“Hindsight” and the Many Nights of Resurrections

The podcast that resurrects memorable figures in history has been my go-to bedtime listen and touchstone for knowledge of time past.

A person sitting under a Wall of Fame of notable figures in history.
Hindsight is a podcast by Al Jazeerah that dramatizes historical events that resurrect some of the world's most memorable figures. Illustration by Sofiltered.

When the lights are off and complete darkness engulfs me, there are some bedtime rituals I undertake before I finally descend into the coffin of my bed: I listen to music, watch videos on Netflix, scroll endlessly on Instagram, or as I have become increasingly accustomed to, listen to podcasts.

It is at the moment when I am shrouded by the cold embrace of my duvet that I slip into the crypt of subconsciousness. I will be cold but kept awake by one of the bittersweet stories of love, lust, and redemption with Anna Martin on Modern Love, the incomparable Esther Perel as she counsels real couples in trying times on Where Should We Begin, or Charles Dance on Hindsight, the dramatized series based on historical events that resurrect some of the world's most memorable figures.

Of all three podcasts, Hindsight has become my beloved bedtime listen because of the stories it tells and how it tells them. Although dramatized, Hindsight subjects are given the mic to tell their side of the story, for better or worse — you've heard of them. Now it's time to hear from them.

While Hindsight, a podcast by Al Jazeera, excels on levels like production and storytelling, it also delivers on its choice of narrator, Charles Dance — the actor who played Tywin Lannister in HBO's TV series, Game of Thrones. Charles Dance’s austere voice, well-paced narrations, and momentary interjections cut a swath through to the typical assertive bureaucrat or villain characters he is known to play. He embodies all the qualities necessary to keep you prepared and engaged for the many long nights of awakening the dead and the deeds that they are remembered for.

One such awakening that I often return to is Saddam Hussein: Titan & Tyrant. A terrifying tale, perhaps, of a complete maniac and narcissist that the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, considered “probably the most dangerous man in the world.”

Even now, as I write this, I am transported to Saddam's tragicomedy trial with a morbid fascination. I can hear him snap back at the Judge when asked to confirm his identity to the court. “You don't know my name,” Saddam said angrily. “You don't know my name?”

Saddam or “president of the Iraq [sic]” as he still considered himself at that point had refused to identify himself to the court. He doubted and repeatedly questioned the tribunal's legitimacy, and he demanded a fair trial that was free of the control of foreign institutions. He never got it

It is true that in one way or the other, hideous or not, everyone knew who Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid was. He was the son of a poor Shepherd from the small village of Al Awja, 160 kilometers from the north of Baghdad, who despite a series of cruel childhood arrangements and political scandals, rose to the very summit of power and ruled Iraq for twenty-four years. He once claimed he was anointed by God to rule Iraq and like many of history's tyrants, felt a compulsive personal obligation and a megalomaniac’s need to make [his part of] the world better, by all means necessary, with no prisoners taken.

During Saddam's reign of terror, if you will, he crushed all opposition, waged war on his enemies, struck fear into the very hearts of his adversaries, and completely obliterated any form of burgeoning dissent. He was firm and ruthless even to his own. His rule over Iraq was marked by careless errors that originated from pure arrogance that led him to a downward spiral of both costly and unsuccessful wars against Iran and Kuwait, and genocide against the Kurdish minority group.

After twenty-four years in power, Saddam Hussein was captured by invading US forces in a hideout near his hometown of Tikrit. He was tried on charges relating to mass murder and executed by hanging on Dec. 30th, 2006. He was sixty-nine. Even in the very face of death, he remained defiant.

In 1974, five years before Saddam Hussein formally came to power, Augusto Pinochet was sworn in as President of the Republic of Chile, a position he came about by mere circumstance. His story birthed the Hindsight episode Augusto Pinochet: The Triumph of Mediocrity, a bewildering tale of a man who was considered unremarkable in the years before the US-backed coup against Salvador Allende, the then president of Chile and the first democratically elected Marxist leader in Latin America.

“Augusto Pinochet was an accomplished opportunist who seized power and then bullied himself into keeping it.” Charles Dance narrated. Yet, in the years leading up to the coup, he was a dotting son to his mother with whom he had shared a unique bond, a good husband to his wife and beloved Lucia Hiriart, and an accomplished military man, who had simply and swiftly risen through the ranks to become the second-highest-ranking officer in the Chilean army.

Augusto, a practicing Catholic, believed and thanked God for “how he has been clearing my path" because “I have come this far without force or resistance, but by aligning myself with his plan." But if Augusto's success hitherto was of God's making, the coup of Sept. 11, 1973, marked an abrupt end to it.

Almost immediately as he became President did he unleash an unrestrained terror on his people and opposition, both in and out of the country. Scores of people were tortured and murdered, the beloved Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda was poisoned to death for his connections with Allende, and a former Chilean diplomat was killed in a car bomb in downtown Washington DC by direct orders from Pinochet (confirmed by Declassified US intelligence documents).

On Sept. 7, 1986, an assassination attempt on Pinochet’s life, which he survived, marked the birth of the challenge to his authority and his descent from power. Then, the following year when the Pope visited, a large number of poor Chileans had gathered en masse to urge the Pope to take their tyrant away.

Pinochet staged a national referendum (or plebiscite), in 1988, to extend his rule and have control over the Navy, for another eight years. In simple terms, it failed. He also lost the support of the military leadership. After 17 years of abusing his position of power, Augusto's rule was over, but it wasn't the end of him. He went on to serve as the Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army until 1998. In that same year, he became a senator-for-life and was granted immunity from prosecution.

But two years later, after years of evading justice, it finally caught up to him. He was stripped of his immunity from prosecution by the Supreme Court and declared fit to stand trial for his crimes. But he will die before his trial was over, on Dec. 10, 2006, one week after he suffered a heart attack, at the age of ninety-one.

After a reign of commendable economic feats and several human rights abuses, Pinochet died surrounded by family members. He expressed no remorse towards his victims, not even on his deathbed. And for all of his devotion to the Chilean military, he was refused a military funeral.

“Despite his legacy,” Charles Dance narrated, “the late dictator still has a small but passionate group of right-wing supporters. They see him as a hero who saved the country from communism. Many others would passionately disagree.”

Saddam Hussein and Augusto Pinochet had a number of things in common: the United States had a stake in both of their cases (for different reasons), their tenure overlapped, they both died in the same month of the same year (Dec. 2006. Augusto died exactly twenty days before Saddam Hussein was executed), and most importantly they shared a kindred soul, that of a tyrant. But the stories on Hindsight aren't always about figures like Saddam and Augusto, they are a solid mix of famous and infamous people in human history.

Apart from the nights I've spent listening to the grim stories of memorable figures like Idi Amin: The Butcher of Uganda and Muammar Gadaffi: The Philosopher Tyrant, I've also spent numerous listening to others like the incredible and sorrowful story of Dalida: Darkness in the Spotlight, the beauty of her tongue as she sang in eleven languages and warmed the hearts of millions worldwide, the abrupt finality of multiple suicides by her partners and friend that plagued her existence, and her final words left in a note that read “La vie m'est insupportable… Pardonnez-moi." (“Life is unbearable for me… Forgive me.")

I've spent beautiful nights with Umm Kulthum: Star of the East and the incomparable, daring, and undeniable consciousness that was her voice, the discreetness with which she lived her personal life, and the troubles she endured in the final years before her demise.

I've listened to Rumi: The Journey in a field outside the ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing (read: The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi), where I was shielded by his words, and guided by his religion.

And there were puzzling nights when I lay awake and pondered on the true identity of Lawrence of Arabia — was he a liberator, spy, or traitor?

It is no wonder Hindsight became the touchstone for my knowledge of time past. But it never ends with Hindsight. In fact, the lifelong fascination to learn about history only starts there. So, every night, when I prepare for bed, I think about the next memorable figure in history that I will learn about. I ask questions like: will they be famous or infamous? What will be their nationality? And most importantly what will I know to remember them for? Some nights I make a mental roll of the dice. Heads, famous; tails, infamous. I hope for the best and expect the worse.

Last month, on Oct. 25, 2022, Hindsight visited Nigeria. Before then, I thought about the possibilities of that happening. In my not-so-vast knowledge of the history of Nigeria, I listed the names of some famous people I had one way or the other come across, that Hindsight could resurrect. Dele Giwa, Chinua Achebe, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, John Pepper Clark, Fela Kuti, etc. When I catch myself thinking about the infamous people, I immediately feel unpleasant and uneasy. There is no shortage of these kinds of people and if Hindsight ever tries to make an episode about any one of them, the problem wouldn't be the dataset, it would be the selection.

Again, last month, on Oct. 25, 2022, Hindsight visited Nigeria. This time the episode was titled Sani Abacha: Nigeria’s Most Corrupt Ruler. With my eyes closed and my lips pouted, I immediately felt a sense of mourning for what might have been, for who, amongst the famous Nigerians it might have been. I knew it was going to be a different night as I braced for impact because that episode was going to tell me about my history. But I felt no despair. If for nothing else, this episode will serve as a cautionary tale for years to come. Then as I have done for many nights listening to Hindsight before the night of Oct. 25, I hit the play button on Apple Podcasts. The show began. Forty-six minutes later, it ended.

Sani Abacha’s story, in summary, is a necessary part of, and a complete manifestation of the complicated history of Nigeria. It is a history that stretches back to the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, “when European states first carved up Africa for their own interests, with little regard for ethnic groups and cultures when the lines were drawn.”

As Chinua Achebe writes in his book There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra:

That controversial gathering [the Berlin Conference] of the world’s leading European powers precipitated what we now call the Scramble for Africa, which created new boundaries that did violence to Africa’s ancient societies and resulted in tension-prone modern states. It took place without African consultation or representation, to say the least.

Great Britain was handed the area of West Africa that would later become Nigeria, like a piece of chocolate cake at a birthday party. It was one of the most populous regions on the African continent, with over 250 ethnic groups and distinct languages.

The northern part of the country was the seat of several ancient kingdoms, such as the Kanem-Bornu—which Shehu Usman dan Fodio and his jihadists absorbed into the Muslim Fulani Empire. The Middle Belt of Nigeria was the locus of the glorious Nok Kingdom and its world-renowned terra-cotta sculptures. The southern protectorate was home to some of the region’s most sophisticated civilizations. In the west, the Oyo and Ife kingdoms once strode majestically, and in the midwest, the incomparable Benin Kingdom elevated artistic distinction to a new level. Across the Niger River in the East, the Calabar and the Nri kingdoms flourished.

If the Berlin Conference sealed her [Nigeria’s] fate, then the amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates inextricably complicated Nigeria’s destiny. Animists, Muslims, and Christians alike were held together by a delicate, some say artificial, lattice.

This delicate lattice would upend Nigeria for many years to come and many will exploit the resulting state of anarchy, including Sani Abacha, whose involvement, was at its best murky, laden with insubordination, reeked of ruthlessness, and more often than not, was sewered with ignorance and denial.

But among everyone else who was involved in the dark age of post-independence Nigeria, Abacha seemed to me, to be just another bad actor who had simply discovered a way to achieve notoriety. This notoriety is stained by the fact that he was involved in all the military coups in Nigeria (five, actually) during his military career as well as the Nigerian Civil War.

On Sept. 20, 1960, Abacha turned 17. In less than two weeks, on Oct. 1, 1960, Nigeria gained its independence from Britain. Nigeria’s independence became Abacha’s liberation. He was filled with joy and excitement at the prospect that Nigeria could be one of the greatest nations. He dared to dream, to be a part of something bigger than himself. It was perhaps the inception of a well-decorated military career, that then led to the ultimate thuggery and kleptocracy.

Immediately after graduating high school, Abacha joined the Nigerian military training college. Twenty-seven years later, without skipping a single rank, he became the first General in the Nigerian army — the highest rank achievable by serving officers.

Abacha, like many Nigerians, watched from the sidelines as Nigeria plunged into the post-independence unrest fueled by the looting of public funds, nepotism, massive vote rigging, tribal intolerance, and internal strife. To supplement his prior belief that the sword was mightier than the pen, he came to a circumstantial realization, that the military was the best for Nigeria, and that, perhaps, he was the captain to sail that ship. But he’d bide his time by getting involved in every other coup before that of Nov. 17, 1993. The one where he seized power for himself. It was his turn.

Sani Abacha’s reign was marked with bittersweet memories, and not necessarily in equal measure. There were several applaudable national economic achievements, documented human rights abuses, and not to put too fine a point on it, various political and extrajudicial assassinations.

On Nov. 10, 1995, despite various international appeals for clemency, the Ogoni Nine — Ken Saro-Wiwa, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine — who had openly opposed and protested the operating practices of the Royal Dutch Shell oil corporation (popularly known as Shell), and its environmental exploitation and implications, were executed. Then, Time Magazine named Abacha “Thug of the Year.”

Three years later, in a twist of irony, Abacha deployed Nigerian military forces to Sierra Leone in a bid to help overthrow the military regime and reinstate the democratically elected government. It was successful. What followed was perhaps the biggest disservice Abacha did to himself. You see, Abacha was inscrutable, brusque, and didn't talk much — he believed in action. But as soon as he had the idea to milk the Sierra Leone accomplishment and sold the promise of a return to democracy to Nigerians, Nigeria was his oyster. Those who knew him knew very well that his proclamation was only a façade. He censored and controlled the press, banned every political activity, fired a large number of military personnel, and as a General with a crystal knowledge of the coup of yesteryears, and how he got into power, he assembled a personal security force of some three thousand men. Democracy was fine elsewhere but never in Nigeria. Never.

But three thousand men were not enough to stop the sudden tragedy that rocked the Abacha household on Jun. 8, 1998. Abacha died in the Aso Rock Presidential Villa in Abuja, of a speculative illness, depending on who you ask. He was fifty-four, the same age as Ken Saro-Wiwa when he was executed in 1995.

Even years after his death, the reparations of the billions of dollars Abacha and his entourage siphoned from Nigeria, are still being paid back to Nigeria. It is also known as the Abacha Loot.

Today, it is interesting enough to see how the story of Sani Abacha and his reign of terror, has dissolved into the echoes of history in the minds of many Nigerians who fail to learn from that cautionary tale.

It is also amazing to hear the stories of memorable figures in human history, exciting to make more research about them, and fulfilling, even satisfying to know that some will choose to stay with me as a good memory, and some, a touchstone for a time I wish will never repeat itself.

The resolution of each Hindsight episode leaves one with some questions to answer, sadness to reflect on, happiness to lighten the barebones dark of the night, or memories that turn into sweet dreams or perhaps nightmares. In the end, Charles Dance will give closing credits to the crew responsible for bringing the episode to life. Sometimes it runs for seconds but most times a bit above a minute. Before the audio goes mute, I drift off gently into that good night.

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