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
Creeping Youthbellion and Youthvolution in Africa and the Middle East
“When the sun rises, it rises for everyone,” goes the old saying. The sun that rose over tyranny in North Africa will not set at the edge of the Sahel; it will shine southward on the African savannah and rainforest. The wind of change blowing across the Middle East will soon cut a wide swath clear to the Atlantic Coast of West Africa from the Red Sea. The sun that lifted the darkness that had enveloped Tunisia, Egypt and Libya for decades can now be seen rising just over the Ethiopian horizon. The sun rises to greet a new generation of Ethiopians.
Today we are witnessing a second African independence, an independence from thugtatorship no less dramatic or volcanic than the upheavals of oppressed peoples that overthrew the yoke of colonialism one-half century ago. In 1960, British PM Harold McMillan warned his fraternity of European imperial powers: “The wind of change is blowing through this [African] continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.”
The wind of change that has kicked up a sandstorm of youth rebellion and revolt in North Africa has laid bare the ghastly facts of oppression and youth despair to global consciousness. Arab and African youths are crying out for freedom, democracy, human rights and equal economic opportunity. The vast majority of the uneducated, under-educated and mis-educated African youths have no hope for the future. Legions of Arab youths with college degrees, advanced professional and technical training waste away the best years of their lives because they have few economic opportunities. They too see a void in their future. African and Arab youths have had enough, and they are rising up like the sun to liberate themselves and their societies from the clutches of thugs. The outcome of the youth uprisings is foreordained. As Sam Cooke, the great pioneer of soul music sang, “It’s been a long, a long time coming/ But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will…”
But there are some who cynically argue that the type of volcanic popular uprisings sweeping North Africa cannot happen in Ethiopia. They offer many reasons. They say the thugtators in Ethiopia have used every means at their disposal to keep the people benighted, divided and antagonized. They point to the primitive state of information technology in Ethiopia as proof of a deliberate official strategy to prevent Ethiopian youth from accessing the Internet freely to learn new ideas and create cyber civic societies. (Ethiopia has the second lowest (after Sierra Leone) internet penetration rate in Africa.) They say Zenawi has bought off the best and the brightest of Ethiopia’s youth with cash, jobs, special educational opportunities and privileges just to keep them off the streets and happy as a clam. (It seems Ethiopia’s youth are a pressurized powder keg.) They say Ethiopia’s young people (who comprise the majority of the population) have no frame of historical reference and that Zenawi has brainwashed them into believing that he is their demi-god and savior. (It is possible to fool some of the youths all of the time, but it is impossible to fool all of the youths all of the time.) They say Zenawi’s vast security network of informants, spies and thugs will suppress any youth or other uprising before it could gather momentum. They say Zenawi has permeated the society with so much fear and loathing that it is nearly impossible for individuals or groups to come together, build consensus and articulate a unified demand for change. They say Zenawi has created so much ethnic antagonism in the society that he can cling to power indefinitely by playing his divide-and-rule game and raising the specter of genocide and civil war. Regardless of what anyone says, Zenawi has made it crystal clear what he will do to cling to power. He will “crush with full force” anyone who opposes him electorally or otherwise.
The Survival Principle of Thugtatorships
African thugtators will do anything to cling to power. Hosni Mubarak used a state of emergency decree to cling to power for three decades. When he was deposed from his Pharaonic throne, there were 30,000 political prisoners rotting in his dungeons. Ben Ali in Tunisia did as he pleased for nearly a quarter of a century. Gadhafi’s actions in Libya today offer a hard object lesson on what thugtators will do to cling to power. He continues to use helicopter gunships and MiG fighter planes to bomb and strafe civilians. He is using his private army of thugs and mercenaries to commit unspeakable violence on Libyan citizens. He has offered to buy off Libyans for $400 per household and pledged a 150 percent increase in government workers’ wages if they stop the uprising. They told him “to immerse it in water and drink it” (or “to stuff it…” in the English vernacular.) Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, has threatened to dismember Libya and plunge it into a civil war and “fight to the last minute, until the last bullet, until the last drop of my blood.” Gadhafi is doing everything in his power to cling to power. The only unanswered question is whether he will resort to the “chemical option”. On March 16, 1988, toward the end of the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam Hussien used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja killing thousands. Will Gadhafi use chemical weapons against Libyans in March 2011 as his regime comes to its long overdue end? Whether Zenawi will follow Gadhafi’s scorched earth policy to cling to power remains to be seen, but careful analysis of his actions, public statements, interviews, speeches, writings, ideological perspective and the irrepressible and self-consuming hatred he has publicly displayed against those who have opposed him over the past 20 years suggests that he will likely follow the tragic wisdom of the old aphorism, “Apre moi, le deluge” (After me, the flood).
But thugtators, trapped in their bubbles and echo chambers, often overestimate their prowess and abilities. “Brotherly Leader” Gadhafi thought he was so powerful and the Libyan people so cowardly that he did not expect in his wildest imagination they would dare rise up and challenge him. He was proven wrong when Libyans broke the chains of crippling fear Gadhafi had put on them for 42 years. Gadhafi thought he could prevent Libyan youths from communicating and coordinating with each other by shutting down social media such as Facebook. Libya’s young revolutionaries proved to be more creative; they used Muslim dating websites to coordinate their activities. Now Gadhafi has completely shut down Internet service in the country believing he can control and distort the flow of information coming out of Libya. Gadhafi’s murderous thugs and mercenaries have been repelled time and again by a ragtag army of Libyan shopkeepers, waiters, welders, engineers, students and the unemployed. Despite Gadhafi’s talk of tribal war, Libyans have closed ranks to wage war on thugtatorship. After 42 years of ignorant ramblings in the Green Book, Gadhafi and his Jamahiriya (“republic ruled by the masses”) are in their death throes.
The Bouzazi Factor
Mohamed Bouzazi was the young Tunisian who burned himself to protest Ben Ali’s thugtatorship. Bouzazi’s desperate act became the spark that created the critical mass of popular uprising which has caused a chain reaction throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The tipping point for change in any country cannot be predicted with certainty. In Tunisia, Bouzazi was literally the “fissile material” that catalyzed the popular uprising. In Egypt, a number of factors worked together to get rid of Mubarak’s thugtatorship. The young Egyptians who led the revolt were well educated and tech savvy and used their knowledge to organize effectively. The Egyptian military maintained neutrality and opposition elements were able to build consensus on the need to remove Mubarak and his henchmen from power after three decades. In Libya, the people just had enough of a raving lunatic running their lives.
Change is a universal imperative and it will come to Ethiopia as it has for its northern neighbors. The coming change in Ethiopia may not necessarily follow any existing template. It will originate from an unexpected source and spread in unexpected ways. The tipping point in Ethiopia will likely revolve around three factors: 1) the clarity, truthfulness and persuasiveness of the message of change delivered to the people, 2) the unity in the voices of the messengers who deliver the message, and 3) the context in which the message of change is communicated to the people. Simply stated, a convergence of democratic forces and a consensus on a clear message of change is necessary to create a critical mass for change in Ethiopia.
Overcoming the Fear Factor
The one common thread in all of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East is that the people overcame their fears. The thugtators waged decades long campaigns of psychological warfare to instill fear and loathing in the hearts and minds of their peoples. For decades, the people believed the thugtators to be strong and invincible, untouchable and unaccountable. Recent evidence shows that all thugtatorships have feet of clay. The moment the Libyan people unshackled themselves from 42 years of crippling fear — the kind of fear President Roosevelt described as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified, terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance ” — they were able to see Gadhafi for what he truly is — a thug. Ditto for Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. Change came to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya not because the thugtators had changed but because the people had changed. They were no longer afraid! They found out the true meaning of the old saying, “Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.”
The Hubris of Thugtators
Thugtators believe they can cling to power by eliminating their opposition, and particularly those who helped them get into power. They ward off potential challengers by keeping their military weak and appointing their cronies and henchmen to leadership positions. They believe they are loved, respected and admired by their people. Gadhafi said, “All my people love me!” They don’t. They hate him. Gadhafi convinced himself that all Libyans are happy under his rule.” They are not. Libya has a Sovereign Wealth Fund of $70 billion and nearly as much has been frozen by the American, British and Swiss governments. Yet the vast majority of the 6 million Libyans have difficulty making ends meet. Gadhafi has squandered much of the oil money buying arms, financing terrorists, seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction, giving it away to other countries to increase his prestige and paying blood money for acts of terrorism he personally ordered. He paid $3 billion to the survivors of the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in which 270 people died. Zenawi said he won the last election by 99.6 percent because the people love his party. They “consider themselves and the EPRDF as two sides of a coin” and “nothing can ever shake their unwavering support for our organization,” he said in his victory speech last May. He congratulated the people for “giv[ing] us the mandate through your votes” and patronized them for their “high sense of judgment and fairness” in voting for his party.
Regardless of what thugtators say or do, they will always remain weak and anxiety-ridden because they are in it for the money and not to serve the people. State power is the means by which they pick clean the economic bones of their countries. Thugtators are incapable of anticipating or understanding the need for change. Because they lack a vision for the future and the courage to do what needs to be done in the present, they are always swept away in a flash flood of popular uprising as Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gadhafi have found out lately.
Foolishly Riding the Tiger
President Obama needs to realize that it is not enough to talk about being “on the right side of history”. The U.S. must first do the right thing. For the Obama Administration to talk about “regime alteration” instead of regime change in the Middle East and North Africa today is not being on the right side of history. It is just being plain wrong! President John F. Kennedy said that being on the right side of history is being on the side of the “people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery and helping them help themselves.” In his inaugural speech President Kennedy said:
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom– and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required–not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
The lesson of the spreading uprisings for African and Middle Eastern thugtators is a simple one best paraphrased in Gandhi’s immortal words: “There have been thugtators and murderers who have foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger. But in the end, they found themselves inside the tiger’s belly. Think of it, always.”
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