Long ago from this New Year of 2007 and far away from where I sit typing these words, I had a surprising and curious encounter—at a considerable remove, to be sure—with Saddam Hussein of current notoriety upon the occasion of his hanging. Or rather, perhaps, exposure to an unusual assessment of Saddam and his leadership.
It was early 1991 and the scene was an up-country university in Nigeria, where I was holding forth as a visiting lecturer in history under America’s Fulbright program. President Saddam—Hussein was actually his father’s sole name, I’m told—had audaciously invaded and promptly occupied Kuwait in pursuit of a long-standing Iraqi claim to its 6,500 square miles of territory and untold riches in petroleum reserves. His reason for the move, one presumes, coming so soon after Iraq’s failed war against Iran, was to grab off resources quickly from a state far, far less able to defend itself than Iran. The UN, the West, and much of the rest of the world, including most Middle Eastern nations, were gearing up to counter the aggression. The armed action called for by the UN began, seemingly somewhat slowly, with an air campaign.
My Nigerian university’s faculty and student body largely expressed support, sometimes quite vociferously, for Iraq’s aggression, or initiative, if you will. The faculty organized well-attended discussions and symposia on the topic. Asked to make presentations on most of these occasions, I found myself, one of the perhaps two Americans on the faculty and the only visiting professor in the humanities, filling a lonely role in support of UN efforts. On occasion I had reason, I believed, to be a bit uneasy about my standing and status in the eyes not only of the students, but nearly all of the faculty with whom I came into contact, as well. Saddam and Iraq during that brief time before the UN coalition went into action seemed to be riding high.
One campus discussion stands out in my memory. A small group of faculty members sought me out to praise Saddam and, I suppose, to get my opinion on a role they foresaw for him as leader of a pan-African movement designed to gain greater political strength and influence for sub-Saharan Africa on the world scene.
Saddam head of a pan-African movement! I found their seriously held view in this regard surprising, to say the least. Saddam in 1991? A pan-Africanist, that rabble-rousing Middle Easterner? Yes, this small group of serious-minded scholars, virtually all with Western or Soviet doctorates, saw Saddam, with the impact he was having— successful so far—on the world scene, as a “savior” of Africa on the international political scene. The group sought my reaction. Attempting to be polite and treat their idea as seriously as they proffered it, I was nonetheless almost startled by the, to me, far-fetched, dream-like quality of the notion they advanced. And I guess I showed clearly my doubts.
Then the bottom fell out of their dreams with the very rapid collapse of Saddam’s army upon the beginning—and quick end—of the land war in February 1991. With Saddam’s army utterly defeated and scattered, I heard no more from my colleagues about him as the leader of a pan-African movement. Only their hopes for an early and lasting peace did my colleagues offer me from then on.
And now Saddam, briefly and a bit curiously, the pan-African hope of those Nigerian colleagues, as of the end of 2006 is no more.
Editor Henry E. Mattox