Originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 1/24/2011
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.