Why they want my blood

Roy Clarke, a British journalist who has lived in Zambia for 40 years, is suddenly the country's most wanted criminal. His offence? Comparing the president's men to baboons
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The Independent Online

I am writing this in Lusaka, where I have been in hiding for the past four days. The minister of home affairs has ordered his security forces to conduct a manhunt for me. He wants me deported from Zambia, my home, to the UK, a country that I left when Sir Alec Douglas-Home was Prime Minister.

I was born in Northampton but came here 40 years ago, with a degree in metallurgy, in order to work on the Zambian copper belt. I went on to work as a schoolteacher, university lecturer, and now a journalist. It was a life of quiet inconsequence until Andy Warhol decided to award me my 15 minutes of fame. I wish he had left me alone.

I am suddenly Zambia's most-wanted fugitive. So, what is my crime? I write a weekly satirical column for The Post, Zambia's only independent daily. But this is a very dangerous place to be humorous.

At the start of the new year, I wrote an allegorical piece, in the style of Animal Farm, about the wild creatures in a game park. There is a long tradition of using animal characters in African story-telling. The central character was an elephant named Muwelewele, a Bemba word meaning a person who doesn't care for others. In my story, each government department was run by a different animal. The "knock-kneed giraffe" was in charge of agriculture, the "hungry crocodile" was looking after child welfare, and "long-fingered baboons" were in control at the treasury.

This last detail has been taken as proof by the home-affairs minister Ronnie Shikapwasha that I am a racist. The whole piece has been deemed an insult to the president.

Perhaps the minister does not know that I have been married to a Zambian woman for the last 35 years, and am the only white person in my family. Perhaps he is unaware of my proud past as an anti-racism campaigner - in Britain, at a time when such causes were unfashionable, and in South Africa, where my efforts led to my arrest in Soweto in 1962.

I found out the trouble I was in when I happened to phone the deputy editor of The Post. "I have just heard that the home-affairs permanent secretary has made a statement that your piece insulted the president," I was told. "He intends to recommend to the minister that you be deported." I assumed that he was joking. "Ha!" I laughed, "then I shall make the front page at last, after eight years on the inside pages!"

But it was no joke. The next morning, I found that I was front-page news in all three of Zambia's papers. The Mail's headline read: "Roy Clarke to be deported?". Foolishly, I believed the question mark, and retained a belief that the minister would never do any such thing. Of course, I knew that the home-affairs minister was a retired general, whose previous career had been characterised by continual adventure, to put it politely. But none the less, he was superbly qualified for his job as minister, and was a close relative of President Mwanawasa. So I thought that Mwanawasa, a distinguished lawyer himself, should have explained to Shikapwasha some of the basics of the rule of law.

Wrong again. Later that morning, I got a phone call from Post editor Fred M'membe, a softly spoken and polite man whose ferocity in defending freedom of the press has earned him an international reputation. "Things are getting worse," said Fred. "Can you move to another place, where it won't be so easy for them to find you?"

Within five minutes, I was driving out - with Sara Longwe, my dear wife of 35 years, mother of our four grown-up children - carrying only our passports and toothbrushes. Sara is a women's rights activist, well known here for her 30 years of struggle for gender equality in Africa. She has been a thorn in the side of successive Zambian governments, constantly drawing attention to the hypocritical gap between their international commitments on women's rights and the actual system of legalised subordination of women. Are they getting at me in order to get Sara out of the country? Very likely, but who knows?

On the TV news we saw a rented mob demonstrating outside the minister's office, with placards calling for my deportation. A black coffin with my name on it was held aloft, as if they were demanding the deportation of my corpse. (It is extremely unlikely, for various reasons, that any of this mob had actually read the article against which they were protesting.) Minister Shikapwasha came out to greet the mob with a broad smile. Strangely, he did not advise them that murder is a crime punishable by death. Nor did he mention the necessity for settling defamation cases in a court of law. Instead, he presided over his own kangaroo court. He declared me guilty, passed sentence of deportation within 24 hours, and commanded his security forces to execute the order.

Later that evening, Sara and I were visited in our hideaway by Fred M'membe, bearing a bottle of Black Label. My admiration for him rose even further. He also brought the news that The Post had hired a lawyer to apply for a judicial review of the detention order. The next morning, I learned that a judge had stayed the deportation order. "Stay in hiding," advised Fred. "We cannot be sure that this government will obey a court order. We have previous evidence that they consider themselves above the law."

How right he was. Shikapwasha declared that the deportation demand remained in force, as did the manhunt. As I write, the court case is under way. I'm supposed to be there, but if I went I'd be arrested on the High Court steps and bundled out of the country.

I am accused of insulting every Zambian, by supposedly calling them animals. One might just as well claim that a person who says that "the nation is going to the dogs" has called every citizen a dog.

Today, The Post published my latest satirical piece, as usual. Under the heading, "Baboon".