From masks, to specific names and songs, to jogging in a group, Africa’s dictators have banned many a bizarre thing.
By Chris Orwa and Owaahh.
Soon after the declaration of independence in Guinea, the new president Sekou Toure set his sights on building a new socio-political order. He named it African Socialism – an amalgamation of African values and modern ethics. One thing got on his way though – masks, specifically those used in masked rituals and secret societies. These inanimate objects bore a threat to his revolution more than any other standing army because they represented traditional authority. So he issued a decree banning masks-especially the chiwara (antelope) mask.
One lad, Sidime Laye had his uncle arrested and tortured to death after a mask was discovered in his luggage before boarding a plane. Not only was it illegal to wear them, but it was also illegal to export them. All the extended Laye family members were expelled from Guinea. Human nature being what it is though, masks became to Guinea what blood diamonds were to Liberia, complete with a thriving black market.
6. European Suits and Names
Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga) was a man of style. But being the leader of a nation meant that it wasn’t enough for him to determine his own wardrobe. He had a nation to lead after all. First, he banned Congolese men from wearing European suits. They had to wear collarless Mao-style tunic, worn without shirt or tie, which came to be known as abacost – á bas le costume – literally “down with the suit.”
But there was a twist to it, no one else in Zaire could wear a leopard print hat but Mobutu. Mobutu also decreed that TV in Zaire could not mention anyone but him by name. Every new bulletin also had to begin with a scene of him descending from the heavens, because Zaireans needed to remember he was a deity. If this sounds familiar, it’s because other dictators, from Moi (first name in every bulletin) to Kim Jong Il (descending from the clouds) tried it too.
The Dictator of Zaire also banned European names. Congolese with Christian names were ordered to drop them for African ones. Priests were warned that anyone caught baptising a Congolese child with a European name would face a five-year jail sentence.
5. House Maids
The flamboyant Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had a penchant for flair. During his rule, the country had zero foreign debt, owned a bank that issued loans at zero interest, there was no electricity bill – electricity was free, newlyweds would get US$ 50,000 from the government to buy the first apartment, among other things. In his dream for Libya though, Gaddafi did not see it fit for his people to be house servants.
Gaddafi likened house maids to slaves and banned any Libyan to work as a housemaid. Europeans living in Libya had to let go of their house servants as well. However, Soviet doctors volunteering in Libya came to their rescue, doing dishes in European homes. In one hour they earned the equivalent of an entire month’s salary back home.
4. Single Women and Miniskirts
“His Excellency President for life, Alhaji Dr. Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of all Beast and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular“, was quite a mercurial man. Amin got his name Dada (Swahili for sister) for his lust for girls while a soldier at the King’s African Rifles in Kenya.
Idi Amin banned women from using perfumes, deodorants and creams. In 1973, he topped that up by banning mini-skirts, wigs and trousers. This was an ongoing ‘morality’ conversation in the region. Nyerere criminalised miniskirts (and tight trousers for men) in what became a moral campaign called Operation Vijanaa. Miniskirts were also banned in Zambia, Malawi (Banda was a busy man), Kenya, and Uganda.
Idi Amin also ordered the streets be cleared of unmarried women as they were alleged to be prostitutes. His officers also mounted a crusade to force single women to marry. What happened to the man who so loved women that they begot him a last name?
3. Lubricants and Medicine
The self-styled ‘’natural pharmacist’’ Yahya Jammeh, former President of The Gambia banned antiretroviral drugs in his country after he invented his own cure of AIDS. He announced his ‘medical breakthrough’ in a gathering with foreign diplomats declaring “Mine is not an argument, mine is a proof. It’s a declaration. I can cure Aids and I will.” His non-patented drug is made of green paste, bitter drink and banana. In one of his hospital visits, the Gambia’s president Yahya Jammeh pulls out a plastic container, says a brief prayer and rubs a green paste on a patient’s ribcage. He then orders the patient to swallow a bitter yellow drink, followed by two bananas. Done! Aids cured.
But the medicine comes with a warning – you must not take any antiretroviral drugs. No one knows what happened to the patient but others said they felt healed – placebo effect? Or fear of opinion? To the critics of his methods, Yahya would say” I am not a witch doctor, and in fact, you cannot have a witch doctor. You are either a witch or a doctor.”
Speaking of witchdoctors, Equatorial Guinea’s first president Francisco Macias Nguema ‘solved’ the fuel crisis of 1973 with magic. A descendant of a witch-doctor, he banned workers from the Malabo city power plant from using lubricants as he believed his magic powers could keep the place running. A few hours later, the generators overheated and exploded, plunging the capital city into darkness. Nguema also banned the Catholic Church, and many other things.
2. Specific Songs & Names
Zimbabwe’s first president had a rare problem, his second name. Reverend Canaan Banana used to be ridiculed for the fruity nature of his surname. In 1982, he passed a law banning any citizen from making jokes about it (which probably also no jokes about the fruit too?). One common joke was that after he had introduced himself to Prince Phillip, the snarky monarch asked whether ‘he came alone or he came in a bunch.’
But he wasn’t the only one to ban a specific name. After failing civil servant entrance exams three times in a row, Equatorial Guinea’s Francisco Macias Nguema developed an inferiority complex and banned the use of the word “intellectual.” Then killed every spectacle wearer he could find (no, seriously). He went ahead to ban private schools in addition to closing hospitals and replacing them with witch-doctors. To add the cherry on top, he banned all religion and changed the country’s official coat of arms motto to, ‘There is no other God than Macias Nguema.’
In 1975, he had 150 of his opponents shot in a stadium to the background of the song “Those Were The Days, My Friend.” The firing squad was wearing Santa costumes. Nguema was dethroned and executed by his nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema when he became paranoid and started killing his family members. You would think Obiang would be different from his uncle but when musicians took to the stage to talk about inequality, President Obiang banned rap. It is now a criminal offense to spit rhymes in Equatorial Guinea.
Obiang’s decision isn’t unique, as Nyerere once criminalized soul music in Tanzania as well. But one specific censorship stands out. The first president of Malawi, Hastings Kamuzu Banda had a name problem too, but not his, rather his mistress’s Cecilia Tamanda Kadzamira. In 1970, American music Paul Simon and Garfunkel released a song titled ‘Cecilia’. Banda and Cecilia’s relationship was apparently rocky at the time, and the song’s lyrics, ‘Cecilia you’re breaking my heart’ became the meme of its time. The angered statesman banned it and presumably fixed things at home. His mistress chose to use her second name from then on.
It is also, for some unexplained reason, illegal to name you child Monica in Equatorial Guinea.
One of the most subversive things you can do in Burundi under Nkurunziza was to jog in a group. There are already people serving prison sentences for jogging. The ban was enacted in 2014 because the government thought opposition parties were using them to plan ‘uprisings.’ There’s context to this; walking or jogging in groups is a favourite pastime in Bujumbura, the country’s capital. During the civil war in the early ‘90s, soldiers would run through the streets singing. Younger Burundians took to it as well, and jogging clubs became akin to social units. According to Frick-Wright “It was like all the best parts of a church, except the religion was running and the after-service snacks were copious amounts of beer.”
But if you really feel the desire to jog, this is how you can go about it. You join a jogging club and register with the government. Then you answer a barrage of questions about the jogging group, before you choose from a list of the only nine approved places you can legally run in. Once done, you are now a law-abiding jogger.
This is in a country where the president is a renown fitness freak who regularly plays football. He’s a striker for his team, Hallelujah FC. You don’t need to be told already that if you are playing against him, it’s best to let him win. Roughing him up during a match could have you arrested for ‘conspiracy against the president.’
A version of this listicle first appeared on Blackorwa.com [Link]
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Last modified: March 16, 2023