Originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 1/3/2011
Copycat Dictators and Cartoon Democracies in Africa
Ivory Coast, December 2010. Laurent Gbagbo says he won the presidential election. The Independent Ivorian Election Commission (CEI) said former prime minister Alassane Ouattara is the winner by a nine-point margin. The African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United Nations, the United States, the European Union all say Ouattara is the winner. Gbagbo is only the latest African dictator to steal an election in broad daylight, flip his middle finger at his people, thumb his nose at the international community and cling to power like a barnacle to a sunken ship.
Ethiopia, May 2010. Meles Zenawi said he won the parliamentary election by 99.6 percent. The European Union Election Observer Team said the election “lacked a level playing field” and “failed to meet international standards”. Translation from diplomatic language: The election was stolen. Ditto for the May 2005 elections.
The Sudan, April 2010. Omar al-Bashir claimed victory by winning nearly 70 percent of the vote. The EU EOM declared the “deficiencies in the legal and electoral framework in the campaign environment led the overall process to fall short of a number of international standards for genuine democratic elections.” Translation: al-Bashir stole the election.
Niger, February 2010. Calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), a group of army officers stormed Niger’s presidential palace and snatched president Mamadou Tandja and his ministers. In 2009, Tandja had dissolved the National Assembly and set up a “Constitutional Court” to pave the way for him to become president-for-life. Presidential elections are scheduled for early January, 2011.
Zimbabwe, March 2008. In the first round of votes, Morgan Tsvangirai won 48 percent of the vote to Mugabe’s 43 percent. Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff in June after Mugabe cracked down on Tsvangirai’s supporters. Mugabe declared victory. The African Union called for a “government of national unity”. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki mediated and Tsvangirai agreed to serve as prime minister. A stolen election made to look like a not-stolen-election.
Kenya, December 2007. Mwai Kibaki declared himself winner of the presidential election. After 1500 Kenyans were killed in post-election violence and some six hundred thousand displaced, intense international pressure was applied on Kibaki, who agreed to have Raila Odinga serve as prime minster in a coalition government. Another stolen election in Africa.
Massive election fraud, voting irregularities, vote buying, voter and opposition party intimidation, bogus voter registration, rigged polling stations, corrupt election commissioners and so on were common elsewhere in Africa including Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria and Egypt. In 2011, “elections” will be held in Chad, the Central African Republic, Malagasy, Uganda, Zambia, Nigeria and other countries. Will there be more stolen elections? One thing is for sure: In January, the Southern Sudanese independence referendum will be held with little doubt about its outcome.
Ivory Coast Headed for Civil War?
The tragedy about Gbagbo is that the one-time university professor was one of the courageous Ivorian leaders who had struggled against civilian and military dictatorships. He was the chief opponent of Ivorian president-for-life Félix Houphouet-Boigny. Today Gbagbo wants to become Félix Houphouet-Boigny reincarnate. After a decade in power, Gbagbo has become addicted to the sweet life (la dolce vita) of dictatorship. He is said to have the support of the country’s military. He controls the south, and “rebels” are said to control much of the north where Ouattara has his support. To complicate matters, there are reports that rogue remnants of Charles Taylor’s bloodthirsty Liberian army are being recruited by both sides of the crises as a perfect storm of civil war gathers over the Ivorian horizon. Is Ivory Coast headed for a replay of the two-year civil war that began in 2002? Unless Gbagbo peacefully leaves power, it seems inevitable that violence and conflict will again reign in the Ivory Coast destroying thousands of lives and the economy of one of the more prosperous African countries.
The international community led by the U.S and France appears to be orchestrating diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and a cutoff of access to funds at the regional West African bank to force Gbagbo to step aside. ECOWAS (a group of some dozen West African countries) is said to be considering military action; but there is little evidence that it has an offensive military capability to rout Gbagbo’s troops. Gbagbo has intimated that he will retaliate against immigrants from ECOWAS countries in Ivory Coast should military action be initiated to dislodge him. He remains steadfastly defiant and has escalated the crackdown on opponents. He continues to round up opposition supporters; and street killings, abductions and detentions by the military and armed youth thugs are said to be widespread. Gbagbo has repeatedly claimed that the “international community has declared war” on Ivory Coast and he has a constitutional duty to defend the country against such aggression.
The Lesson of Ivory Coast
Informed analysts suggest that Ivory Coast will prove to be a global test case of whether the international community could develop consensus to uphold the outcomes of democratic elections against a defiant African dictator who refuses to leave power peacefully. I disagree for two reasons. First, dictatorships in Africa have always been tolerated by the international community. As in the past, the West will cackle, bray, neigh and yelp about Gbagbo, but at the end of the day they will yawn and walk away shaking their heads and repeating the words of former French President Jacques Chirac, “Africa is not ready for democracy!” Second, the AU and ECOWAS will make sure that nothing is done that will set a precedent for an African dictator being removed from power through international action. These are the same crooks who are today coddling and shielding al-Bashir from prosecution in the International Criminal Court. Today it is Gbagbo; tomorrow it could be any one of them. Africa’s dictators will never, ever allow such a precedent to be established.
Things Keep Falling Apart After One-Half Century of African Independence
Things keep falling apart in Africa because over the past one-half century of independence it has been nearly impossible to hold Africa’s so-called leaders accountable. For fifty years, African “leaders” have been telling Africans and the world that Africa’s problems are all externally caused. Africa is what it is (or is not) because of its colonial legacy. It is the white man. It is imperialism. It is capitalism. It is the International Monetary Fund. It is the World Bank. The continent’s underdevelopment, poverty, backwardness, mismanagement are all caused by evil powers outside the continent. The latest re-invention of the old African Boogeyman is “globalization” and “neoliberalism”, which Zenawi claims has “created three consecutive lost decades for Africa”.
There are indisputable reasons why things keep falling apart in Africa. The major one is the lack of competent leadership with vision, purpose and integrity. Indeed the common thread that sews the vast majority of post-independence African leaders is not steadfast commitment to good governance and democratic practices, but their incredible sense of entitlement to rule forever and ever and ever. In 1964, Kwame Nkrumah invented the whole idea of president-for-life becoming the first certified post-independence African dictator. Many others followed. In 1970, H. Kamuzu Banda of Malawi declared himself ‘President-for-Life”. Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the military ruler of the Central African Republic, kicked it up a notch in the mid-1970s. He coronated himself “Emperor”. Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast, Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Albert Bernard Bongo of Gabon, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Ismail Omar Guellah of tiny Djbouti, and countless others have clung or continue to cling to power as rulers-for-life. It boggles the mind to call these individuals “leaders”; they are, as the great Afrobeat legend and human rights activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti described them, “animals in human skin”. I would call them hyenas in designer suits or uniforms.
These “animals in human skin” have stoked ethnic and tribal hatred, caused fragmentation and sectarian tensions and have unleashed unspeakable violence on their populations to cling to power in much the same way as the old colonial masters. In Ivory Coast and Nigeria today violent confrontations are being orchestrated by “leaders” along ethnic and religious lines. Just in the past few days, there has been a surge in violence in Nigeria, a country said to be evenly split between Christian and Muslims, with the firebombing of churches. Various scholars have expressed concern over the “heightening of the resurgence of ethnic identity politics in Nigeria” and the rise of armed ethnic militias which not only challenge the legitimacy of the Nigerian state but are also spearheading separatist movements to dismember the Nigerian nation. Given these tensions, more and more “marginalized” Nigerians are said to choose their ethnic identities over loyalty to the Nigerian nation. No doubt echoes of the Biafran War of 1967 reverberate in the minds of concerned Nigerians. Ethnicity and sectarianism are also a core element of the current Ivorian crises. Gbagbo accuses Muslims, who are in the majority in the north, of aiding and supporting the “rebels” who control the region. They have been subjected to attacks and persecution.
As Africa burns in ethnic, political and sectarian fires, the unctuous, hypocritical and self-righteous Western governments frolic in bed with the corrupt dictators in power. They jibber-jabber about democracy, human rights, the rule of law, accountability, transparency and the rest of it, but will gladly hold hands with bloodthirsty African dictators and walk down the primrose path to maintain their oil, mineral and military strategic interests. No Western government involved in Africa will openly admit it, but each and every one of them shares wholeheartedly Chirac’s view that “Africa is not ready for democracy” and that “multi-partyism” is a “kind of luxury,” that is unaffordable by a country like the Ivory Coast (or any other African country for that matter).
Chinua Achebe and Why Things are in Free Fall in Africa
In Things Fall Apart (1959), the great African novelist Chinua Achebe tells the story of the initial encounters in the 1890s between Ibo villagers in Nigeria and white European missionaries and colonial officials. That was the time when things really began to “fall apart” in Africa. The white man “put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” But his depiction could apply to the “falling apart” of many other African societies as a result of contact with colonialism and Christianity. But over the last one-half century, colonialism has become extinct and the white man has “left” Africa. The African leaders who replaced the colonial masters have not hearkened back to pre-colonial Africa and used traditional values and methods to hold the center and keep things from falling apart. Rather, they have followed in the colonial footsteps and lorded over vampiric states which have attenuated and frayed the fabric of the post-independent African societies to ensure their hold on power.
Robert Guest, Africa editor for The Economist, in his book The Shackled Continent (2004), argues that “Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer over the last three decades” while other developing countries and regions have grown. Africa was better off at the end of colonialism than it is today. According to the U.N., life expectancy in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Mozambique and Swaziland for the period 2005-2010 is less than 44 years, the worst in the world. The average annual income in Zimbabwe at independence in 1980 was USD $950. In 2009, 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars (with a “T”) was worth about USD $300. In the same year, a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe cost 300 billion Zimbabwean dollars (with a “B”). The tens of billions in foreign aid money has done very little to improve the lives of Africans. The reason for things falling apart in Africa is statism (the state as the principal change agent) and central planning, according to Guest. The bottom line is that the masses of Africans today are denied basic political and economic freedoms while the privileged few live the sweet life of luxury, not entirely unlike the “good old” colonial times.
Guest concludes that “Africans are poor because they are poorly governed.” The answer to Africa’s problems lies in upholding the rule of law, enforcing contracts, safeguarding property rights and putting more stock in freedom than in force. Much of Africa today is under the control of “Vampire states”. As the noted African economist George Ayittey explains, the “vampire African states” are “governments which have been hijacked by a phalanx of bandits and crooks who would use the instruments of the state machinery to enrich themselves and their cronies and their tribesmen and exclude everybody else.” (“Hyena States” would be a fitting alternative in the African landscape.) Africa is ruled by thugs in designer suits who buy votes and loyalties with cash handouts.
Things have fallen apart in Africa for a long time because of colonialism, capitalism, socialism, Marxism, communism, tribalism, ethnic chauvinism… neoliberalism, globalism and what have you. Things are in total free fall in Africa today because Africa has become a collection of vampiric states ruled by kleptocrats who have sucked it dry of its natural and human resources. It is easy to blame the white man and his colonialism, capitalism and all the other “isms” for Africa’s ailments, but as Cassius said to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” The fault is not in the African people, the African landscape or skyscape. Africa is rich and blessed with natural and human resources. The fault is in the African brutes and their vampiric regimes.
Achebe took the title for his book Things Fall Apart from William Butler Yeats’s classic poem, which in partial rendition reads:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, (substitute Africa)
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
For what it is worth, my humble view is that the African center cannot hold and things always fall apart because the best and the brightest of Africans lack all conviction to do what is right, while the worst are full of passionate intensity to divide the people ethnically, tribally, racially, ideologically, religiously, regionally, geographically, linguistically, culturally, economically, socially, constitutionally, systematically… and rule them with an iron fist. “Ces’t la vie en Afrique!” as the French might say; but to gainsay Jacques Chirac, “Africa is ready for democracy!” (L’Afrique est prêt pour la démocratie!).
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