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.”
Alemayehu G. Mariam
The Invincible Dictators
Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi (The Mahatma or Great Soul) is today revered as a historical figure who fought against colonialism, racism and injustice. But he was also one of the greatest modern revolutionary political thinkers and moral theorists. While Nicolo Machiavelli taught tyrants how to acquire power and keep it through brute force, deceit and divide and rule, Gandhi taught ordinary people simple sure-fire techniques to bring down dictatorships. Gandhi learned from history that dictators, regardless of their geographic origin, cleverness, wealth, fame or brutality, in the end always fall: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it, always.”
Last week, it was Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s turn to fall, and for the Tunisian people to get some respite from their despair. In the dead of night, Ben Ali packed his bags and winged out of the country he had ruled with an iron fist for 23 years to take up residence in Saudi Arabia where he was received with open arms and kisses on the cheeks. (Uganda’s bloodthirsty dictator Idi Amin also found a haven in Saudi Arabia until his death in 2003 at age 80.) Ben Ali’s sudden downfall and departure came as a surprise to many within and outside Tunisia as did the sudden flight of the fear-stricken Mengistu Hailemariam in Ethiopia back in 1991. When push came to shove, Mengistu, the military man with nerves of steel who had bragged that he would be the last man standing when the going got tough, became the first man to blow out of town on a fast plane to Zimbabwe. Such has been the history of African dictators: When the going gets a little tough, the little dictators get going to some place where they can peacefully enjoy the hundreds of millions of dollars they have stolen and stashed away in European and American banks.
The end for Tunisia’s dictator (but not his dictatorship which is still functioning as most of his corrupt minions remain in the saddles of power) came swiftly and surprised his opponents, supporters and even his international bankrollers. President Obama who had never uttered a critical word about Ben Ali was the first to “applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people” in driving out the dictator. He added, “We will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard.” Those memorable images will be imprinted in the minds of all oppressed Africans; and no doubt they will heed the President’s words and drive out the continent’s dictators to pasture one by one.
After nearly a quarter century of dictatorial rule, few expected Ben Ali to be toppled so easily. He seemed to be in charge, in control and invincible. Many expected the 75 year-old Ben Ali to install his wife or son in-law in power and invisibly pull the puppet strings behind the throne. But any such plans were cut short on December 17, 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old college graduate set himself on fire to protest the police confiscation of his unlicensed vegetable cart. Apparently, he was fed up paying “bakseesh” (bribe) to the cops. His death triggered massive public protests led by students, intellectuals, lawyers, trade unionists and other opposition elements. Bouazizi was transformed into a national martyr and the fallen champion of Tunisia’s downtrodden — the unemployed, the urban poor, the rural dispossessed, students, political prisoners and victims of human rights abuses.
Bouazizi’s form of protest by self-immolation is most unusual in these turbulent times when far too many young people have expressed their despair and anger by strapping themselves with explosives and causing the deaths of so many innocent people. Bouazizi, it seems, chose to end his despair and dramatize to the world the political repression, extreme economic hardships and the lack of opportunity for young people in Tunisia by ending his own life in such a tragic manner. He must have believed in his heart that his self-sacrifice could lead to political transformation.
Truth be told, Tunisia is not unique among African countries whose people have undergone prolonged economic hardships and political repression while the leaders and their parasitic flunkies cling to power and live high on the hog stashing millions abroad. In Ethiopia, the people today suffer from stratospheric inflation, soaring prices, extreme poverty, high unemployment (estimated at 70 percent for the youth) and a two-decade old dictatorship that does not give a hoot or allows them a voice in governance (in May 2010, the ruling party “won” 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament). In December 2010, inflation was running at 15 percent (according to “government reports”), but in reality at a much higher rate. The trade imbalance is mindboggling: a whopping $7 billion in imports to $1.2 billion worth of exports in 2009-10. In desperation, the regime recently imposed price caps on basic food stuffs and began a highly publicized official campaign to tar and feather “greedy” merchants and businessmen for causing high prices, the country’s economic woes and sabotaging the so-called growth and transformational plan. Hundreds of merchants and businessmen have been canned and await kangaroo court trials for hoarding, price-gouging and quite possibly for global warming as well. Former World Bank director and recently retired opposition party leader Bulcha Demeksa puts the blame squarely on the ruling regime’s shoulders and says price controls are senseless exercises in futility: “I’m not so angry with the retailers and sellers. I’m angry with the government, because the government counts on its capability to control price. Prices cannot be controlled. It has been tried everywhere in the world and it has failed. Unless you make it a totally totalitarian society it is impossible to control prices.” (When a regime claims electoral victory of 99.6 percent, there is little room to dispute whether it is totalitarian.) Aggravating the economic crises are chronic problems of reliable infrastructure including unstable electricity supply, burdensome and multiple taxation and a generally unfriendly business environment.
Gandhi’s Contemporary Relevance in Resisting Dictatorships
Without firing a single shot, Gandhi was able to successfully lead a movement which liberated India from the clutches of centuries of British colonialism using nonviolence and passive resistance as a weapon. Gandhi believed that it was possible to nonviolently struggle and win against injustice, discrimination and abuse of basic human rights be it in caste-divided India or racially divided South Africa. Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence was based on the ancient Vedic (sacred writings of Hinduism) idea of “Ahimsa” which emphasizes the interconnection of all living things and avoidance of physical violence in human relations and in the relations between humans and other living things, notably animals. For Gandhi, Ahimsa principles also applied to psychological violence that destroys the mind and the spirit. He believed that to effectively deal with evil (be it colonialism, dictatorship, tyranny, hate, etc.) one must seek truth in a spirit of peace, love and understanding. One must undergo a process of self-purification to be rid of all forms of psychological violence including hatred, malice, bad faith, mistrust, revenge and other vices. He taught that one must strive to be open, honest, and fair, and accept suffering without inflicting it on others. Such was the basic idea of Gandhi’s “Satyagraha” or the pursuit of truth.
Dismantling Dictatorships in Africa
Ben Ali left Tunisia in a jiffy not because of a military or palace coup but as a result of a popular uprising that went on unabated for a month. Police officers are the latest to join in the street demonstrations and protests demanding an end to dictatorship and establishment of a genuine democratic government. But Ben Ali’s dictatorship is alive and well-entrenched in power. A few members of his old crew have been arrested or fired from their jobs, but Mohamed Ghannouchi, other ministers and power brokers are still doing what they have been doing for the last 23 years. To placate the public, token members of the opposition have been invited to join a transitional “unity government” pending elections in 60 days under constitutional provisions that favor Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally Party (RCD). Those who led the uprising do not seem to have much voice or representation in the “unity” government. For now it seems that the RCD foxes guarding the hen house are buying time and making plans to finish off the hens. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and the best laid plans of Ben Ali’s lackeys may in the end fail and make way for a genuinely popular government. There are hopeful signs. For instance, informed observers note that there is a measure of solidarity and consensus among major opposition elements on such issues as democratic governance, human rights, release of political prisoners, democratic freedoms and the functioning of civil society groups.
The Tunisian people’s revolution provides practical insights into the prerequisites for dismantling dictatorships in Africa. The first lesson is that when dictatorships end, their end could come with a bang or a whimper, and without warning. Just a few weeks ago no one would have predicted that Ben Ali would be swept into the dust bin of history with such swiftness. Second, there is always the risk of losing the victory won by the people in the streets by a disorganized and dithering opposition prepared to draw out the long knives at the first whiff of power in the air. Third, when tyrants fall, the immediate task is to dismantle the police state they have erected before they have a chance to strike back. Their modus operandi is well known: The dictators will decree a state of emergency, impose curfews and issue shoot-to-kill orders to terrorize the population and crush the people’s hopes and reinforce their sense of despair, powerlessness, isolation, and fear. Obviously, this has not worked in Tunisia. After more than 100 protesters were killed in the streets, more seem to be coming. Fourth, it is manifest that Western support for African dictators is only skin deep. Ben Ali was toasted in the West as the great modernizer and bulwark against religious extremism and all that. The West threw him under the bus and “applauded” the people who overthrew him before his plane touched down in Saudi Arabia. Some friends, the West! Ultimately, the more practical strategy to successfully dismantle dictatorships is to build and strengthen inclusive coalitions and alliances of anti-dictatorship forces who are willing to stand up and demand real change. If such coalitions and alliances could not be built now, the outcome when the dictators fall will be just a changing of the guards: old dictator out, new dictator in.
The Tunisian people’s revolution should be an example for all Africans struggling to breathe under the thumbs and boots of ruthless dictators. It is interesting to note that there was a complete news blackout of the Tunisian people’s revolution in countries like Ethiopia. They do not want Ethiopians to get any funny ideas. On November 11, 2005, Meles Zenawi defending the massacre of hundreds of people in the streets said, “This is not your run-of-the-mill demonstration. This is an Orange revolution [in Ukrane] gone wrong.” Ben Ali said the same thing until he found himself on a fast jet to Jeddah. From India to Poland to the Ukraine to Czechoslovakia and Chile decades-old dictatorships have been overthrown in massive acts of civil disobedience and passive resistance. There is no doubt dictators from Egypt to Zimbabwe are having nightmares from Tunisia’s version of a “velvet’ or “orange” revolution.
The Power of Civil Disobedience and Nonviolent Resistance: Dictators, Quit Africa!
In His “Quit India” speech in August 1942, Gandhi made observations that are worth considering in challenging dictatorships in Africa:
In the democracy which I have envisaged, a democracy established by non-violence, there will be equal freedom for all. Everybody will be his own master. It is to join a struggle for such democracy that I invite you today. Once you realize this you will forget the differences between the Hindus and Muslims, and think of yourselves as Indians only, engaged in the common struggle for independence…
I have noticed that there is hatred towards the British among the people. The people say they are disgusted with their behaviour. The people make no distinction between British imperialism and the British people. To them, the two are one. We must get rid of this feeling. Our quarrel is not with the British people, we fight their imperialism.
For Africans, the quarrel is not and ought not be about ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, religion, language or region, but about the injustices, crimes and gross and widespread human rights violations committed by African dictators. As Gandhi has taught, dictators for a time appear formidable, strong, golden and invincible. But in reality they all have feet of clay. “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will,” said Gandhi. The Tunisian people have showed their African brothers and sisters what indomitable will is all about when they chased old Ben Ali out of town. All Africans now have a successful template to use in ridding themselves of thugs, criminals and hyenas in designer suits and military uniforms holding the mantle of power.
By Matthew Russell Lee
Inner City Press
UNITED NATIONS – Information about the Horn of Africa flowed Wednesday in the half-light outside the UN Security Council, after an uneventful session about Sudan and Guinea-Bissau. Unprompted, the representative of Saudi Arabia denied that his country has shipped arms into Somalia, while Sudan accepted a benign spin of Ethiopian shipments into South Sudan.
Inner City Press began by asking Sudan’s Ambassador, on the record, about reports of Ethiopian arms shipments to Juba and South Sudan, and that the tanks hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia were also headed for South Sudan. He said quickly that the tanks’ destination s being investigated and Ethiopia has provided clarification, ostensibly the weapons are meant for some exhibition in Juba, leaving Sudan’s relations with Ethiopia positive. The connection between this and positions on suspending the International Criminal Court’s proceedings against Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir remain to be reported, on the record.
Earlier in the week, Inner City Press asked Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson Michele Montas for any UN response to reports that Sudan has arrested one of the two current Sudanese ICC indictees, Ali Kushayb. The first day, she said those were only reports. Then on Wednesday she said, “I’ve been asked about reports indicating that the Government of Sudan has detained Ali Khushayb for crimes committed in Darfur, which the Secretary-General has noted. If confirmed, this is a welcome step towards the vital need to end impunity and bring to justice those responsible for crimes in Darfur.” Video here.
Inner City Press asked Sudan’s Ambassador later on Wednesday to respond to this UN quote. “Who is she to comment on that?” he asked. “What business is it of hers?”
On Thursday, Inner City Press asked Ms. Montas if she, Ban or joint UN-African Union envoy Bassole had any comment on President Al-Bashir’s so-called “people’s initiative” convened in Darfur, without involvement of armed rebels. Ms. Montas said that Bassole is attending, and that any comment would be made only after the initiative is over. Video here. Sudan’s Ambassador’s review of Mr. Bassole was given, but on an off the record basis.
Just then coming down the second story hallway of the UN was Saudi Arabia’s representative / charge d’affaires, Abdullatif Sallam. “Ask him something,” it was suggested to Inner City Press. As a softball, Inner City Press asked, “What about Saudi Arabia’s role in the Somalia negotiations” — a process that like that in Darfur excludes the armed insurgents, but which has nonetheless been repeatedly praised by the UN. “It is not good,” the Saudi said enigmatically.
Moments later he doubled back and whispered in the Sudanese Ambassador’s ear. “Saudi Arabia denied it has been providing weapons in Somalia,” was the statement that emerged. Thou dost protest too much?
Footnote: the UN’s own press release about Wednesday’s Security Council resolution on Sudan says that 400,000 people have been killed in Darfur. Since many knowledgeable sources use the figure of 200,000 and controversy obtained to the UN’s John Holmes raising the figure to 300,000, one wonders where this 400,000 comes from — inflation?