By Alemayehu G. Mariam* | 31 January 2011 —
What happens to Africa after the mud walls of dictatorship come tumbling down and the palaces of illusion behind those walls vanish? Will Africa be like Humpty Dumpty who “had a great fall” and could not be put back together by “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men”? What happens to the dictators?
When the people begin to beat their drums and circle the mud walls, Africa’s dictators will pack their bags and fly off like bats out of hell. Some will go to Dictators’ Heaven in Saudi Arabia where they will be received with open arms and kisses on the cheeks (Ben Ali of Tunisia, Idi Amin of Uganda, Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan found sanctuary in Saudi Arabia, as will Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan and soon.) Others will hide out in the backyards of their brother dictators (Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia has been holed up in Zimbabwe for the last 20 years; Hissen Habre of Chad remains a fugitive from justice sheltered in Senegal; Mohammed Siad Barre of Somalia lived out his last days in Nigeria as did Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko in Morocco). The rest will fade away into the sunset to quietly enjoy their stolen millions. But few will meet the fate of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the self-proclaimed Emperor of the Central African Republic (CAR) who found sanctuary in France only to return to CAR, face trial and be convicted of murder; or Charles Taylor of Liberia who found refuge in Nigeria before he was handed over to the International Criminal Court and is now standing trial for crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The fact is that the morning after the fall of Africa’s dictators, the people will be stuck with a ransacked economy, emptied national banks, empty store shelves, torture chambers full of political prisoners and dithering and power-hungry opposition leaders jockeying for position in the middle of political chaos.
Who Could Put Africa Together After the Fall?
Where are the “king’s men and the king’s horses” who will put Africa together after the mud walls come tumbling down? Who are Africa’s Knights in Shining Armor who will ride to the rescue? Unfortunately, there have been few African knights and a lot of armor with one general or self-proclaimed rebel leader replacing another to lord over the people. Africa has been a victim of a recurrent case of old dictator out, new dictator in. In 1991, after the fall of the military dictatorship (Derg) in Ethiopia led by Mengistu Hailemariam, a malignant dictatorship replaced it with Meles Zenawi at the helm. Zenawi and his crew came to power promising democracy and ended up establishing a kakistorcatic kleptocracy (a government of incompetents whose mission is to use the state apparatus to steal from the people and enrich themselves and their cronies). Two decades later, the country’s economy is in shambles with galloping inflation and jails full of businessmen and merchants who are made the fall guys for the country’s economic problems.
Laurent Gbagbo succeeded Ivory Coast’s military dictator Robert Guei in a democratic election in 2000. After losing a democratic election by a 9-point margin to Alassane Ouattara recently, Gbagbo refuses to step down and continues to cling to power despite pleas by his own election commission, the African Union, the U.N., the U.S. and the European Union. In 1997, rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, named himself president the day after Mobutu fled, suspended the constitution, renamed the country to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, moved into Mobutu’s palace and continued Mobutu’s ongoing enterprise of massive human rights abuses and corruption without skipping a beat. A week after Kabila was assassinated by his own body guard in 2001, his 30 year-old son Joseph was anointed president. Lansana Conté replaced dictator Ahmed Sékou Touré in Guinea in 1984, until he was overthrown by another military dictator in December 2008. Omar al-Bashir seized power in the Sudan in 1989, immediately suspended political parties and introduced Sharia law on a national level, a major factor which contributed to the recent breakup of the Sudan. In 1999, he disbanded the parliament, suspended the constitution, declared a state of national emergency and began ruling by presidential decree. Today al-Bashir is a fugitive from justice sought by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes. When Siad Barre’s military dictatorship fell in Somalia in 1991, the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his rebel group took over Mogadishu but were unable to consolidate their power throughout the country, triggering bloody clan wars that have left Somalia as the ultimate completely failed state.
Learning From History: Preparing for Change
It is said that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”; but there is much to be learned from the history of African dictatorships. Africa’s dictators have methodically and systematically wiped out their est opposition by demonizing, jailing, intimidating, torturing and outlawing them. They have neutralized rivals even with their own ranks. Zenawi jailed the entire leadership of the opposition, journalists, civil society and leaders and human rights advocates in one fell swoop in 2005. The dictators have created their own political institutions and doctored their constitutions to allow for change to come only through the auspices of their own parties and allies. Both Ben Ali and Mubarak amended their constitutions so that no opposition leader or party could run for the presidency or other national office and have a chance to win in a fair and free election. Because African dictators live in an echo chamber they are self-delusional. They convince themselves that they have popular support. Mubarak believes he has the full support of the people, and by reshuffling his cabinet and appointing his army buddies to top posts he could continue his 30 year-old dictatorial rule. Zenawi declared that his 99.6 percent victory in the parliamentary election in May 2010 represented a “mandate” from the people to his party in gratitude for his great leadership and the “double digit” economic growth he had brought the country. African dictators are so arrogant that they believe they can save the day by making a few superficial concessions and grandstanding promises of democratization, reorganization and reconciliation. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Mwai Kibaki of Kenya agreed to a make-believe “unity government” to prolong their dictatorships. Without the support of the West, no dictatorship in Africa could survive even a single day. That is why Mubarak, Zenawi, Kibaki, Musevini and rest of them shake in their boots when the West angles their collective boots towards their rear ends. The West will throw them under a steamroller at the first sign of unrest. President Obama was quick to “applaud” the Tunisian people for overthrowing Ben Ali. He warned Mubarak that unless he takes “concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people”, there will be cuts in the billions of dollars of U.S. handouts to Egypt.
On the other hand, many opposition leaders and parties opposing dictatorships in Africa have been disorganized, fractious, confused, haphazard, self-righteous and duplicitous. Regrettably, there are far too many opposition leaders in Africa who are driven by the singular desire to grab power than are interested in bringing about real change. Truth be told, many African opposition leaders have little faith in the courage and resourcefulness of the people; and the people prove them wrong every time. As Egypt’s Mohamed El Baradei recently observed on the Egyptian popular uprising: “It was the young people who took the initiative and set the date [for the uprising] and decided to go. Frankly, I didn’t think the people were ready… [but what the youth have done] will give them the self-confidence they needed.” Once opposition leaders seat themselves in the saddles of power, they become the mirror images of the dictators they fought to remove. In the eyes of the people, many of these leaders have proven to be wolves in sheep’s clothing; they want to grab power to make sure “it is their turn to eat, their turn at the trough”. That is the reason why people in many parts of Africa have little faith in the opposition leaders or their parties. Laurent Gbago, who fought dictator Félix Houphouët-Boigny and years later led his supporters into the streets toppling General Robert Guei is today the reincarnation of Houphouët-Boigny-Guei. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda are no different. Further evidence in support of the assertion that many opposition leaders are driven by a hunger for power is their inability to present to the people concrete and comprehensive proposals to address the structural problems of poverty, unemployment, inflation, corruption, oppression and human rights violation in their countries. In short, many opposition leaders have no plans to clean up the mess the dictatorships always leave behind, and have failed to become beacons of hope to guide their people out of despair. That is what we seem to be witnessing today in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere.
An African Charter Against Dictatorship (Charter 2011)
The history of the human struggle for freedom offers many lessons. One of the great lessons of the past two decades is that political changes that ensure lasting peace and guarantee freedom and human rights do not come as a result of military or palace coups, rebel victories or the efforts of opposition parties and leaders, but through simple acts of civil disobedience, passive resistance and the spontaneous actions of ordinary people and youth in the streets fed up with corruption, poverty, unemployment and human rights abuses. Who could have imagined that the match young Mohamed Bouazizi lit to burn himself protesting dictatorship in Tunisia would now be torching decades-old dictatorships in Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Jordan? Could one reasonably doubt that the winds of change will not carry the embers of freedom from Tunisia and Egypt to other countries in the region?
In the current context of civil disobedience and mass resistance and the absence of organized parties and leaders to lead peaceful popular uprisings in many African dictatorships, it seems that there is a great role to be played by individuals, small groups, civic society and other informal institutions dedicated to the defense and protection of human rights and the rule of law in Africa. Africans must look to civil society institutions and grassroots organizations to spearhead real change and take charge of their destiny. The first step towards that end is for ordinary Africans committed to nonviolent peaceful change to take a stand against dictatorship openly and defiantly. It has been done before successfully a number of times. The struggle of the Czechoslovakian dissidents who signed the Charter 77 petition is one instructive example of how individuals without political partisanship, affiliation or ideology — but committed to human rights and freedom — were able to change history by simply standing up for their beliefs and defying dictatorships.
In November 1989, riot police violently suppressed student demonstrations in Prague, which in turn triggered a massive popular uprising and a general strike against the communist regime. As a result, Czech president Gustav Husak resigned in early December; and by the end of 1989 a non-communist government was in place. Within a few months, the much vaunted communist system in Czechoslovakia was dismantled completely. The “Velvet Revolution”, as it came to be known, had roots in the tireless efforts of a few hundred Czech dissidents committed to the principles of “Charter 77”, a human rights document prepared in the from a petition demanding respect for basic human rights guaranteed to Czech citizens in their Constitution and other international human rights conventions. The Charter demanded the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, a stop to politically-motivated prosecutions, humane treatment of political prisoners and other basic rights. Charter 77 was not an organization nor did it have any formal membership. Those who signed it consisted of “a loose, informal and open association of people of various shades of opinion, faiths and professions united by the will to strive individually and collectively for the respecting of civic and human rights in our own country and throughout the world.” Anyone who agreed with the ideas of the Charter and was willing to propagate and participate in its pursuit could take ownership. When the Charter was finalized in 1977, approximately 300 individuals had the courage to sign it. Many avoided openly endorsing the document or showing support for it fearing retaliation, harassment and persecution by the communist regime. When communism fell in 1989, fewer than two thousand Czechs had signed the Charter. Most importantly, during the turbulent days of the “Velvet Revolution”, it was the members of Charter 77 that played a pivotal and decisive role in the transition of Czechoslovakia from totalitarianism to democracy. Member of Charter 77 ensured not only the dismantlement of communism but also became the bulwarks against the rise of another dictatorship. An African Charter Against Dictatorship is long overdue!
Palace of Illusion and Fortresses of Freedom
When the mud walls of African dictatorships come tumbling down, the palaces of illusion behind those walls will vanish without a trace. If Africans are to have hope of a better future and fulfill their destiny to become one with all free peoples in the world, they will need to build a fortress of freedom impregnable to the slings and arrows of civilians dictators and the savage musketry of military juntas. African dictators should heed these words: “Those who make peaceful change impossible, make a violent revolution inevitable.”
* Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, newamericamedia.org and other sites.