By Alemayehu G. Mariam
The Berlin Conference of 2009
In 1884, the Berlin Conference was convened by the European imperial powers to carve out colonial territories in Africa. It was called the “Scramble for Africa”.
In 2009, another Berlin Conference was convened by a high level group of diplomats (referring to themselves as the “partners”) from the U.S. and several European countries to hammer out an “agreement” on what to do (and not do) in the Horn of Africa.
According to a recently released Wikileaks cablegram, with respect to Ethiopia, the partners “agreed [on] Ethiopia’s key role in the region” and “the need to support and observe its May 2010 elections.” They acknowledged “Meles as a regional leader, pointing out he would represent Africa on climate change in Copenhagen.” They agreed Meles is “intent on retaining power” and that he is “a guy you can do business with”. They expressed doubts about “being associated with a likely imperfect process” that could result from the May 2010 elections (which subsequently produced a 99.6 percent win for Meles’ party), but “they nonetheless agreed on the importance of international involvement in the elections.”
The German and French partners debated “Ethiopia’s economic situation, namely [the] hard currency and the poor investment climate.” The German diplomat suggested that Ethiopia’s economic problems could be traced to “Meles’ poor understanding of economics”. The French diplomat argued that “Meles actually had a good understanding of economics, but was hampered by his ideological beliefs.” In a single sentence, out of the blue, the partners ganged up and whipsawed the entire Ethiopian opposition: “The [Ethiopian] political opposition is weak, disunited, and out of touch with the average Ethiopian, partners agreed.”
For quite some time, foreign journalists have been reporting wholly disparaging and categorically dismissive remarks about Ethiopia’s opposition by anonymous Western diplomats. In February 2010, I wrote a commentary decrying and protesting the cowardly and scandalous statements issued by Western diplomats hiding behind the veil of journalistic anonymity. I complained that the derisive characterizations were not only unfair, inaccurate and self-serving, but also dispiriting, disheartening and demeaning of Ethiopia’s besieged opposition. It is gratifying to finally put faces to the surly anonymous lips.
Is the Ethiopian political opposition “weak and disunited”?
It is true that the Ethiopian “political opposition is weak and disunited”, an issue I have addressed on previous occasions. But Western governments seem to be conveniently oblivious of the reasons for the disarray in the opposition. For two decades, Meles Zenawi and his regime have done everything in their power to keep the opposition divided, defeated, discombobulated and dysfunctional. Zenawi has pursued the opposition relentlessly often comparing them to Rwanda’s interhamwe (meaning “those who stand/work/fight/attack together”) genociders. In 2005, he rounded up almost all of the major opposition political and civic leaders, human rights advocates, journalists and dissidents in the country and jailed them for nearly two years on charges of genocide, among many others. Zenawi’s own Inquiry Commission has documented that hundreds of peaceful opposition demonstrators were massacred in the streets and over thirty thousand suspected opposition members jailed in the aftermath of the May 2005 elections. In 2008, Zenawi jailed Birtukan Midekssa, the first female opposition political party leader in Ethiopian history, on the ridiculous charge of “denying a pardon”. He put her in solitary confinement and categorically and absolutely ruled out any possibility of freedom for her declaring: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” (He let go in October 2010.)
Zenawi has demonized a major opposition group as a “terrorist” organization bent on “creating a rift between the government and the people of Oromiya.” In his pursuit of the opposition, he has “used extreme force trapping the civilian population between the insurgents and the government forces.” He put on trial and sentenced to death various alleged “members” of Ginbot 7 Movement, and contemptuously described the Movement as an organization of “amateur part-time terrorists”. He has intimidated and verbally shredded his former comrade-in-arms who have stood with the opposition and rhetorically clobbered his critics as “muckrakers,” “mud dwellers”, “sooty,” “sleazy,” “pompous egotists” and good-for-nothing “chaff” and “husk.” He even claimed the opposition was “dirtying up the people like themselves.” Opposition parliamentarians are routinely humiliated in public and treated like delinquent children. In parliamentary exchanges, they are mocked for their pronunciation of English words.
When opposition leaders went on the campaign trial in 2010, they were prevented from meeting with voters in their districts as former president Dr. Negasso Gidada and others have documented. Opposition political and civic leaders and dissidents are kept under 24-hour surveillance, and the people they meet are intimidated and harassed. The culture of fear that permeates every aspect of society is reinforced by a structure of repression that is vertically integrated from the very top to the local (kebele) level making peaceful opposition impossible. Unless one is a member of the ruling party, the chances of higher education, employment and other privileges are next to nil. By becoming part of the opposition, the average and not-so-average Ethiopian invites political persecution, economic hardship and social isolation. Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that the Ethiopian opposition is weak and disunited? Is it not ironic that Western donors are unwilling to help the opposition in any way (including giving moral support) yet skulk behind journalistic anonymity to heap dismissive contempt on them while turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to flagrant abuses of human rights and misuse of their aid money to buy votes?
Is the Ethiopian opposition “out of touch with the average Ethiopian”?
The gratuitous backhanded slap on the face of the Ethiopian opposition as “out of touch with the average Ethiopian” has caused disappointment among some political and civic leaders. But the evidence shows that the Western “partners” may actually be right! For instance, Birtukan Midekssa was completely out of touch with any Ethiopian, except her mother and young daughter, for nearly two years. She was spending time in solitary confinement in Kality prison, a/k/a Kality Hilton, feasting on gourmet food and “putting on weight”, according to one highly placed source. Following the May 2005 elections, for almost two years, nearly all of the country’s opposition party leaders, leading journalists, human rights activists and civic society advocates were completely out of touch with any Ethiopian, except their jailors, at the same Kality Hilton. As to opposition party members and dissidents, tens of thousands of them have completely disappeared from the face of the earth over the past decade alone and are out of touch with anyone. Tens of thousands more are held incommunicado as political prisoners in secret jails. In light of this evidence, could it be denied that the Ethiopian opposition is completely out of touch with the average and not-so-average Ethiopian?
Is the ruling regime in touch with the average Ethiopian?
One would have to answer that question in the affirmative. The whole idea of a police state is to make sure that the rulers stay in very close touch with the average citizen. Zenawi’s regime stays in close touch with the average Ethiopian using the services of hundreds of thousands of secret police operatives and informants spying on each individual. Dr. Gidada has documented one of the common ways the regime stays in extremely close touch with the people:
The police and security offices and personnel collect information on each household through other means. One of these methods involves the use of organizations or structures called “shane”, which in Oromo means “the five”. Five households are grouped together under a leader who has the job of collecting information on the five households… The security chief passes the information he collected to his chief in the higher administrative organs in the Qabale, who in turn informs the Woreda police and security office. Each household is required to report on guests and visitors, the reasons for their visits, their length of stay, what they said and did and activities they engaged in. … The OPDO/EPRDF runs mass associations (women, youth and micro-credit groups) and party cells (“fathers”, “mothers” and “youth”). The party cells in the schools, health institutions and religious institutions also serve the same purpose….
The average and not-so-average Ethiopian looking for a government job or applying for a business license needs to be in close touch with the powers that be to get one. The regime is so in touch with the average and not-so-average Ethiopian that they want them to hear only what they have to say. They have jammed the transmissions of the Voice of America, opposition satellite broadcasts and filtered out websites of regime critics.
Are the Western donors “in touch with the average Ethiopian”?
Western donors are very much in touch with the average Ethiopian, that is in the same way as they were in touch with the average Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Bahraini and so on. They were so in touch with the average citizens of these countries that they anticipated and correctly predicted the recent popular uprisings. That was the reason President Obama “applauded” the people for throwing Ben Ali out of Tunisia. The U.S. was so in touch with the realities of the average Egyptian over the past 30 years that President Obama and his foreign policy team froze in stunned silence, flat-footed and twiddling their thumbs and scratching their heads for days before staking out a position on the popular uprising. They could not bring themselves to use the “D” words (dictator, democracy) to describe events in Egypt. Western governments were also very much in touch with Hosni Mubarak floating his ship of state on an ocean of corruption and repression with billions of dollars in military and economic aid. They are very much in touch with Zenawi; after all he is the “guy you can do business with,” a partner. Truth be told, they have done tons of business with him over the past 20 years, no less than $26 billion!
Who is “the average Ethiopian”?
Who is the “average Ethiopian” whose contact is so highly prized and coveted? It seems s/he has an average life expectancy at birth of less than 45 years. S/he lives on less than $USD 1 per day. S/he is engaged in subsistence agriculture eking out a living. S/he survives on a daily intake of 800 calories (starvation level). S/he can neither read nor write. If s/he is sick, she has a 1 chance in 39,772 persons to see a doctor, 1 in 828,000 to see a dentist, 1 in 4,985 chance to see a nurse. She has little or no access to family planning services, reproductive health and emergency obstetric services and suffers from high maternal mortality during childbirth. She is a victim of gender discrimination, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. She has fewer employment and educational opportunities than the “average” man and is not paid equal pay for equal work. S/he is likely to die from malaria and other preventable infectious diseases, severe shortages of clean water and poor sanitation. The “average” Ethiopian youth is undereducated, underemployed and underappreciated with little opportunity for social mobility or economic self-sufficiency. The “average” urban adolescent is unemployed and a drop out from school. S/he is frustrated and in despair of his/her future and is likely to engage in a fatal pattern of risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency and sexual activity which exposes him/her to a risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. The “average” child has a high likelihood of being orphaned and die from malnutrition and is vulnerable to all forms of exploitation, including child labor and sexual. So, who really is in touch with the “average Ethiopian”!?!
Be In Touch With the Youth
Regardless of how the Western donors define the “average Ethiopian”, the fact is that s/he is a young person. An estimated 67 percent of the population is under the age of 30, of which 43 percent is below the age of 15. Two of history’s evil men understood the importance of staying in touch with the youth population. Vladmir Lenin, the founder of the totalitarian Soviet state said, “Give me just one generation of youth, and I’ll transform the whole world.” His counterpart in the Third Reich said, “he alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” Both failed because they wanted to use the youths as cannon fodder for their warped vision of world domination. Africa’s dictators have ignored and neglected the youths and consigned them to a life of poverty and despair. They have tried to put in the service of their dictatorial rule Africa’s best and brightest. They too will fail.
The demographic data on Africa’s youth is frightening. As Africa urbanizes rapidly and its population population continues to grow uncontrollably (expected to increase from 294 million to 742 million between 2000 and 2030), the number of young people trapped in poverty, hungry and angry will multiply by the tens of millions per year. Frustrated, desperate and denied political space, they will become the powder keg that will implode African societies. African dictators and their Western partners continue to delude themselves into believing that the youth will continue to passively accept and tolerate corruption, repression, abuse of power and denial of basic human rights. But a new generation of African youths is rising up declaring: “Enough is Enough!”
Revolutionary Democracy Meets “Facebook” Democracy in Ethiopia
If Tunisia and Egypt are an indication, Zenawi’s vision of revolutionary democracy will in due course collide with the “Facebook” democracy (tech savvy young people creating a functioning civic community using information technology) taking over Africa’s youth. Zenawi wrote:
When Revolutionary Democracy permeates the entire society, individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by Revolutionary Democracy.
This is not democracy (revolutionary or reactionary). In the old days, such “democracy” was called fascism where the national leader (Der Fuhrer) sought to create “organic unity” of the body politic by imposing upon the people uniformity of thought and action through violence, legal compulsion and intense social pressure. It is no longer possible to brainwash, mind control and indoctrinate impressionable young people with meaningless ideology as though they are helpless and fatuous members of a weird religious cult. The days of programming human beings as jackbooted robots marching to the order of “Der Fuhrer” are long gone.
“Facebook” democrats reject any totalitarian notions of “individual thinking becoming part of collective thinking”. They do not need a single mind, a single party, a single operating system to do the thinking for them. Africa’s youths have their own unique outlook and independent voice on their present circumstances and their future. History shows that every regime that has sought to force unanimity of opinion and belief among its citizens has found the unanimity of the graveyard. When free speech, free press and the rule of law permeate society, and human rights and the voices of the people are respected and protected, citizens will experience dignity and self-respect and muster the courage and determination to forge their own destinies.
There are enough young Africans with the idealism, creativity, knowledge, technical ability and genius to transform the old fear-ridden Africa into their own brave new Africa. In this effort, they do not need the guiding hands or the misguided ideas of ideologues from a bygone era. Western partners have the choice of supporting a brave new Africa of young people on the march or they can continue their “partnership” in the crime of democricide with the old “stable” police states careening to the dustbin of history. With the recent departure of two of the most powerful and entrenched police chiefs, and others teetering, the West may not be able to shoehorn the youths of (the Horn of) Africa into silence and submission from boardrooms in Berlin, Washington, London, Rome, Paris…
Power to Africa’s Youths!
The United States Senate has passed a resolution by unanimous vote on Thursday calling on Egypt President Hosni Mubarak to transfer power to a caretaker government. The resolution was authored by Senators John McCain and John Kerry. Read the full text below.
IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES
Mr. KERRY (for himself and Mr. MCCAIN) submitted the following resolution:
Supporting democracy, universal rights, and the peaceful transition to a representative government in Egypt.
Whereas the United States and Egypt have long shared a strong bilateral relationship;
Whereas Egypt plays an important role in global and regional politics as well as in the broader Middle East and North Africa;
Whereas Egypt has been, and continues to be, an intellectual and cultural center of the Arab world;
Whereas on January 25, 2011, demonstrations began across Egypt with thousands of protesters peacefully calling for a new government, free and fair elections, significant constitutional and political reforms, greater economic opportunity, and an end to government corruption;
Whereas on January 28, 2011, the Government of Egypt shut down Internet and mobile phone networks almost entirely and blocked social networking websites;
Whereas on January 29, 2011, President Hosni Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman, former head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, as Vice President and Ahmed Shafik, former Minister for Civil Aviation, as Prime Minister;
Whereas the demonstrations have continued, making this the longest protest in modern Egyptian history, and on February 1, 2011, millions of protesters took to the streets across the country;
Whereas hundreds of Egyptians have been killed and injured since the protests began;
Whereas on February 1, 2011, President Hosni Mubarak announced that he would not run for reelection later this year, but widespread protests against his government continue;
Whereas on February 1, 2011, President Barack Obama called for an orderly transition, stating that it “must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.” He also affirmed that: “The process must include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties. It should lead to elections that are free and fair. And it should result in a government that’s not only grounded in democratic principles, but is also responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”;
Whereas despite President Hosni Mubarak’s pledge in 2005 that Egypt’s controversial emergency law would be used only to fight terrorism and that he planned to abolish the state of emergency and adopt new antiterrorism legislation as an alternative, in May 2010, the Government of Egypt again extended the emergency law, which has been in place continuously since 1981, for another 2 years, giving police broad powers of arrest and allowing indefinite detention without charge;
Whereas the Department of State’s 2009 Human Rights Report notes with respect to Egypt, ”[t]he government’s respect for human rights remained poor, and serious abuses continued in many areas. The government limited citizens’ right to change their government and continued a state of emergency that has been in place almost continuously since 1967.”;
Whereas past elections in Egypt, including the most recent November 2010 parliamentary elections, have seen serious irregularities at polling and counting stations, security force intimidation and coercion of voters, and obstruction of peaceful political rallies and demonstrations;
Whereas any election must be honest and open to all legitimate candidates and conducted without interference from the military or security apparatus and under the oversight of international monitors: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the Senate–
(1) acknowledges the central and historic importance of the United States-Egyptian strategic partnership in advancing the common interests of both countries, including peace and security in the broader Middle East and North Africa;
(2) reaffirms the United States’ commitment to the universal rights of freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of access to information, including the Internet, and expresses strong support for the people of Egypt in their peaceful calls for a representative and responsive democratic government that respects these rights;
(3) condemns any efforts to provoke or instigate violence, and calls upon all parties to refrain from all violent and criminal acts;
(4) supports freedom of the press and strongly condemns the intimidation, targeting or detention of journalists;
(5) urges the Egyptian military to demonstrate maximum professionalism and restraint, and emphasizes the importance of working to peacefully restore calm and order while allowing for free and non-violent freedom of expression;
(6) calls on President Mubarak to immediately begin an orderly and peaceful transition to a democratic political system, including the transfer of power to an inclusive interim caretaker government, in coordination with leaders from Egypt’s opposition, civil society, and military, to enact the necessary reforms to hold free, fair, and internationally credible elections this year;
(7) affirms that a real transition to a legitimate representative democracy in Egypt requires concrete steps to be taken as soon as possible, including lifting the state of emergency, allowing Egyptians to organize independent political parties without interference, enhancing the transparency of governmental institutions, restoring judicial supervision of elections, allowing credible international monitors to observe the preparation and conduct of elections, and amending the laws and Constitution of Egypt as necessary to implement these and other critical reforms;
(8) pledges full support for Egypt’s transition to a representative democracy that is responsive to the needs of the Egyptian people, and calls on all nations to support the people of Egypt as they work to conduct a successful transition to democracy;
(9) expresses deep concern over any organization that espouses an extremist ideology, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and calls upon all political movements and parties in Egypt, including an interim government, to affirm their commitment to non-violence and the rule of law, the equal rights of all individuals, accountable institutions of justice, religious tolerance, peaceful relations with Egypt’s neighbors, and the fundamental principles and practices of democracy, including the regular conduct of free and fair elections;
(10) underscores the vital importance of any Egyptian Government continuing to fulfill its international obligations, including its commitment under the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty signed on March 26, 1979, and the freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal; and
(11) ensures that United States assistance to the Egyptian Government, military, and people will advance the goal of ensuring respect for the universal rights of the Egyptian people and will further the national security interests of the United States in the region.
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.”