Leader's speech leaves us at a loss for words

A surprising fact about Muammar Gaddafi’s rambling television address on February 22 is that he wasn’t making an off-the-cuff speech.

The bellicose sermon was so unhinged it was a shock to actually find him waving a piece of paper which he repeatedly looked at before making even wilder allegations about rebels high on drugs and al-Qaeda’s quest to establish an Islamic emirate in Libya.

Gaddafi’s rant, a mixture of entreaties and threats, was at once school masterly and avuncular. During the diatribe, he would also read from the Green Book.
“Young people are given the armed vehicles in Benghazi,” he said. “Collect your children if you love Gaddafi. Take the greasy rats out of the street. If we have to use force, we will use it based on the Libyan constitution.”

The speech got more bizarre, perhaps the reason an Israeli producer has made a dance track of it that has been viewed more than three million times on the video sharing website YouTube.

About the revolutionaries, Gaddafi said: “Their ages are 17. They give them pills at night, they put hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their milk, their coffee, their Nescafe.”

This, of course, was vintage Gaddafi. He holds the contemporary record for the longest speech delivered at the United Nations. At 90 minutes, his 2009 diatribe went way beyond the allotted 15 minutes. For an equally long speech, one has to go back to a 1960 address by Fidel Castro. So, who is Gaddafi’s speech writer? And while we’re at it, who are the speech writers for other African presidents?

Robert Mugabe’s erudite spokesperson, George Charamba, writes the veteran president’s speeches.

However, some speculate that Mugabe insists on writing his own important speeches, especially those delivered at international forums. His words are restrained and eloquent, showing the scholarly attributes he turned his back on when he went into politics.

“My country, my government, my party and my own person have been labelled land grabbers, demonised, reviled and threatened with sanctions in the face of accusations of reverse-racism. WEB du Bois must be turning in his grave for having thought the problem of the ‘colourline’ would disappear with the 20th century,” he said in a 2003 speech to the UN.

‘Conciliatory speeches’
That was one of his “war” speeches. In a bygone age he would make conciliatory speeches. The one he gave at independence in 1980 is much loved and routinely quoted.

“The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten. If ever we look to the past, let us do so for the lesson the past has taught us, namely that oppression and racism are inequalities that must never again find scope in our political and social system. It could never be a correct justification that because whites oppressed us yesterday when they had power, the blacks must oppress them today because they have power,” he said then.

While the 2003 speech is infused with typical rage at the West and shows calibration, his campaign speeches—or those he delivers in Shona—take the prize for outrageousness.

In 2008, while on the campaign trail, Mugabe issued a warning to his compatriots: “You vote for them [Movement for Democratic Change] but that will be a wasted vote. You will be cheating yourself as there is no way we can allow them to rule this country.”

With each advance or retreat by the rebels, Gaddafi gets a chance to show us what a poor corpus scholars of presidential speeches will have to work with when he’s gone. But there are other worthy contenders for “most unhinged speech ever made by a president”.

Research into Idi Amin’s proclamations, for instance, unearths such oddities, that it’s difficult to believe that they were the words of a president. It’s hard to sift the real from the apocryphal. But his 1971 inaugural speech to the Ugandan nation, for instance, reads: “I am not a politician but a professional soldier. I am, therefore, a man of few words and I have been brief through my professional career.”

On another occasion, Amin said: “I never had any formal education, not even a nursery school certificate. But, sometimes I know more than PhDs because as a military man I know how to act. I am a man of action”.

Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, easily one of the continent’s most bizarre leaders, is also given to delivering ridiculous speeches. “I will develop the areas that vote for me, but if you don’t vote for me, don’t expect anything,” he said when setting out his concept of democracy. He also doubles as a healer and he says he has found a cure for HIV/Aids.

“Mine is not an argument, mine is a proof. It is a declaration. I can cure Aids and I will. The treatment uses seven plants, three of which are not from Gambia.” The general rule seems to be the speech is normally as good or as bad as the president making it.

Gaddafi’s first speech after the uprising was a classic. The last speech he will give as Libya’s president will surely make fascinating reading and viewing.

Percy Zvomuya

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