The Three Profiteers
by Akoli Penoukou
Nadou Lawson and her two children huddled at the dining table tucked against a front corner of the small sitting room of their two-room apartment eating beans with raw cotton seed oil and gari—fried cassava dough. They chewed as if in slow motion, Nadou perched on the chair by the door and her children hunched on the other two along the free length of the table. It has been this way for some years now since Togo entered socio-political turbulence which had occasioned financial difficulties. Suddenly Ahlimba Johnson, Nadou’s daughter, whose jaws were especially moving slowly, pushed away the half-finished plate.
Nadou’s head jerked up. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“Sure I am,” Ahlimba said, making a face.
“Then why haven’t you finished your food?”
Ahlimba pouted and munched her lips.
“Don’t you feel well?”
“Ma, we can’t go on living like this,” she blurted out.
“Something wrong with the beans today?”
“No, not the beans. Us. Should we go on eating beans everyday?”
“But what do you want us to eat?” Nadou said in a surprised tone. “It’s the only cheap food which fills the stomach and is rich in proteins.”
Her son, Kokou Missiame Edoh, also shoved back his plate of unfinished beans. “I’m tired of beans too.”
A heavy silenced fell in the room.
Nadou sighed loudly. “I’m fed up with beans myself. But we can’t afford any other food.”
There was silence again. Then Nadou rose. “I’ve been thinking about this myself.” She moved out the door. “I’ll be right back.”
Talking to herself, she went over rue Bodjolle, turned right onto rue Kosi, entered the fifth house on the right and clapped at the first door on the left, crying, “Asalamalaikum!”
Essoyomewe Nimon answered, “Malaikumsalam!” Then the two burst into peals of laughter when Nadou stepped into the room. “Is it you, Nadou?” Essoyomewe said. “You fooled me with the asalamalaikum.” They laughed some more.
“Yes, asalamalaikum,” Nadou said, coughing. “The load has become too heavy for the neck to bear.”
Essoyomewe’s eyes widened. “Has something happened?” she said in a concerned tone. “I hope it’s nothing serious?”
Nadou sank onto the cushion chair. She sighed, loud. “Essoyomewe,” she began. “I’ve come to see you because the house’s about to catch fire.”
“God forbid,” Essoyomewe said civilly.
Nadou sighed again, wriggling her long fingers. “You know you’ve been telling me to forget the opposition and join your party.”
Essoyomewe reclined in the cushion and tried to suppress a happy grin. “Who bypasses a good thing, my sister?” she said. “I’ve been telling you, one doesn’t eat democracy.”
“That my former husband insisted we remain where we were.”
“And what has it profited him?” Essoyomewe said in a truculent tone. “He ran away like a hare.” She saw Nadou’s raised eyebrows and added, “Excuse me for being so direct.”
“In fact, we were on de facto separation before he left.”
Essoyomewe nodded. “Look at me,” she said proudly, beating her chest lightly. “I don’t work, yet I live well. One only has to militate in the party, that’s all.”
“We’d thought there’d be a change,” Nadou said apologetically.
“Change!” Essoyomewe snorted. “What change?” She snorted again, loud and long. “And now the President is going to modify the constitution for a third term.” She pursed her lips.
Nadou felt pricked and hoped that her expression did not give her away.
“The opposition leaders are worrying themselves and fooling their followers,” Essoyomewe said contemptuously. “There’ll never be any change in this country. The President tells us all the time. He says he’ll be in power forever.”
Nadou felt the pang again and again suppressed her feelings. She felt she must say something to appear genuine. “I’ve also finally realized that the opposition is wasting our time. How long now since they promised us change?” But we’re still where we were.”
Essoyomewe leaned forward. “Let me confide in you, my friend,” she whispered. Nadou bent forward too. “The opposition can win a thousand elections in this country but the PRP will always remain in power.”
Nadou raised an eyebrow and said, “Yeah?”
Essoyomewe nodded. “What’s their strength?” she said with a wrinkled nose. “Look.” She counted on her fingers. “The army, the police, and the Gendarmerie are on our side. Also the electoral commission, the constitutional court, and even the international community.”
“Henh?” Nadou said in a surprised tone. “The international community too?”
“Why do you think the President is so confident? Some foreign powers and powerful lobbies are solidly behind him. Money is talking.”
Nadou felt pain that the nation’s wealth was being squandered on foreigners while they went hungry. But she’s got to play the game. She nodded eagerly.
“Does the opposition have money?”
Nadou shook her head.
“No money no friend.” Essoyomewe loped one leg over the other.
“Then thank God I don’t want to waste my time anymore. We’re shouting democracy, human rights, rule of law, constitutional state, and sinking deeper into the mud.”
“Go on shouting. And go on sinking. Me, Essoyomewe, I’ll sit right here and live like a queen.”
Nadou spoke in a low, pleading voice: “My friend, show me the way too.”
“Have you seen the light now?” Essoyomewe smiled contentedly.
“I have, dear friend,” she said pitifully.
Essoyomewe laughed. “Okay, then I’ll take you to the party headquarters tomorrow to be registered. Bring along your ID card and two passport photos. Seven o’clock sharp.”
“Can’t we go today?”
“Don’t be in too much of a hurry.” They laughed. “Tomorrow, okay?”
Nadou nodded and stepped out of the room. Ei! Thank God, we’re going to live now.
“Nadou?” Essoyomewe shouted.
Nadou went back. Essoyomewe asked her to register her children too and gave her one thousand francs CFA—about $2. “For a bottle of beer,” she said.
“Can you believe that I’ve forgotten the taste of beer, me who used to wash my hands with it?” she said and they laughed. “At least I’ll get back the taste today.” Both laughed again and Nadou turned to walk away.
“Don’t get drunk,” Essoyomewe shouted after her.
“On a bottle of beer?” Nadou shouted back. Am I a fool to buy beer with this money? Nadou said to herself. I’ll go straight to the market, buy chicken wings and some rice. At least, be preparing our tongues for things to come.
Back home, Nadou’s children jumped at this news, especially Kokou. And they ate a tongue-teasing supper.
The following day Nadou stared at the clock a million times till it was almost seven and she set out for Essoyomewe’s.
Nadou’s eyes widened when they got to the People Redemption Party’s headquarters at Agoe Zongo. It was a four-storey structure shimmering in golden tiles and blue glass. Expensive cars lined the parking area. Hundreds of people joined long queues which trickled into the main entrance.
Essoyomewe herded Nadou into a large lobby where people scrambled to get registered.
“Camarade Essoyomewe, welcome.” A woman of medium height said with a wide grin.
“Thank you Camarade Yawa,” Essoyomewe said and turned to Nadou. “Meet Camarade Yawa Enyonam Lawadan, the National Women’s Organizer.” She turned to the women’s organizer. “I’ve brought you Nadou Lawson, a militant opposition member.”
The women’s organizer stared at Nadou and she lowered her eyes, her heart beating wildly. She wanted to say she was just a sympathiser, but she couldn’t. Lord, don’t let her think I’m a spy and send me away. Nadou’s heart did not stop beating until the women’s organizer gave her the party’s card.
“Your number is 153841,” she said. “That’ll be your code too. Your job will be to infiltrate opposition meetings and members and report on their activities.”
“I trust her to index the troublesome people,” Essoyomewe said and Nadou breathed hard.
“That’s perfect,” the women’s organizer said. “Don’t leave out friends and family members.”
Fear darted through Nadou’s heart.
“Keep your ears and eyes wide open. Pass all information on to Camarade Essoyomewe, she’s in charge of the women of Nyekonakpoe.”
They shuffled over to the youth section and registered Kokou under number 98133 for boys and Ahlimba 62760 for girls.
“Long live the PRP!” Nadou cried on entering her sitting room.
Kokou bounded to his feet. “Ma, you made it?” he asked excitedly.
“What do you think, son!” she said. “”We’re also members of the PRP! Here are you membership cards. We can also live now.”
“What are our roles?” Ahlimba asked without much enthusiasm.
“I’m a special investigator. Kokou, I told them you’re a wrestler and weightlifter and they registered you as member of the party’s security force.”
“Wow!” Kokou said, flexed his muscles, and jumped up and down. Nadou smiled.
“As for Ahlimba her vocational school training as bilingual business secretary landed her the task of hostess.”
“I hope it’ll enable me to get a real job,” she said. “I want to earn my living honestly.”
“I don’t care how the money comes,” Kokou said. “I want to live, that’s all.”
“Now kids, to the big part,” Nadou said in a humorous voice and dipped her hand into her handbag.
“Wow!” Kokou cried, as Nadou pulled out fresh bills and cellular phones.
“Ten thousand francs notes,” Ahlimba observed quietly.
“Yes,” her mother said, “two hundred thousand francs CFA for us just for registering. Here, your phones and money.”
“Wo-o-o-ow!” Kokou said on tearing the wrapping from the Nokia phone. “Brand new, latest mobile phones. I also feel like somebody now.” Kokou ambled around the room.
“I can now be reached directly by my friends,” Ahlimba said.
“The party first, my daughter,” her mother advised. “That’s what the phones are for. The opposition is behind me now.” She waved over her shoulder. “I’ll die for the PRP.”
A week later the opposition organized a nationwide strike to force the President not to modify the constitution.
“Note people in our area who participate most in this hell of a strike,” Essoyomewe had asked Nadou the day before. Nadou found it difficult to sleep that night. She hated to tattle, even as a child.
The following day militants of the opposition parties invaded the streets, threatening those of the ruling party who would go to fill the offices to give the impression that the strike action had failed. Clashes resulted. The police intervened and hauled off opposition supporters.
Kokou had been fetched by a military jeep that morning to protect a party functionary’s home. He returned in the evening bragging. Ahlimba had also been picked up, that day as always, by another party baron to do secretarial work at the party’s headquarters. She returned home late in the night as always and silent as ever.
For Nadou, going out to spy on people was like going to an execution. She sought to camouflage herself with a large brown boubou and a matching turban. But she was a giant of a woman, fair-colored, and beautiful and she hardly went anywhere unnoticed. Besides, people of Nyekonakpoe knew her as a vociferous supporter of the opposition’s United Front for Democracy, UFD. Since becoming a member of the PRP, her five co-tenants avoided her. This didn’t worry her much since she hardly mixed with them in the past. But displaying her new identity in public disturbed her. She went quietly up and down rue Adjololo and rue Bodjollé. Some people waved to her. Others stared elsewhere as she approached.
In the evening she submitted names and descriptions to Essoyomewe. “Les salauds!” she hissed. “We’ll deal with them.”
Nadou left Essoyomewe troubled. Were some people going to be tortured because of her?
“What’s happening here?” she bellowed on finding Kokou and his friends yelling under her veranda.
“Tanti,” one of them said, smelling of alcohol. “We’re celebrating the opposition’s failure.”
“You,” she said to Kokou, “do you know that we’re tenants here?”
“We’ve power behind us,” Kokou bragged.
“Out with all of you,” Nadou snapped.
Some of the boys wanted to complain but Kokou knew that her mother became a lion when angry. He herded them outside where they continued to boast.
Nadou felt ill at ease. She must go out. But where? Okay, she would go around warning friends and family members not to criticise the PRP openly. But people she approached received her like the plague.
Nadou slept dreaming of people screaming as they were given electric shocks. She jarred awake several times to see Ahlimba sobbing in her sleep in the next bed. She shuffled over to the hall to while away the night. Kokou snored like a toad, his head laid over his curled powerful hands. The smell of alcohol hung in the air. She shook her head.
That weekend, the PRP organized a rally at Aneho. Nadou and her children were included in the delegation. They went to the Palais des Congrès east of Nyekonakpoe to take buses.
Several hundreds of people in white T-shirts bearing the effigy of the President and the party’s emblem of a Kalashnikov crossed with a cutlass jammed the congress center. Army
trucks and buses of State enterprises brought in people. Armed soldiers and policemen strolled about.
At seven, the National Organizer appeared.
“PRP in power!” he cried.
“Forever!” the militants answered.
“In power!” they answered and clapped enthusiastically.
“Go and prove to the Nation that the majority want the President to continue his marvellous work,” he shouted and the militants scrambled into the buses. Waving white handkerchiefs, they sang and rocked to the sound of brass band music over Route National N° 1 beyond which coconut trees waved in the wind of the Gulf of Guinea.
Nadou twirled a strand of her dark, lustrous hair all the way to Aneho. Her bright, inquisitive eyes wore a questioning look. She had been in such a convoy before for the opposition. She was one of the people who went around in open cars inviting the people on megaphones to the rally. Besides, before moving to Lomé twenty years ago, she had spent twenty-two years at Aneho. She had been a popular lady, dazzling men with her beauty, dance steps, and somewhat scandalous life as she changed boyfriends at a whim. Nadou knew that she couldn’t come to Aneho unnoticed. But she had no choice.
As the convoy entered the town, the brass band played harder, but Nadou chewed her thin lips like chewing gum. She wondered if she could play her new role.
Nadou’s nervousness returned as she, Ahlimba, and the National Women’s Organizer went around the town’s narrow streets in a Toyota Nissan Pick-up summoning people to the meeting. At the beginning, she spoke into the microphone without much conviction, wishing
even to disappear like a smoke in a storm. But as they progressed from street to street, she felt an audacity which surprised her. Now the dumbfounded looks of the people no longer worried her. The organizer kept on patting her shoulders, whispering in her ears that a large recompense awaited her in Lomé.
When the rally began, Nadou no longer felt like hiding, yet, somehow, she hoped the President’s campaign for a third term would fail. But she knew that was wishful thinking. The regime was a master at electoral frauds. Hadn’t the President been declared winner of past elections while all knew that he had lost them? But what the hell, surviving is the thing.
All the way back to Lomé, Nadou felt proud for surprising herself and somewhat guilty for working against her deepest feelings and aspirations.
“How did you like the meeting?” Nadou asked Ahlimba as they watched it on TV.
“Not as successful as the State media want people to believe.”
That was typical of Ahlimba, never talking but criticising if you asked for her opinion. She and Nadou had a conflictual relationship, especially concerning Nadou’s love affairs. But Kokou adored his mother.
“As for me I found it more successful than the opposition’s stupid strike,” Kokou said.
Ahlimba opened a book and buried herself in it.
Alone, Nadou wondered if her work was worth continuing. But she had no choice: if there was a way to come into the party, there was none out except at one’s own risk. Nadou sighed loud and wished the government gets overthrown as the rumours circulating pretend. That would save everybody.
The referendum date drew near. For some time now Kokou would come home drunk and brag about the training he and others received from the armed forces in weaponry and the wielding of cutlasses and bludgeons.
“What for?” Nadou asked.
“To face the opposition,” he said.
As for Ahlimba, she was quieter than ever. If pressed, she would simply say she detested her work but would give no details of it.
Despite these, Nadou now felt a full member of the PRP. Her financial situation has improved dramatically. She was even contemplating moving into a larger apartment after the referendum.
A day before the voting day, Nadou accompanied Essoyomewe to a meeting of the PRP Nyekonakpoe ward officials. The ward organizer outlined strategies for swinging the votes in the President’s favour.
At 5:30 the following morning, Nadou and Kokou went to Essoyomewe’s house. Some PRP militants and militiamen were already there.
“Here--” Essoyomewe handed Nadou a bunch of voting cards. “—our militants will come with their membership cards to take them for multiple votes.”
Nadou’s hand trembled as she stuffed the cards into her bag.
Essoyomewe handed her a sheaf of fresh one thousand francs bills. “One for each militant who votes double; the same for anybody who brings you a “No” ballot box.” Essoyomewe handed her pre-stamped ballot papers. “A polling station official will collect them at the appropriate time.”
Nadou’s gaze strayed to the stuffed ballot boxes in the corner of the room.
“We need a maximum number of “Yes” votes,” Essoyomewe explained.
Nadou and some militants, accompanied by Kokou and other militiamen, set out for the CEG Boka polling station at 6 o’clock. Voters clutching their voters registration cards already hurried to the station.
Nadou and her group chose a corner of the main entrance, on the other side of the wall where the security forces were positioned. They waved people over and made them the proposals. Some accepted, especially to bring them the “No” ballot papers but the majority refused vehemently. Soon a group built up opposite, watching them. Nadou noted those she knew. The security forces retired to a respectable distance. The group booed at them.
Some PRP members reported that they had managed to cast multiple votes. Many either returned with their unused cards or with word that the opposition militants had whipped away the cards and destroyed them. Essoyomewe and the women’s organizer called Nadou at regular intervals. The electoral fraud was not moving so well in opposition strongholds. Later, the private press reported that UFD representatives had been chased from the polling stations in the PRP’s strongholds.
“We must destroy their resistance,” Kokou and his group vowed. Nadou winked to him but he pretended not to have noticed her. With a heavy heart Nadou watched them swagger away to the polling station. Soon came a commotion. The security forces rushed in.
Nadou called Essoyomewe. In no time at all, a truckload of security personnel armed to the teeth arrived at the polling station to restore law and order. A tall man approached Nadou for the ballot papers.
Voting ended at 6:00 p.m. and counting of the ballot papers began at the polling stations. This was a concession the government had made to the opposition but Essoyomewe had told Nadou that that changed nothing. The results had already been programmed. Nadou wondered why they were worrying themselves so much if the elections were just a formality.
“We have to give a semblance of seriousness to them, you know,” Essoyomewe had said.
Opposition militants brought lit lanterns to the polling stations. During the last elections, the mains had gone inexplicably out at 6 and the counting had had to done only God knows where.
Nadou and her group took down the results in only two rooms and then disappeared. The PRP had been crushed.
That evening all the international radio stations announced that the elections were marred by malpractices and that opposition representatives were not allowed to witness the voting at some polling stations. In others, unidentified gunmen had shot several rounds into the air and voters had disappeared. Opposition militants had also been picked up by the security forces. “Serves them right,” Nadou hissed.
By 8:00 pm, the opposition announced that the “No” won by more than eighty percent. The PRP said it was confident of a more resounding victory. The national electoral commission and the international observers asked everybody to be patient and wait for the official results.
These were released a week later. Prior to the announcement, telephone lines had gone dead, private radio stations had been closed, the borders and the international airport were closed, soldiers had been posted all over strategic parts of the country, especially in Lome. On
street corners, young UFD supporters waited patiently, radios pasted to their ears. Ahlimba had again been taken away by a baron who often comes around now. Kokou had been assigned to another district of Lome while other militiamen came to Nyekonakpoe. They were to provoke opposition supporters so that the army can intervene. Essoyomewe had left for Agoe Zongo where she claimed she was needed. But Nadou suspected she had fled Nyekonakpoe.
The electoral commission declared the “Yes” winner by 65.95%. Nadou felt her eyes widen, then she heard movements outside. She banged her door shut and hid under her bed trembling and praying. Soon machine-gun fire echoed all over.
The National Youth Organizer and some soldiers who used to visit Kokou with other militiamen had asked her not to be afraid. “We’ll have the situation under control,” they had assured her, but where were they now?
The national TV and radio announced that rioters had attacked government edifices and set them on fire. Nadou smiled. To establish order, the army had had to step in and several hundred people died. Thousands, especially in Aneho, have fled into exile. Amnesty International accused the government and its supporters of crime against humanity. Nadou shivered.
Two days later Nadou and her children were dining on couscous-stuffed chicken washed down with wine when Radio France International announced the coming of a UN commission of enquiry to Togo. Their jaws slowed down, their attention fixed on the news from the HiFi set on the cupboard in their new 2-bedroom flat in the same house. “Offenders and accomplices will be tried and punished,” the announcer continued. They stopped eating and stared at each other.
“If we had known we’d have continued eating our beans,” Nadou said, her eyes turning lustreless.
“It’s all your and Essoyomewe’s fault,” Ahlimba accused.
“What do you mean?” Nadou bounded to her feet. “You had caused all this,” she retorted.
“Me?” Ahlimba said, wide-eyed.
“Of course, you,” Kokou cut in.
“If you had accepted to eat beans, we wouldn’t have been in this hell,” Nadou reminded.
“I was tired of beans but I didn’t ask anybody to put us into any party.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Nadou sneered. “Ungrateful person! Kokou and maybe me may go to jail but you’re free. So you’ll say whatever you want.”
“Of course,” Kokou said.
“Who told you I’m free?” Nadou countered. “Even if you’re jailed, you’d come out one day. But me-” She burst into tears. “-I’m certainly going to die. I’ve caught AIDS. I was the sex slave of the barons.”
Kokou whistled and threw his arms over his head. Nadou’s mouth fell open. She needed money to escape a headache, but money with strings attached has proved to be more headaches. Why did I get us involved in this? Nadou broke down and wept.