The Apotheosis of Master Sergeant Doe Welcome, dear Master Sergeant to the fold Your pace was firm, your passage mean and bold. Lean your entry, in studied Saviour's form Combat fatigued, self-styled a cleansing storm. Let other shoulders sprout gold epaulettes You shunned those status-greedy etiquettes, Stayed simple Master Sergeant. The nation knew Who was the Master; the Sergeants rendered due. The comrade band diminished. The bloody contest played Its grand finale. Alone the Master Planner stayed The course. The lean had rounded out. The barrack slob, Close-crop peak-cap head affects new heartthrob Swinger images. The tie-pins are no paste. The spoils of office, easy acquired taste Distend the appetite, contract the scruples. A crow may answer eagle, perched on borrowed steeples. Flown on flags, graced by diplomatic corps We consecrate the nightmare, kiss a nation's sore. To mask the real, the world is turned a stage, A rampant play of symbols masks a people's rage. The ass that mimes the Lord's anointed wears A face that once was human, prone to fears But crowns are crowns. When rulers meet, their embraces Are of presence. Absent cries make empty phrases. The pile is high on that red carpet trail That muffs the steps to your Inaugural Grail, Skulls like cobbles, bones like harmattan twigs The squeals of humans dying the death of pigs. You missed the hisses too; a fanfare covers all. The whine of violins at the State House Ball Bears down the whining discords of misrule. You've proved a grade A pupil from survivors’ school. Your worthy predecessors raise a toast From exiled havens, or from the eternal roast Swinging Bokassa, Macias Nguema, Idi Amin Dada You sucked their teats, you supped from their cannibal Larder, And belched in unison. The pinnacle attained, Next goal is duration. Shall we see you ordained In the Guinness Book of Records, the Master stayer? Youth is your ally, and appetite of a Master slayer. Until the people's fiesta: a blood-red steamer In Monrovian skies, a lamp-post and – the swinging Redeemer. — Wole Soyinka
The Apotheosis of Master Sergeant Doe is a highly satirical poem, the lyric mocks the transformation of Master Sergeant Doe from a lean, self-effacing and soft-spoken leader to a corrupt, corpulent, brutal and despotic Commander-in-Chief of Liberia.
He ruled the country from 1980 to 1990, first as a military leader after a coup in which President William Tolbert was killed and later as a civilian after an election that was marred by malpractices. He was captured by Prince Y. Johnson, leader of a rebel group, and was brutally murdered on 9 September, 1990.
He belonged in the company of African dictators, Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, and Francisco Macias Nguema of Equatorial Guinea who fell in love with power, oppressed their people, destroyed their countries and were satirized by Soyinka in A Play of Giants.
Soyinka wrote King Baabu, a play, to lampoon General Sani Abacha, the military Head of State of Nigeria from 1993 until his death in 1998 who, like Sergeant Doe, was also a giant (monster). The tyrannical leaders portrayed themselves to the world as extraordinary and larger than life, but the writer uses the technical devices of satire to puncture their overbloated egos and burlesque them as buffoons.
Both dramatic and poetic forms serve the same purpose of holding up the pompous jesters to ridicule.
Composed of twenty-one rhymed couplets, the poem is analogous to a sardonic twenty-one gun salute to a power perverter and tyrant who in the end gets his comeuppance for his evil deeds.
The first two couplets welcome Sergeant Doe into the fold of military personnel who stage a coup pretending to be messiahs who are motivated by patriotism and the desire to clean the stable and salvage their countries from destruction by corrupt political leaders.
The third and fourth couplets parody the deceptive mask of humility and simplicity put on by Doe who refused to change his military rank after a successful takeover of political power and clung on to the status of an ordinary Sergeant, a ploy to make people believe that the coup was staged for the liberation of Liberia and not because of the plotters’ greed for power.
However, as the fifth, sixth and seventh couplets reveal, the deception was not for long, as “The comrade band diminished” and “The lean had rounded out.” The lures of power and the comforts that inhere in perquisites of office are irresistible.
Therefore, the Master Sergeant not only allows his appetite to grow in the eighth couplet but also panders to it, damning whatever people might say. The second line of the stanza exposes his dubiety: “A crow may answer eagle, perched on borrowed steeples,” which implies that he is unfit for the political office occupied by him.
The ninth stanza portrays his ascension to power as a “nightmare” that only allows the “nation’s sore” to fester, especially because of the recognition accorded him in diplomatic circles and even by the United States.
He exploits the situation to his advantage by embarking on symbolic actions on the world stage to hide the festering sore at home and citizens’ increasing anger and impatience with his nepotism and lacklustre performance as President of Liberia. But for how long can the play last and reality be muffled up by illusion?
The powerful nations that are deceived by the false image of a liberator who cultivates a low profile miss the fact that many lives were lost in the coup that brought the simple Sergeant to power. The cries of the bereaved, alas, are not heard at fora like the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity and the Economic Community of West African States where leaders meet.
But the poet hears and pays attention to the cries and registers them in the twelfth, thirteenth, fourtenth, and fifteenth couplets. Neither the carpet spread at the Sergeant’s Inauguration ceremony nor the music played at the State House Ball could bury them under nor stifle them from being heard by trained, sensitive ears that snoop around in defence of human rights.
Nevertheless, in the thirty-second line, the poet says facetiously that the Sergeant is a past master at deceiving people, covering his misrule and surviving intrigues and plots of opponents in the power game: “You’ve proved a grade A pupil from survivors’ school.”
The archetypes of A Play of Giants, his predecessors – the poet calls them cannibals – raise a toast in recognition of his great feat in the seventeenth couplet. However, the predecessors do so from either exile into which they fled when dethroned or the graves where they lie buried.
Three of the dictators are mentioned in the eighteenth couplet. His, at best, is a pyrrhic victory and if the Sergeant was truly clever he should know that the same shameful and tragic end awaited him. The question of duration of the game of deception pops up in the nineteenth couplet to affirm the truthfulness of the axiom that one can fool people some of the time, but one cannot fool people all of the time, which is irrefragable proof of human limitation.
The question regarding the possibility of the Sergeant’s name entering the Guiness Book of Records in the penultimate couplet as “the master stayer” is the last jest made of him.
In the last couplet, the poet rightly predicts the murder of the “Master slayer,” which is represented as “the people’s fiesta,” a joyous celebration of the ignominious end of a tyrant who came into power pretending to be a gentle lamb only to change and become a blood-sucking ogre. The ending of the poem is a testimony to the poet’s prophetic powers, for the Sergeant met his Waterloo in Monrovia in very gory and violent terms.
Disclaimer: This analysis is sourced from Professor Segun Adekoya's lectures on African Poetry. Literature PADI lays no proprietary claim to it.