Before all the memory fades


Mahmud Jega

A family doctor came to my house recently, armed with a laptop computer, with a medical application that I had never seen before. He clamped a clip that was hooked to the laptop on my thumb. He then reeled out a dozen stats about my health condition. I knew some of them to be true, from previous hospital checks. Some others were news to me. One stat however baffled me. He flatly said, “Your memory is failing rapidly.”

If he were a native doctor instead of a GP, I would have thought that unseen spiritual powers told him that. Instead, I wondered if this GP, his laptop or his software need to be tested themselves.

As the year 2021 ends in a few days’ time, it occurred to me that I have been reading newspapers for 50 years now, beginning from the day that, as a primary school pupil, I crept up to my teacher Mr. Obinwe’s desk and read the back page of his newspaper as he read the front page. He noticed my curiosity, told me to return to my seat, and he handed the whole paper to me when he finished. I have read newspapers nearly every day since then.

In order to independently test the family doctor’s allegation about my failing memory, I sat down and tried to remember some persons and events that dominated the news at one time or the other in the last half century. For no particular reason, I thought of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, leader of the All India Sikh Students Federation in the early 1980s. Campaigning for the religious right of Sikhs to carry a dagger into commercial flights, his militant boys hid in the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Sikh’s holiest shrine, from where they launched attacks at security forces. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered soldiers to storm the temple and disarm them, the seven Holy Gurus passed a death sentence on her. This was duly carried out by her two Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, as a religious duty.

I remember too Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, prominent leader of the Sikh’s Akali Dal party during the troubles in Punjab, who was assassinated in 1985 because he signed a peace deal with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Across the Palk Straits from India, I thought of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, one-time Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Not for a good reason: Newsweek magazine stated in the 1980s that she was one of the world’s most nepotistic rulers, alongside President William Tolbert of Liberia and Romania’s Communist ruler Nicolae Ceauescu. Many ministerial and other top positions in their governments were held by their family members.

I trembled with fear at the thought of another Communist ruler, Yuri Andropov. Before he succeeded Brezhnev as leader of the Soviet Union in 1982, Andropov was head of the Soviet secret police, the KGB. TIME magazine said Andropov stretched his hand at a Kremlin dinner and offered to fill another guest’s glass with vodka.

The guest however declined, so Andropov said, “You should better accept. KGB has a long arm.” Just in case Alhaji Yusuf Bichi extends his hand to fill anyone’s glass during an Aso Rock dinner, always remember that DSS has a long arm!

Not only Andropov. I thought of all the members of the Soviet Communist Party’s Politburo in those days, including General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, Premier Nikolai Tikhonov, President Alexei Kosygin, CPSU Chief of Ideological Affairs Mikhail Suslov, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Defence Minister Marshal Dmitri Ustinov, Deputy Premier Heydar Alirza Aliyev, Vasili Kuznetsov and Brezhnev’s Chief of Staff, Konstantin Chernenko.

We did not know who was the Politburo’s second in command until 1979. In a rare interview, Brezhnev showed TIME magazine editors a chair in his office and said, “This is where I sit when I preside over Politburo meetings. Unless I am away, then Comrade Andrei Kirilenko will preside.”

Up until the 1980s China was much less open than it is today, so we knew only some leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, including Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Zhiyang, Hu Yaobang, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. That was, after Mao Zedong, Chou en-Lai and Marshal Zhu Deh had all passed away. Deng once told a story that Chairman Mao Zedong tabled an issue before the Politburo and asked anyone who disagreed to stand up. Only the diminutive Deng stood up, so Mao glared at him and said, “Since I cannot see anybody standing up, it is unanimously adopted.”

The day the current Chinese leader Xi Xinping took over, BBC’s news anchorman made a humorous play at his name. He said, “So what will Xi, I mean he, bring to the table?”

Where is the Chinese’s neighbour Shin Kanemaru, the Japanese political godfather who was said “to know who will become the Prime Minister after the next one?” No national ruler’s title ever impressed me quite as much as that of Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe. I found his title more interesting than the drab “Head of State” used by Nigerian military rulers. Burma’s ruling Law and Order Restoration Council was also more impressive than Nigeria’s drab “Supreme Military Council.” Equally impressive, to me, was Poland’s General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Chief Martial Law Administrator and his Military Council of National Salvation of the early 1980s.

In 1989 when Solidarity won Poland’s first multiparty polls, BBC’s Warsaw reporter said the Polish Workers Party will allow it to form the government but will retain the Ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs, Interior and Finance. BBC news’ anchorman then said, “If the Communists will retain those ministries, why did you call it a Solidarity government then?”

What happened to the case of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the Polish Roman Catholic priest who was killed by rogue secret service agents in 1984, without the leaders’ approval?

Before I get lost abroad, lets return to Africa. No name ever evoked as much ill feelings in me as did South Africa’s Minister of Justice, Police and Prisons Jimmy Kruger, who serially “banned” Winnie Mandela under the Suppression of Communism Act 1950. His successors Cobie Coetzee, Adrian Vlok and Louis LaGrange were no less vile. The apartheid regime later renamed this ministry to Ministry of Law and Order, which did not soften its image.

Africa has forgotten its heroes. When South African Communist Party secretary general Yusuf Dadoo died in 1983, it was revealed that he never missed a SACP meeting in 40 years! Or Ruth First, wife of Umkhonto We Sizwe commander Joe Slovo, who was killed by a parcel bomb in Maputo in 1982. Where is our United Democratic Front [UDF] hero, Patrick “Terror” Lekota? Today, young Africans think of Cyril Ramaphosa only as the former Chairman of MTN. During the epic coal miners’ strike of 1988, several times BBC World News opened with his sound bite. He would deliver a militant message, and the news anchorman would say, “Leader of South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers, Cyril Ramaphosa.” Even today, that memory brings tears to my eyes.

Africa should never forget Josiah Tongogara, commander of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe Africa National Liberation Army [ZANLA] who died in a motor accident in Maputo six days after the Lancaster House Agreement was signed in 1979. Or for that matter, Lt General Dumiso Dabengwa and Major General Lookout Masuku, commanders of Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe Peoples Revolutionary Army [ZIPRA] who were imprisoned by Mugabe in 1981 for allegedly hiding weapons at a Matabeleland farm.

In 1980 or so, TIME magazine did a story about then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. At noon every day, Sadat’s close friend Osman Ahmed Osman, owner of Arab Contractors, arrived at the door of the Presidential Palace. Sadat came out and they went for an hour’s walk in the garden. They hardly said a word to each other as they walked. At 1pm they were back at the door, Sadat went in and Osman went to his car and drove away.

The long, terminal illnesses of Spain’s Francisco Franco, Houari Boumedienne of Algeria and Josif Broz Tito of Yugoslavia in 1975, 1978 and 1980 respectively, captivated the world because their governments issued daily medical bulletins until those leaders passed away. Today we only hear that “he died after a brief illness.”

In our laboratory one day in 1984, my Physiology lecturer Prof Robert Miodonski told me that if, after three months, a student can remember ten percent of what he read for the exam, then his memory is very good. Please tell that to my family doctor.


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