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How Tyrants Endure


WHY do certain dictators survive while others fall? Throughout history, downtrodden citizens have tried to throw off the yoke of their oppressors, but revolutions, like those sweeping through the Arab world, are rare.

Despotic rulers stay in power by rewarding a small group of loyal supporters, often composed of key military officers, senior civil servants and family members or clansmen. A central responsibility of these loyalists is to suppress opposition to the regime. But they only carry out this messy, unpleasant task if they are well rewarded. Autocrats therefore need to ensure a continuing flow of benefits to their cronies.

If the dictator’s backers refuse to suppress mass uprisings or if they defect to a rival, then he is in real trouble. That is why successful autocrats reward their cronies first, and the people last. As long as their cronies are assured of reliable access to lavish benefits, protest will be severely suppressed. Once the masses suspect that crony loyalty is faltering, there is an opportunity for successful revolt. Three types of rulers are especially susceptible to desertion by their backers: new, decrepit and bankrupt leaders.

Newly ensconced dictators do not know where the money is or whose loyalty they can buy cheaply and effectively. Thus, during transitions, revolutionary entrepreneurs can seize the moment to topple a shaky new regime.

Even greater danger lurks for the aging autocrat whose cronies can no longer count on him to deliver the privileges and payments that ensure their support. They know he can’t pay them from beyond the grave. Decrepitude slackens loyalty, raising the prospects that security forces will sit on their hands rather than stop an uprising, giving the masses a genuine chance to revolt. This is what brought about the end of dictatorships in the Philippines, Zaire and Iran.

In addition to rumors of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s and Hosni Mubarak’s health concerns, Tunisia and Egypt suffered serious economic problems that kindled rebellion. Grain and fuel prices were on the rise, unemployment, particularly among the educated, was high and, in Egypt’s case, there had been a substantial decline in American aid (later reinstated by President Obama). Mr. Mubarak’s military backers, beneficiaries of that aid, worried that he was no longer a reliable source of revenue.

As money becomes scarce, leaders can’t pay their cronies, leaving no one to stop the people if they rebel. This is precisely what happened during the Russian and French revolutions and the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe — and why we predicted Mr. Mubarak’s fall in a presentation to investors last May.

Today’s threat to Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria can be seen in much the same light. With a projected 2011 deficit of approximately 7 percent of G.D.P., declining oil revenue and high unemployment among the young, Mr. Assad faces the perfect conditions for revolution. He may be cracking heads today, but we are confident that either he will eventually enact modest reforms or someone will step into his shoes and do so.

Contagion also plays an important part in revolutionary times. As people learn that leaders in nearby states can’t buy loyalty, they sense that they, too, may have an opportunity. But it does not automatically lead to copycat revolutions. In many nations, particularly the oil-rich Gulf States, either there has been no protest or protest has been met with violence. In Bahrain, for example, 60 percent of government revenue comes from the oil and gas sector; its leaders have therefore faced few risks in responding to protests with violent oppression.

This is because resource-rich autocrats have a reliable revenue stream available for rewarding cronies — and repression does not jeopardize this flow of cash. Natural resource wealth explains why the octogenarian Robert Mugabe shows no sign of stepping down in Zimbabwe and the oil-rich Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has given little hint of compromise from the start in Libya. As NATO bombs fall on Tripoli, however, Colonel Qaddafi is discovering that he needs to convince remaining loyalists that he can re-establish control over Libya’s oil riches or they, too, will turn on him. Sadly, if the rebels win, they are also likely to suppress freedom to ensure their control over oil wealth.

Regimes rich in natural resources or flush with foreign aid can readily suppress freedom of speech, a free press and, most important, the right to assemble. By contrast, resource-poor leaders can’t easily restrict popular mobilization without simultaneously making productive work so difficult that they cut off the tax revenues they need to buy loyalty.

Such leaders find themselves between a rock and a hard place and would be wise to liberalize preemptively. This is why we expect countries like Morocco and Syria to reform over the next few years even if their initial response to protest is repression. The same incentive for democratization exists in many countries that lack a natural reservoir of riches like China and Jordan — a bad omen for authoritarian rulers and good news for the world’s oppressed masses.

7 thoughts on “How Tyrants Endure

  1. The EPRDF supporters now believe that their courageous and intelligent leader Meles is being considered as the present day Mengistu. They have been calling him isachew instead of the isu as any other individual. Meles is a child killer and the worst part is that he has turned from the cunning politician we all knew him to be to the bedtime story that his public relations effort has created him as the intelligent leader. That was what made him cry and raged when he was told what he is. As fools, his followers have been thinking he is the LEADER whereas he became the same fool thinking that he is a ENLIGHTENED LEADER. Most fool followers believed it. The sad thing is that Meles believed it so much that he became angry when he was told the truth – that he is a killer.

    Meles became the fool himself that he made others believe. What a shame to think that he is great while he is a killer and dictator.

  2. By BENNO MUCHLER Published: May 20, 2012, NYT
    For an Ethiopia in Transition, Guarded Hope for Freer Journalism
    ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia —

    On a beautiful morning in late March, Alemtsehay Meketie rushed up the hill to the United Nations Conference Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Ms. Meketie, a 32-year-old reporter for the Ethiopian News Agency, was running late for the minister’s opening speech at the 21st annual meeting of the Ethiopian Statistical Association. What was the conference about? Ms. Meketie didn’t know yet. But “jiggeri yellem,” as people here say for “no problem” in Amharic, the official language. “We’ll see when we’re there,” she said, gasping. Changing almost at the speed of its marathon runners, modern Ethiopia is a far cry from what it used to be. The government’s new Growth and Transformation Plan (the subject of the conference Ms. Meketie was hurrying to) proposes to boldly remake Ethiopia into a middle-income country by 2020 and leave behind a painful history of terror, poverty and two famines in the 1970s and ’80s. The plan foresees change in the business sector, agriculture, infrastructure, health and education. It also proposes the development of mass media and changes in the practice of journalism. Some of those are already happening at the Ethiopian News Agency, the most important news agency in the country. The organization, based in a decrepit concrete building in the north of Addis that is guarded by heavily armed police forces and has windows that have not been cleaned for a long time, is planning a 24-7 TV news channel in four languages: Amharic, Arabic, English and French. Broadcast in the entire region, it would make the agency one of the biggest news outlets in East Africa — if the channel wins government approval. “We want to become the most quotable source in the region,” said Teshome Negatu, who is the head of the multimedia and information department at the agency. But whether this will mean more tolerance of the free press in a country notorious for cracking down on critical journalists remains to be seen. The news agency has been state-owned since its start 70 years ago and has never been free of censorship. Few of the pieces it writes or translates (from sources like the BBC) are remotely critical of the government. Even criticizing the new Growth and Transformation Plan, for example, is taboo. Many of the agency’s employees spoke openly of the self-censorship they must practice and of their frustrations. “It’s very difficult sometimes,” one employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired or arrested. “Covering the prime minister involved in a massive case of corruption would be impossible.” Another staff member recounted the recent case of a bush fire that the agency’s local reporter had refused to cover because he was worried it could be perceived as too critical of the government. Yet many of the employees said the situation had improved and was nothing like the experience under the communist Derg regime during the 1980s, when one had to fear for one’s life. “I don’t think that E.N.A. is unable to produce objective, truthful stories,” said Tadesse Zinaye, the agency’s director, who was chosen by the government. “We try to produce stories that can also be published by the private media.” So far, only a few of the agency’s approximately 50 dispatches a day are published through other media; most are on its own home page, which looks static. Following big news agencies like Xinhua and Reuters, the Ethiopian News Agency wants to shift from a pure content provider to an independent media outlet, complete with new computers and a bigger staff. The new, fancy Web site is already finished. Its chief competitors are the state-owned Ethiopian Television and two independent newspapers, The Reporter and Capital, that are among the most popular media in the country. But they too are subject to government censorship. During his 30 years at the agency, Mr. Negatu has witnessed its ups and downs. A high point was the first computer in 2000, a low point the reorganization two years ago that left it without a director until recently. That made it a daily struggle to cover a country almost twice the size of Texas at the national, regional and local levels with a small staff of around 120 reporters and editors. While Mr. Negatu would like to become one of the agency’s first foreign correspondents, Ms. Meketie dreams of working as a news anchor. As a teenager, she read news pieces aloud in her room, and later she studied broadcast journalism at Addis Ababa University. Ms. Meketie now tries to cover women’s issues. Some employees considered the appointment of Mr. Zinaye as a sign of a more understanding government because Mr. Zinaye was a journalist like them. Mr. Zinaye worked for the state-owned radio and used to be the director of Addis Ababa University’s journalism program. The only thing missing for meeting the agency’s television goal is the government’s approval. The project matches well with the government’s desire to make Ethiopia a beacon at the Horn of Africa and across the continent. But does modernizing an old news agency mean a new era for greater press freedom in Ethiopia? “I’m not sure,” one of the agency’s longtime editors said, rolling his eyes.

  3. Let Ethiopia march forward under the leadership of our intelligent and visionary PM while the dogs bark and the donkeys bray thinking they would hinder its prosperity.

    I feel sorry for you guys – You have been pushed away from your palace and ended up in your current and permanent position of barking and braying for your entire life

  4. Let Ethiopia march forward under the leadership of our intelligent and visionary PM while the dogs bark and the donkeys bray thinking they would hinder its prosperity.

    I feel sorry for you guys – You have been pushed away from your palace and ended up in your current and permanent position of barking and braying for your entire life

    wosson replies:

    thanks a lot you pro-TPLF,those losers have nothing to do with a man job,as we know that,when the battle field become hot,they starting to cry & would had said ” ENATE,ENATE,ENATE”.so let them keep dreaming only about past, not the future.

  5. To Help Africa, First Understand It
    By MORT ROSENBLUM | May 21, 2012

    PARIS — On my first trip to Uganda, in 1968 after a year of covering Congolese mayhem, a soldier guarding the Parliament smiled pleasantly as I passed. A gleaming sword rested on an epaulette of his sky blue tunic. “Where’s your machine gun?” I asked, smiling back. “But, sir,” he said, shocked, “that would defeat the purpose of a parliament.” I remembered him in March when 100 million people watched “Kony 2012.” The video described how Joseph Kony brutalized children in his Lord’s Resistance Army. Yet it was comic book simplistic, and comments suggested few outraged viewers could tell Uganda from a U-Haul trailer. Invisible Children released a second video a month later, with context and a plan of action. That reached only a few million, 2 percent of the earlier audience. A worldwide rally on April 20 fell flat. Mostly, momentary activists retained two simple points: Uganda is a dirty word, and Mr. Kony alone press-gangs child soldiers. Uganda, in fact, is not only lushly beautiful but also rich in human spirit. It was thriving and full of fun in the 1960s. I interviewed the foreign minister while dancing next to him in an all-night Kampala club. V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux taught at Makerere University. Rajat Neogy’s magazine, Transition, inspired African writers. Tourists streamed in on the much-missed East African Airways or took an easy drive from Kenya. Even after Idi Amin, the spirit remained. When HIV-AIDS hit Uganda hard in the 1990s, women volunteers showed the wider world how to reverse the pandemic, to demystify it with counseling and community care. In 1969, after plotters tried to kill him, President Milton Obote cracked down. Amin overthrew him. He returned in 1979 with Tanzanian help. After an ugly bush war, Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986. The West cheered him as an enlightened African democrat, overlooking a pillar of his National Resistance Army: child soldiers. Peter Eichstaedt, a reporter, spent years tracking the L.R.A. for his 2009 book, “First Kill Your Family.” “Museveni said Kony had been a tool, but it was true in more ways than one,” he wrote. “If Kony was a tool of Sudan, he certainly had been a tool of Museveni as well.” That is, Mr. Kony gave Mr. Museveni an excuse to suppress dissident northern tribes and collect international aid. This is complex stuff. When war creates orphans, food crops fail, and simple diseases kill en masse, kids find succor where they can. For better or worse, commanding officers assume the role of fathers. The worst, like Mr. Kony, raid villages to steal children from their families. Amid the flurry of comments on Kony, I watched a CNN interview with Ishmael Beah from Sierra Leone, on the other side of Africa. His book, “A Long Way Gone,” made him the world’s best-known former child soldier. The video was phenomenal, he said, because it focused global attention. But, he said, uninformed response from people who knew nothing of the issues made no impact. Such superficial treatment, he added, assaults the dignity of young people who suffer as victims. Mr. Beah concluded: “If you’re not interested in geography and the complexity of the issues, you have no business being a change maker . . . feel good about it today and then tomorrow you forget about it.” To any old Africa hand, that rings true. Mr. Kony, with his shadowy 300-strong army, is only an exclamation point on a long sentence. One-hundred million informed people could do a lot to help resolve African crises. Helping Ugandans recapture their spirit would be a great place start.

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