Alemayehu G. Mariam
Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire arrested! Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in intensive care! Moamar Gadhafi of Libya under siege! Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan, a fugitive from justice. Ben Ali of Tunisia out of Africa! Meles Zenawi, sleepless in Ethiopia.
These are heady days on the African continent. These are days of joy. Africa’s thugdoms are crumbling like clumps of dirt underfoot. These are days of grief and tribulation. After one-half century of independence, Africa continues to sink deeper into a quagmire of dictatorship, corruption and extreme violence.
It was a crying shame to see the video footages of Laurent Gbagbo, the leader of one of Africa’s economic powerhouses, being collared, manhandled and dragged away with his wife like a common criminal thug. The last such shocking video came out of Africa in 1990 showing the gruesome torture and execution of Samuel Doe, the president of Liberia. (Doe had himself staged a televised torture and execution of his predecessor William Tolbert.)
Gbagbo’s arrest footage played straight into the stereotypical cartoonish image of the defiantly erratic African dictator often crudely portrayed in the media. Gbagbo looked pathetic as his captors surrounded him and barked out orders. He looked so helpless, defenseless, friendless and hopeless. His forlorn eyes told the whole story. The man who had thumbed his nose at the world for the past 5 months while his country burned was visibly hyperventilating and drenched in sweat. He could hardly put on his shirt. It was a totally humiliating experience for Gbagbo. It was devastating, depressing and dispiriting to any African who values self-dignity.
Gbagbo was not a run-of-the-mill African dictator. He did not bulldoze or shoot his way to power. For decades, he used the democratic process to struggle for change in his country. Unlike other African dictators who graduated with high honors from the university of intrigue, corruption, human rights violation, double-dealing, deception and skullduggery, Gbagbo graduated with a doctorate from the University of Paris at the Sorbonne, one of the greatest higher learning institutions in Europe. He was a learned and energetic professor and researcher at the University of Abidjan who used his knowledge to become the leading voice of resistance and dissent against dictatorship in his country. He was a union activist who organized teachers’ strikes and ardently worked to establish multiparty democracy. He was a lawmaker in the Ivorian National Assembly. He founded the Ivorian Popular Front, a center-left socialist party. He was a bold dissident who suffered imprisonment on various occasions for his political views and activities. He spent the 1980s in exile in France.
By all measures, Gbagbo was among the best and brightest of Africa’s democratically-leaning leaders. But as he completed his first term of office, he was afflicted by “cling-to-power-at-any-cost syndrome”, a political disease more commonly known as “I want to be president-for-life (PFL)” syndrome. Every African civilian or military leader since Kwame Nkrumah in the early 1960s has suffered from PFL. Gbagbo sacrificed the lives of thousands of his compatriots so that he could become president-for-life.
In the end, none of it mattered. Gbagbo proved to be no different or better than any of the other benighted and villainous African dictators who cling to power by killing, jailing, torturing and stealing from their citizens. He may now end up serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity.
The Ivorian president-turned-power-fiend could have had a dignified exit from power. He could have left office with the respect and appreciation of his people, and honored by the international community as an elder African statesman. He could have found different ways of remaining active in Ivorian politics. Many wanted to facilitate a dignified exit for him. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said, “I gave him [Gbagbo] an offer which had been given by the United States that he had an option to come into exile in the United States and that he would be allowed to be a lecturer at the University of Boston.” He could have cut a deal for a”golden exile” right after the November elections and lived out his life without fear of prosecution. He had been offered asylum in Angola, South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria and the U.S., but he turned down all of them. Like many of his predecessors, Gbagbo chose the path of self-humiliation and ignominy.
Gbagbo’s End Game
Gbagbo’s end game is to face justice for his crimes in an Ivorian court, a special court for Cote d’Ivoire or before the International Criminal Court (ICC). There is substantial evidence to show that as a direct result of Gbagbo’s refusal to concede the presidential election in November 2010, thousands of people lost their lives in officially sanctioned extra-judicial killings. In excess of one million Ivorians have been forced to leave the country to avoid the violence. Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, took the extraordinary step of notifying Gbagbo and his henchmen that they will be held personally responsible and accountable for human rights violations in connection with the discovery of two mass graves. But there is also substantial evidence of extra-judicial or arbitrary executions, sexual violence, enforced or involuntary disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture against Gbagbo and his regime dating back several years.
Allasane Ouattara, the new president, says Gbagbo will be brought to justice and a truth and reconciliation-style process instituted to address the causes and effects of the decade-long political crises in the country. ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said he would like ECOWAS to request an ICC investigation into the massive human rights violations in Cote d’Ivoire, a preliminary step to Gbagbo’s prosecution. It is unlikely that any African organization will cooperate in such an investigation. In July 2009, the African Union refused to cooperate in the prosecution of al-Bashir of the Sudan: “The AU member states shall not co-operate… relating to immunities for the arrest and surrender of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to the ICC.”
There is no question Gbagbo must be put on trial. If there are concerns about his prosecution in Cote d’Ivoire, his trial could be moved to The Hague as was done for former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Gbagbo’s trial will likely involve a protracted legal process. (Taylor’s trial concluded a few weeks ago after three and one-half years of litigation in the ICC, and a verdict is expected in the foreseeable future.)
Gbagbo is entitled to full due process and given ample opportunity to vigorously contest every allegation brought against him. His right to a fair trial must be observed meticulously. Prosecution must not be limited to Gbagbo and members of his regime. All suspects, including Ouattra’s supporters allegedly involved in human rights violations, must be investigated and brought to justice. There is compelling evidence that forces loyal to Ouattara have been involved in gross human rights violations, including extra-judicial killings, rapes and burning of villages.
Lessons of a Gbagbo Prosecution
Most African dictators will pretend a Gbagbo prosecution will have no effect on them. They will convince themselves and try to convince others that what happened to Gbagbo could not happen to them because they are smarter, shrewder, cleverer and more iron-fisted than anybody else. They will laugh until their belly aches at anyone who suggests that they too will one day stand dazed and with forlorn eyes before the bars of justice and held accountable for their crimes against humanity. Once upon a time, Mubarak, Bashir, Gbagbo, Ben Ali and Gadhafi also laughed at the very suggestion of being held accountable in a court of law. Are they laughing now?
We must all say no to dictatorship and human rights violations anywhere in Africa, in the world. On the question of human rights, we must take sides. When thousands are massacred and dumped in mass graves in Cote d’Ivoire, we cannot turn a blind eye. When we have proof that thousands of innocent demonstrators have been killed, wounded and imprisoned in Ethiopia, we must never cease to demand justice.
Human rights abusers learn from each other. When one dictator gets away with crimes against humanity, the others get emboldened to commit atrocities on humanity. If the international community had taken vigorous action in Ethiopia and brought to justice those who massacred hundreds of innocent demonstrators following the 2005 elections, the bloodbath and carnage in Cote d’Ivoire might have been avoided altogether.
Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” It could be equally said that Africa has been made a dangerous place to live not because of the evil dictators alone, but more importantly because not enough good African people (and friends of Africa) are willing to stand up, speak out and do something about gross human rights violations on the continent. It has been said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Laurent Gbagbo is now wholly within the radius of that arc. The other African dictators need only contemplate a paraphrased question from a popular song: “Bad boys, bad boys, what you gonna do when the ICC comes for you?” GAME OVER!
Alemayehu G. Mariam
The Shell Game of African Democracy
If the Ivory Coast, one of the most prosperous African countries, can be considered a template for political change on the continent, democracy can replace dictatorship only by means of a civil war. For the past 5 months, Laurent Gbagbo, the loser of the November 2010 Ivory Coast presidential race has been holed up in his palace defiantly clinging to power. He claims to have won the election by order of his handpicked “Constitutional Council”, even though the Ivorian Electoral Commission declared his challenger Alassane Ouattara the winner.
Underlying Gbagbo’s electoral shenanigans to cling to power at any cost is a lingering and recurrent problem in African politics: Rigged, stolen and shell-gamed elections. African dictators set up elections just like the streetwise scammer sets up a shell game. African dictators know they will “win” the elections they set up by hook or crook. But they go through elaborate ceremonies to make the phony elections look real. They set up shills and call them “opposition parties”. They jail the real opposition leaders and intimidate their supporters. They trot out their handpicked “elections commissions” and put them on public display as independent observers to bless and legitimize the rigged elections. To please and hoodwink their Western donor benefactors, they being in international elections observers, adopt “election codes of conduct” and stage make-believe public debates. The outcome never changes: The African con artist dictators always win!
Well, maybe not always. On the rarest occasions, by some fluke an incumbent African dictator is defeated by a challenger despite massive election rigging and fraud. Even more incredibly, the whole world sides with the challenger winner. Then all hell breaks loose as it is happening today in the Ivory Coast. Gbagbo lost despite ballot-stuffing, ballot-shredding, ballot-stealing, voter intimidation and voting fraud.
For all African dictators, elections are an intolerable nuisance on their permanent clutch on power. They play the elections game because the international donors and multilateral banks make it a precondition for handouts and loans. Truth be told, neither the dictators nor the donors/banks are interested in genuine democratic elections as evidenced in many Wikileaks cablegrams. They want an election show to justify their immoral support for the criminal thugs. The dictators, donors and multilateral banks agree on one unitary principle so plainly and honestly articulated by former French President Jacques Chirac: “Africa is not ready for democracy” (a government of the people, by the people for the people). That is why so many African countries wallow in thugtatorships (a government of thieves, by thieves for thieves).
Democracy by Civil War
The manifest implications of this electoral shell game for the people of Africa are frigtening. There can be no peaceful transfer of power through a democratic election. If a challenger wins an election against an incumbent dictator fair and square, the challenger must be prepared to use force to remove the incumbent. Strange as it may sound, it may even be necessary to fight a full blown civil war to replace African dictatorships with African democracy. That seems to be the seminal lesson of the Ivory Coast which finds itself in a creeping civil war because Gbagbo has made peaceful transition impossible.
Over the past week, Ouattara’s “Republican Forces” have swept southwards from their bases in the north and seized the capital Yamoussoukro and the major port of San Pedro. They have now encircling the commercial capital Abidjan. Gbagbo’s army and civilian supporters have been fighting it out in the streets of Abidjan for months. Gbagbo has recruited an army of unemployed and illiterate youths in Abidjan to “defend the country, which is under attack from foreigners”, namely Ivorians from the north.
The ordinary people of the Ivory Coast are paying the price for a democracy betrayed. The number of innocent civilians killed increases by the dozens each day. The International Committee of the Red Cross recently reported the massacre of over 1,000 people in the western town of Duekoue. The perpetrators are alleged to be retreating Gbagbo soldiers who shot or hacked their victims to death with machetes. Since the elections in December 2010, over a million Ivorians have been internally displaced and over one hundred thousand have fled to Liberia. The great commercial city of Abidjan with over four million people is said to be a virtual ghost town. Street thugs are pillaging the city as Gbagbo blames the U.N. and the West for the bloodshed and civil war in the country.
Playing the Shell Game of African Democracy
Africa’s incumbent dictators will always win the elections they manufacture. They will win by hook or crook, and by incredibly absurd percentages. Meles Zenawi, the capricious dictator in Ethiopia, declared that his party won the May 2010 parliamentary election by 99.6. Such a claim may sound laughable and absurd to the reasonable mind, but it has a Gobellian logic to it. The Nazi propaganda minister said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Goebbels’ boss said, “The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed.” To claim 100 percent or 99.6 percent of the people voted for one party is absurd, but repeated many times, the sheer audacity of such a bold-faced lie renders the listener speechless, dumbfounded and numb. Similarly, Gbagbo says he won the presidential election despite unannimous international opinion to the contrary. Elections are window-dressing exercises for thugtatorships.
When African dictators lose by some strange fluke, they will demonize a segment of their citizens and embark on a campaign to denigrate their critics and opponents just to cling to power. History Professor Gbagbo declared Ivorians from the northern part of that country “foreigners”, including Ouattara, and rejected the outcome of the election as invalid. Gbagbo has also targeted the large population of migrant workers in the country with xenophobic and hateful rhetoric. When the European Election Observer Mission declared that the May 2010 election in Ethiopia “fell below international standards”, Zenawi attacked the Mission with a torrent of insult straight from the gutter. He described the EU report as a “pack of lies and innuendoes” and “garbage”. He dismissively added that the EU report was “just the view of some Western neo-liberals who are unhappy about the strength of the ruling party.”
African dictators will exploit ethnic, religious and regional divisions to cling to power. Gbagbo has been promoting a nasty ideology called “Ivoirité” to exclude and marginalize northern Muslims from national political office. The ideology is based on the notion that there are “real” Ivorians (‘indigenous Ivorians’) and foreigners who pretend to be Ivorians by immigration or ancestry (false Ivorians). By creating such insidious classifications, Ivorians from the north have been denied basic citizenship rights.
Africa’s dictators have a love-hate relationship with the West. They are quick to blame the West for their political problems. Yet, they are always standing at the gate begging for handouts. It is a case of the dog that bites the hand that feeds it. Gbagbo blames France, the U.N. and the U.S. for his country’s civil war. Zenawi blames the EU “neoliberals” for his bogus election victory. Mugabe blames Britain and the U.S. for his country’s political and economic woes.
In all of the political turmoil and election-related violence, African organizations have failed to take any meaningful action. Prof. George Ayittey, the internationally renowned Ghanaian economist and “one of the top 100 public intellectuals” who is “shaping the tenor of our time” said that the African Union is a “useless continental organization” that “can’t even define ‘democracy’”. Today, the AU stands on the sidelines twiddling its thumbs as thousands of Ivorians are slaughtered and Gbagbo steals the election in broad daylight. The other equally comatose organization is ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States). For months it has been threatening to remove Gbagbo by force if a peaceful solution could not be found. The Ivory Coast is in a virtual state of civil war and the AU and ECOWAS keep on talking with little action.
The U.S. says the AU and ECOWAS will find solutions to the stalemate in the Ivory Coast. David Wharton, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy in the Bureau of African Affairs, said “what matters is not US view, but the African view”.Wharton was merely towing the party line. President Obama said, “the ideal is African solutions to African problems” and “what US thinks is really less important than what the neighborhood feels”. Recently, the President said “It is time for former President Gbagbo to heed the will of his people, and to complete a peaceful transition of power to President Ouattara. The eyes of the world are on Cote d’Ivoire.” Should we expect Gbagbo to un-cling from power terrified by the Evil Eye of the world?!?
The Wrath of Gbagbo on the Ivory Coast
African dictators think themselves to be African gods the longer they cling to power. They demand to be worshipped and adored as living legends. For the poor and illiterate Africans, they do become the gods of fire, war, chaos, terror, anger and revenge. They become life-givers and life-takers. When they lose power — lose elections they have rigged to win — they visit their wrath upon their citizens. Today we witness the Wrath of Gbagbo on the Ivory Coast. If Gbagbo cannot have Cote d’Ivoire, no one can have Cote d’Ivoire. Apre moi, le deluge!