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!
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
After the Fall from the Wall
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 strongest 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 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 who 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 Illusions and Fortress 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.”