By Osmund Agbo
Just last month, Julie Turkewitz, the Andes bureau chief for The New York Times, covering Colombia’s election predicted that “a large and loud youth electorate hungry to transform one of Latin America’s most unequal societies could propel Gustavo Petro, a former rebel, to the presidency.” Well, on Sunday, June 19, 2022, that prediction came to pass and Gustavo Francisco Petro Urrego, an economist, senator and former guerrilla fighter is now the president-elect of the Republic of Colombia.
This south American nation named after the Italian navigator, Christopher Columbus, was founded when the Spaniards in 1499, first landed in a place called La Guajira, establishing the New Kingdom of Granada with Santa Fe de Bogota as its capital. Like most of South America, the Spaniards came, conquered the indigenous people, and took possession of their lands which then became part of the Spanish empire.
In 1819, however, Independence was granted to the United Provinces of New Granada or as it’s known today, the Republic of Colombia. Colombia used to be part of the larger territory referred to as Viceroyalty of New Granada which comprised the present-day Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, and the north-western part of Brazil. Colombia was the first constitutional government in South America and Simón Bolívar who was known colloquially as El Libertado or Liberator of America, became her first President.
With an estimated population of 50 million, Colombia is the third most populous country in Latin America after Mexico and Brazil. Indigenous American Indian people who were mostly hunter-gatherers inhabited the place around the modern-day Bogota as far back as 12,000BC. European settlers and African slaves as well as migrants from Asia came around the 16th century.
Colombia is known to have the fourth largest number of people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere, following the United States, Brazil, and Haiti. With an estimated population of about 4.6 million, according to a 2018 census, Afro-Colombians make up roughly 9.3 percent of the country’s population. Africans were taken mostly from West Africa to Colombia as slaves to replace the rapidly declining Native American population. They were forced to work for their Spanish masters in gold mines, sugar cane plantations or cattle ranches.
At the turn of the century, enslaved Africans also played key roles in Colombia’s struggle for independence from the Spanish crown. It was historically documented that three out of every five soldiers in Simon Bolivar’s army were reportedly Africans. After the abolition of slavery in 1851, however, the plight of Afro-Colombians was very difficult as they were forced to live in the jungle for self-protection.
In popular culture, Colombia is known for being home to world-famous drug lords that ran highly organized cartels spread across many continents from America to Europe and even Africa. The biggest of them all were Pablo Escobar that controlled the Medellin cartel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, who together with his younger brother Miguel built a global cocaine empire from their hometown of Cali. The criminal exploits of the Medellin and Cali cartels from the late seventies through early nineties were the stuff for legends.
Escobar became the dominant character in the world of organized crime when he founded the Medellin cartel in 1976. His organization was so brazen and vicious, murdering with such barbarism, anyone that stood in their way. The drug operations grew so rapidly such that by the early eighties, he was delivering 70 to 80 tons of daily cocaine shipment to the United States. The Americans pushed for his arrest and extradition, but Escobar struck a deal of no extradition with the then Colombian President, Cesar Gaviria. His concession was to be housed in his own self-built prison he called La Catedral.
In 1992, however, Pablo Escobar escaped and became one of the most wanted men in the world. After a massive manhunt, he was later killed during a shoot-out with Colombia’s special Police task force in 1993. Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela on the other hand was convicted and later extradited to the US where he was serving out a 30-years sentence in a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina. He died this year, on March 22,2022, at the ripe age of 83. Columbian history is replete with exploits of violent street gangs, drug cartels, guerrilla forces like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the M-19 from where Gustavo Petro started out.
Mr. Petro, born April the 19, 1960 in Cordoba, grew up outside Bogotá. As a teenager, he joined the M-19, a leftist urban militia, smaller and less violent compared to the nation’s main guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. They claimed to promote social justice and sought to seize power. In 1985, the M-19 occupied a national judicial building, sparking a battle with the police and the military that left 94 people dead. Though Mr. Petro, did not participate in the takeover, he nevertheless ended up in prison for his involvement with the group. He eventually demobilized and ran for a senate seat, pushing to open conversations about political corruption and emerging as the bullish face of Colombia’s leftist movement.
Like Peter Obi, Mr. Petro’s rise to a large extent has been propelled by a large army of angry youths, hell bent on dismantling the old order that made them slaves in their own country. They are restive and disillusioned by current prospects, but thankfully, more tech savvy and determined than any previous generation to fight and upend the status quo. They are like Nigeria’s EndSARS generation in a country with 10 percent annual inflation, a 20 percent youth unemployment rate and a 40 percent poverty rate.
As Mr. Petro campaigned, he promised to overhaul the country’s capitalist economic model that favoured the oligarchs but remained totally rigged against everyday Colombians. Mr. Petro’s main opponent, the 47-year-old Federico Gutiérrez, considered the candidate of the nation’s conservative establishment, was also a former Mayor of Medellín, the country’s second largest city.
The “favoured to win” flag bearer cast Petro’s candidacy as being too radical and idealistic and believed he neither had the “structure” in place to win the election nor possesses the expertise to lead the country. As the votes started trickling in last Sunday, it was obvious that Mr. Gutierrez and his old brigade had under-estimated the power, resolve and commitment of the Colombian people and were forced to pay dearly for it. Mr. Gutiérrez was backed by the same coalition supporting the incumbent president, Iván Duque.
After many years of being in the trenches as a member of Colombia’s rebel group, the 19th of April Movement (M-19), Mr. Gustavo Petro, the 62-years old economist and Mayor of Bogotá, received the most votes than any candidate had ever received in the nation’s history to clinch the coveted prize. With this victory, Colombia’s newly elected leader would be the first left-leaning president in one of the most politically conservative societies in Latin America. In another beautiful twist, however, Mr. Petro’s running mate and incoming Vice-President is a 40-year-old Afro-Colombian named Francia Marquez.
In the end, Nigeria is not Colombia and Peter Obi is certainly far from being Gustavo Petro’s ideological soulmate. But there is a surging wave of populist movements sweeping across the world and not even the uber-powerful dark forces with their demonic grip on Nigeria can stop it.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]