissed. It reminded the other privately owned media houses of the duty they owed the public to publish news worth reading and not likely to incite public disobedience. One day spent in demonstration was enough homage to their fallen member. Staying away from work for one week would be tantamount to relinquishing their licenses to operate as media houses.
The Union of Journalists discussed their dilemma. DH was dead and gone, resting in the bosom of the Lord, they said. They had families to cater for. What was the use of losing their sources of livelihood if it would not bring the good DH back from the river beyond? They must resume publications to avoid losing their bread. Besides, DH would never have approved of the idea of newspapers being off the stands for so long on his account. He was that selfless.
In a simple ceremony, DH was buried at the christian cemetery in the outskirts of town. The event was well attended. Dr. Freeman, the ambassador of the United States of America wore a long face all through the solemn ceremony. He had come to admire and love the slain newspaperman. DH’s grave was a simple grave. The government forbade the placement of a befitting epitaph. ‘It may incite unrest,’ the government spokesperson said. ‘How?’ the Union of Journalists wanted to know. They insisted they must have a befitting epitaph, to immortalise their father. ‘Well, if you want an epitaph for your overzealous hero, you can have it,’ the government spokesperson capitulated. ‘But, you will have to get clearance from the Inspector General’s office.’ The Union of Journalists buried their dead without an epitaph.
And determinedly, with heads held high, shoulders raised, chests thrust out, blood hammering in veins, they trooped back to their newspaper houses and to their writing desks. They told themselves, more than anything else, they must publish. And publish they did. For one long week, each newspaper house came out with forty pages of newsprint, printing at least fifty thousand copies. Each media house chose one of six slogans, splashing it, together with a smiling photograph of their slain hero across the entire forty pages. The slogans, done against black backgrounds read:
WHO KILLED DH?
BRING THE COWARDS TO BOOK
A DEAD PRESS, A DEAD COUNTRY
TIME SHALL UNMASK THE TRUTH
YOU CAN’T FOOL ALL THE PEOPLE ALL THE TIME
O DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING; O GRAVE, WHERE IS THY VICTORY?
And for seven long days, the people of the city trooped out in their multitudes to buy; addicts of newspaper and non-addicts alike. Some simply for the purpose of seeing the smiling picture of the dead journalist who had already assumed cult figure; others to keep as souvenirs and to show their children, yet unborn.