It had always been said that the African Union was a toothless dog that barked but never bit. This phrase was about to prove quite an interesting choice of words. Words prophetic in a strange, ironic and indecipherable sense. Man’s best friend would turn out to be just that, at least to one man, in the most disturbing and deathly of ways.
It all started in the tiny East African state of Gumba. It was election time. Musamvuni had been ruling the country for decades after getting to power by overthrowing the then dictatorial regime. His was the typical African story; leader gets to power by popular revolt with promises of change, is loved by the people, time happens and gradually he turns into a despot himself. The customary pre-election practices were held; having parliament extend presidential term limits, detaining then releasing opposition leaders in order to intimidate them, disbanding the electoral commission and forming a new one, detaining and releasing opposition leaders again, among other things. The polls were held. Musamvuni won with 90% amid claims of rigging. Although all this was expected, what really irked Gumbans was the reaction of the international community. The African Union observers declared the poll free and fair. This was of course no surprise, but when the Western observers also did the same, people were incredulous. Albeit with a few “buts” and “ifs” the EU observers said they found the process to be generally above board. The masses expressed their indignation through peaceful protests at first, but after a violent crackdown on the demonstrators by security personnel, things turned bloody. First it started in the opposition strongholds in the countryside then slowly spread to the capital. Riots, looting, stone throwing. The incorrigible Musamvuni was livid. He hurled his wrath like a bolt of lightning, bringing down the whole security machinery on the protestors and everyone else. Shoot to kill orders, executions, torture, kidnappings, forced disappearances and detentions were now the rules of engagement. The USA released a statement saying it was “dismayed” by the developments in Gumba. The EU was no better. Musamvuni was the West’s handyman in the region. Proxy wars and smuggling arms into neighboring countries was his forte. This, and the overall feeling that the West had betrayed the people, caused an anti-West sentiment in the country. Musamvuni, all the same, soon managed to violently smash the uprising and impose his regime on the country. Peace, or rather, just calm as it was soon to emerge from what happened next, seemed to resume in the country, and a sense of normalcy could once again be felt.
Then it happened. It started in the largely Islamic district of Ganga, in the Eastern part of the country. Three kids going for Madrasa classes were mauled by hostile stray dogs. Two died from the attack and one was left in critical condition. Residents were enraged. They tracked the dogs down and lynched them, but it didn’t end there. After burying the two kids in the afternoon, rowdy gangs of Muslim men armed with stones, clubs and other crude weapons started roaming the streets and killing any dog that they came across. But that was just the beginning. Early the next morning they were at it again. They said they wanted to cleanse the town, and even the entire district, of “this canine filth.” This murderous campaign went on for five days before it finally caught the attention of the national media and the whole country. The police gave a mild response, calling for calm and order.
Then came the spark that lit the fire. An American animal rights group, whose local branch was based in the capital of Gumba known as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, issued a statement; that while expressing their sympathies over the attack on the kids, they condemned the attacks on dogs in the strongest terms possible, offered their willingness to take in all stray dogs to avoid a repeat of the mauling incident, and said they had organized a march in the capital in solidarity with the slain dogs and to show their anger with what was happening in Ganga. That did it. The anti-West sentiment that had been boiling below the surface now spilled over. In truth, their anger was about old wounds rather than the present events. Their unspoken grievance, which was also very popular, was: Musamvuni recently massacred us en masse and the best the Americans could do is be dismayed. Now they speak up strongly because dogs are dying. Are dogs more valuable than us? Did they organize a march when we were being slaughtered? Of course, many didn’t know, and the few that did chose to ignore the fact that PETA was an NGO, a non-governmental organization and for animals at that, which meant it wasn’t a representative of the USA government or any other government, it had no political agenda and its work wasn’t to defend humans. There were a few voices of reason on talk shows and in newspaper editorials. People who felt that PETA showed disregard for the Ganga society by, by and large, ignoring the victims and focusing on the dogs, and that while there was no obligation on their part whatsoever towards the victims since they weren’t a humanitarian body or the government, which ideally should have been the ones to help, still, it would have been a tactful and prudent move to perhaps be more humane. Probably offer to clear the medical bill of the kid that survived, or at least visit her in the hospital. And that was true. PETA erred in that it came across as too formal and impersonal. A simple talk with Muslim leaders in Ganga could have solved everything. But such arguments were few and isolated. The popular rhetoric was that the West cared more about dogs than Gumban citizens.
So, immediately after PETA held their march, the situation escalated. It was no longer only Ganga where dogs were being targeted. It had now spread to other parts of the country, including the capital, and it had nothing to do with the three mauled kids. It was all about antagonizing the West. Cases of hunting, chasing and killing dogs were now widespread. People were now doing it with a zeal not seen before. Bodies of dead dogs were lined up on the streets as if they were trophies. Charred carcasses littered the pavements. Street corners and alleys were cascaded with the chocking, corroding smell of burned dogs. Dog owners now made sure their dogs didn’t leave the kennels. The streets in the capital reeked of the stench of decaying corpses. The perpetrators began posting photos of themselves on the internet posing in front of mountains of bodies of dead dogs. PETA too was posting photos of the situation. The happenings in Gumba were now fast gaining attention on both sides of the Atlantic.
Then two animal shelters housing hundreds of dogs and other pets were burned down, and PETA offices were attacked and vandalized. Those two incidents seemed to get the attention of the Western governments. This coupled with the pressure that the governments were now under from their people. Animal rights groups, celebrities and lobby groups were mobilizing and sensitizing people about what was happening in Gumba and collecting signatures for petitions, or as they called them, pet-itions, to their congressmen. Social media was ablaze with groups, harsh tags and videos about the “Gumba crisis.” Foundations were started. Relief funds.
“The Gumba Initiative: help keep dog killers on a tight leash.”
“Save a dog – support our dogtrine; man’s best friend is a friend in need.”
They were demanding that their governments use their influence and power to remedy the situation. Their governments had to oblige.
However, what they did to try and remedy the situation was to prove a major blunder. They prevailed upon Musamvuni to try and contain the crisis, whether by carrot or stick. The moment Musamvuni’s government issued a statement warning against the killing of dogs was the moment things went to a whole new level. This was like a Christmas gift for the dog killers. One stone, two birds. So the Musamvuni government also felt irked by their actions? Did this mean not only did they get to annoy the West but also their brutal spanner boy whenever they went on a dog killing spree? The President was so hated that when it was all over, it was joked in retrospect that if only the President had said he was happy with the killings, they would have stopped immediately.
People relished the prospect of annoying Musamvuni. For that, they weren’t content with simply just killing the poor creatures anymore. They resorted to now torturing them first. It started with a dog that had its ears and tail chopped off. They then released it, writhing in pain, twisting and turning, yet trying to keep still, and all the while yelling. They recorded all this. When it could take it no more and lost consciousness they decided to put an end to the suffering they had started. They stoned it to death. From there onwards it was a get-as-creative-as-you-can free contest for all. Some would pour petrol on a dog, light it on fire then set it free. The wailing ball of fire, in excruciating pain, would shoot off at full speed with a terrifying heart-wrenching mournful shriek to the sadistic cheers of the instigators, and would then start darting around in all directions screaming in agony while the killers stoned it away whenever it tried to reach for a pool of water to save itself. They would keep this on until it finally gave up and died painfully. Others would gouge out a dog’s eyes then start taunting it with sticks and leaves, the rest tormenting it by splashing it with meat soup to see its reaction. All this while it stumbled blindly, for all its desperate groans, shedding bloody tears. After they were bored they would then walk away, leaving it to its misery, not even kind enough to kill it. Videos of all this were posted by themselves or by animal activists online. Musamvuni’s goons could crush a revolt and sweep protestors off the street, but protecting canines from the society was a tricky affair. They weren’t trained to protect. They were clueless about what to do.
International media was unrelenting in its coverage of the now worsened situation. This entire thing had turned into a full-fledged calamity. It had been christened Canicide. Pressure was mounting on the Western governments’ in Europe and America. What had begun as a passing cloud was now turning into a storm. The anti-Canicide movement there had gathered steam to proportions not imagined before. Governments were now in danger of turning into unpopular regimes, especially when African affairs specialists started digging deeper and demystifying the real cause of the Canicide to their citizens. That it was all because of their governments’ complicity in an undemocratic process. That it had nothing to do with the poor dogs. Congressmen and Parliamentarians risked losing re-elections, and Presidents faced the prospect of leading minority governments, or at worst, even losing re-election. They had to do something, and something substantive, real quick.
They invited people in Gumba whom they perceived to have support of the masses; opposition leaders, civil groups and religious heads, over to the American Embassy for what they termed as “talks in search of a tentative plan.”
The first sign that something big was coming was when Musamvuni veered off his usual chest thumping rhetoric during his Heroes Day address to say that Gumba was a sovereign state and wasn’t going to be dictated to by foreign powers. This was the first time he was spewing anti-Western vitriol since about 30 years back when he was a new and popular leader and had declared that under him Gumba would seek and possess what was in the interest of the country and not of foreign powers. Two weeks after Musamvuni’s outburst, the electoral commission announced that after reviewing its report, it was convinced that the recent elections had been bungled, and was thereby cancelling the results and calling for fresh elections. It absolved the president of any blame and took responsibility for the failed process saying its commissioners had handed in their resignation letters and that the government in consultation with the opposition would nominate new commissioners and set a new date for elections. The presidency released a statement saying it respected decisions by state organs and that they would co-operate with the opposition in setting a new election date.
And just like that, order returned once again to Gumba. Attacks against dogs ceased. For the first time in a long time, dogs could be seen strolling in the streets, happy to be out of those prisons that were the kennels, oblivious of just how much of a safe sanctuary those kennels had been for them, and how lucky they were to actually be alive. To show that sanity had indeed resumed, a big funfair dubbed “Pat-A-Pet” was held in the capital. People drank, had fun and made merry. There were numerous competitions; dogs raced against each other, against selected sprinters, were dressed in funny attires, and there was even a runway for fashionista dogs.
Little did anybody know what was about to unfold. The damage had already been done. Other African countries had noted carefully and taken lessons. So, if you want to force the white man to support democracy in your country, all you need to do is kill his best friend, the dog. What they didn’t know is that circumstances would be totally different this time round. There is a Swahili saying; Bahati ya mwenzio usilalie mlango wazi. Don’t sleep with the door ajar waiting for lady luck to enter like she did at your neighbor’s. It might be the devil entering in your case, and they were about to find that out in the worst of ways.
63 days. It took exactly 63 days before the next bout of dog killings began, and this time across the continent. That was symbolic, poetic even, since 63 is the exact number of days in the gestation period of a dog. Of course, many countries that had shared a similar political dispensation to Gumba’s had watched with interest and admiration what had happened in that country. It had been said in idle talk, and humorous speak that “maybe we should also do what they did. It might work for us too.” But it was never thought of seriously, perhaps because the general feeling was that Gumbans simply just made a statement, but in terms of results, it would amount to nothing. Musamvuni would rig and win the polls again. Then elections came in Gumba and Musamvuni lost. That was it. That was the game changer. It dawned on them; so, you can actually force regime change this way! The let-us-do-it-too talk started to gain serious consideration. Then boom! It happened. The efficiency and synchronous pattern with which the attacks resurfaced in multiple countries across the continent made some believe this second round of dog killing was not only pre-planned but also entailed cross border co-ordination. It also didn’t escape people’s attention that all the countries which had this occurrence had one thing in common; they all were under despotic regimes that enjoyed the favor of western countries which felt that their interests in the region were safer under such leaders albeit tyrants.
These new attacks bore a fundamental difference from those in Gumba. Unlike the Gumba attacks that evolved from a genuine case, and had only political undertones, the instigators in these ones were more brazen in showing the link between politics and the killings. As they chased down and killed the dogs, they would chant “so and so must go” or “power to the people.” African cities were piled with bodies upon bodies of dead dogs. It was Gumba all over again but on a much larger scale. The torture, burning, lynching. In the International News section of The New York Times, they carried the story, aptly titled, “AFRICA GOES TO THE DOGS.” It was all happening again; the outcry from Americans and Europeans to their governments to do something, fuelled by pressure from animal activists, celebrities and lobby groups. The Western governments were bowing to pressure. It was said that they were planning a multi-lateral meeting with various leaders from each of the countries that were having the Canicide, modeled on the kind that they held in Gumba, but before all this could materialize, came the next horrifying chapter in what was now turning out to be a very dramatic turn of events.
They first began as isolated cases, then became more regular, sequential and patterned. The numbers started increasing as the incidents became more widespread. There had been a rabies outbreak. At first, all this was just happening in one country, Ronga, Gumba’s immediate neighbor, but the rabies soon spread to Bukigo which bordered Ronga. Soon the disease spread to two other countries. Scenes were being witnessed in Africa that had never been seen before. Strange symptoms. Paralysis and insanity. The victims looked disheveled. It was like the dogs were now fighting back. The infected creatures had turned wild with malady and rage. Devilish, their bloodshot eyes crazed with a heinous vengeance of sorts. They were attacking people on street corners and dark alleys, tearing into their flesh viciously. They walked in packs like a legion. A sickly murderous legion. The hunter had become the hunted. It was now humans that needed protection from the dogs. Bukigo’s President sensationally claimed that this was a proxy war taking place in Africa, as had been the case many times before, only that in this case the belligerents who were being armed by foreign powers weren’t human. The war field imagery that he was trying to conjure up got visual effect when images were televised of fancy exotic dog breeds; Chihuahuas, German shepherds, Dalmatians and others which mostly belonged to expatriates, embassy workers and other foreigners, being airlifted to safety, pretty much like their citizens usually are in times of war.
Talk of there being a foreign hand in the rabies outbreak had been there though not much emphasis was put on it, but that rumor started gaining credibility after two things happened; when WHO said that the rabies outbreak emanated, not from dogs, but bats. That came across as being pre-emptive and defensive. Second, when there was a rabies outbreak in Magharibi and Kusini too. Yes, those two countries also had massive dog killing incidents, but not only were they far from the Eastern African countries, they were also very far from each other. One on the western edge of the continent, the other on the southern part. How was the rabies transmitted there, and why only in countries where dogs were being killed?
The situation was getting dire. The dog killing continued in some towns as the rabies got deadlier. What was worse is that it was being transmitted from human to human in some cases. Some rabies victims could become violent and maniacal, biting and scratching anyone they came across. The irony. It was now the dogs, red-eyed, emaciated but vicious, driven to insanity by sickness, or perhaps fury, that roamed the streets while humans, along with their household and livestock, tightly and scaredly locked themselves in the safety of their houses. Not one was safe outside, not even dogs that were yet to be infected. Not even humans from infected humans. This war was slowly shifting from dog versus man to rabies versus the healthy.
The dilapidated health systems of those countries were overwhelmed by the disease. This was a humanitarian crisis. Children were not going to schools for fear of dog attacks.
Then came the chain of admissions. PETA headquarters released a statement saying it had come to their attention that some of their vials containing the rabies virus that’s used for the manufacture of rabies vaccine, V-RG, had gone missing. They said that while they were still conducting investigations, they were treating this as a case of normal vandalism and still had confidence in the WHO report that the epidemic in Africa was caused by bats. The corny headlines continued, “CONTROVERSY DOGS PETA.” Days later WHO released another statement, clarifying that while they still maintained the epidemic originated from bats, the bats were simply the vector that transmitted the virus from the reservoir, and dogs could have been likely hosts. They added that increased cases of rabies in dogs may have compounded the problem, and that they themselves found the sudden outbreak in multiple locations that didn’t have proximity to each other suspicious. That while it wasn’t their area, they were willing to assist the relevant authorities in investigations where necessary. All this was taken by people to mean WHO were basically saying “somebody did it.” Exactly two days later, the FBI announced that with help from PETA, they had been able to apprehend a suspect. He was 41-year-old Green Stevenson, a radical animal rights activist who had been a PETA employee but was fired after numerous complaints of threatening and unstable behavior from people about him. While working for PETA he was said to have sent threatening mail to people suspected of animal cruelty. It was said he was able to infiltrate PETA safes by using fake identification documents and his prior knowledge and familiarity of the premises. He then flew to Africa, sneaking the virus with him and embarked on a sinister and pathological campaign, injecting the virus into dogs in all areas that had the Canicide.
These revelations seemed to bring hope. Of course, many questions and suspicions still lingered in the affected countries; was the US government involved? Was PETA involved? Was there a ring of radical animal rights activists operating in PETA that had assisted Mr. Stevenson? Could a single person really have wreaked so much havoc on an entire continent? Yes, questions still lingered but now a sense of direction was present. The rabies outbreak was an absolute game changer. Before, the protestors had all the cards. They were the ones pushing the Western governments to the wall with their heinous acts. Now it was the other way round. They needed the West; they needed the rolling out of humanitarian programs. Rabies vaccines, quarantine centers, and diagnosis and treatment centers all over the affected countries.
Another thing that had changed was the call for regime change. Now the most important thing was emancipation from the prevailing desolate conditions. Of course, democratization was still an issue but it would have to wait until order resumed. First things first.
The West’s help came with a proviso, that the protestors must first stop all cruel actions against the dogs. Of course they sugar coated that. They said that in order for them to be able to effectively bring the situation under control, it was important that everyone avoid contact with the disease vectors. The African countries also held their ground; the culprit, the virus, they had all originated from the West so they weren’t doing them any favors by handling the situation. It was their responsibility. But beggars can’t be choosers. All that was just for rhetoric purposes, the reality was that at the end of the day they needed help and would sell their soul if that was what it came to, so they retreated.
There was one curious aftermath of the whole fiasco. In some countries, it brought about cohesion between the people and their previously unpopular oppressive governments. They had found themselves united against a common problem. Tragedies have a way of uniting people.
From there onwards everything worked like clockwork. Hordes of medical personnel flew in with their supplies. Quarantine and vaccination centers were opened. Diagnosis and treatment makeshift clinics were put up all over in the affected countries. Dog catchers with their ridiculous outfits and equipment dotted the villages and municipalities. Humanitarian aid agencies also brought in food. The crisis had affected food production in those countries. PETA too went in with their own supplies; dog food, toys for dogs – small balls and plastic bones – and workers in a strange profession who were known as animal psychologists. All this, much to the chagrin of the locals.
Calm and order returned to the continent but all this had left quite remarkable effects in and out of the region. Overall, more than 70,000 dogs had died, 10,000 from rabies. 10,000 people had died, about the same number had been infected. In the West, Green Stevenson seemed to enjoy support, admiration and even cult like following from a surprisingly considerable number of people although still in the minority. They thought him a defender of the weak, a Robin Hood of sorts, doing the right thing the wrong way. The man who leveled the playing field for the poor dogs. There was even talk of book deals and movie rights involving him. A more popular but unspoken feeling in the West was that Green didn’t escalate the crisis but actually ended it. A twisted sort of Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombing kind of reasoning. All this presented a very likely and scary prospect; the rise of an extremist animal rights movement, especially since there was also a feeling that PETA had sided with the dog killers in tracking down and crucifying Mr. Stevenson.
In Africa the event had a couple of profound effects. It reinforced previously held theories that all diseases in the continent; AIDS, Ebola, Malaria, were the machinations of the white man. The other ironic thing in the aftermath is that the crisis had made some earlier loathed governments popular. The whole process of huddling together to face the same problem thrown at them by outsiders, foreigners, had brought about unity, so it was no surprise when the later political events that unfolded did.
The crisis had affected a total of 7 countries, including Gumba. Of the 7, the status quo was maintained in 2 where the dictators held on their grip on power. In 2 countries, Bukigo and Ronga, there were by-elections and the incumbents won, only this time they won fairly and squarely with support from the people, so in a poetic kind of way, regime change had been effected. In the remaining 3 countries which included Gumba, there was actual regime change.
The name given to the whole thing outside Africa was Canicide, but in the continent, it was given a strange name. It had nothing to do with dogs. It originated from one unusual and unforgettable symptom of those that had suffered from rabies. They had a phobia for water. Whenever they were offered water for their dehydration they would shout insanely, “Too much water,” “Water everywhere” or “I don’t want water” while pushing it away. This, coupled with the images that were of different species of dogs lined up to enter into the white man’s ark and be flown to safety made the event to be known as the Great Flood.
Image: Pixabay.com remixed