Alemayehu G. Mariam
No one predicted an “Arab Spring” last Fall, and hazarding a prediction of the arrival of “Africa’s Spring” this Winter may be like predicting the arrival of the Spring season by watching the proverbial groundhog watching his shadow. Is an “African Spring” looming on the 2012 horizon? There is a short and a long answer to this question. The short answer was provided by Albert Camus, the French philosopher and Nobel laureate, in his book “The Rebel”, over one-half century ago. “Africa’s Spring”, like the “Arab Spring”, will arrive when Africans rebel. “What is a rebel?”, asked Camus.
A man who says no… A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying ‘no’? He means, for example, that ‘this has been going on too long,’ ‘up to this point yes, beyond it no’, ‘you are going too far,’ or, again, ‘there is a limit beyond which you shall not go.’ But from the moment that the rebel finds his voice—even though he says nothing but ‘no’ —he begins to desire and to judge. The rebel confronts an order of things which oppresses him with the insistence on a kind of right not to be oppressed beyond the limit that he can tolerate.
In other words, “Africa’s Spring” will arrive when enough Africans wake up, stand up and say, “No! Enough is Enough!”
The Power of the Powerless is the Power to Say “No, Enough is Enough!”
Africa’s great independence struggle against colonialism was essentially a reification (realization) of the rallying cry, “No! Enough is enough!”: Enough of colonial exploitation, colonial dehumanization, colonial discrimination, colonial segregation, colonial division, colonial ethnic fragmentation, colonial polarization and colonial corruption. In his independence speech in 1957, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, the leader of the first sub-Saharan African colony to gain independence declared, “We have awakened. We will not sleep anymore. Today, from now on, there is a new African in the world!” A succession of “new Africans” followed in Guinea, Cameroon, Togo, Mali, Madagascar and 39 others countries on the continent.
If there is to be an “African Spring” in 2012, there must be “new Africans” in Africa who must awaken from the forced hibernation of dictatorship and oppression, stand up and say to the ruthless dictators, “No! Enough is enough!”. Enough of African dictators exploiting Africans, dehumanizing them, dividing and ruling them, ethnically balkanizing, polarizing and fragmenting them, and enough of robbing them — of elections, the public treasury and peace of mind (terrorizing them) — blind.
The Calculus of an “African Spring”
In his study of resistance and rebellion, MIT professor Roger D. Petersen asked: “How do ordinary people rebel against powerful and brutal regimes?” Petersen was interested in understanding “ordinary people and the roles they come to play during times of rebellion and resistance against powerful regimes.” He wanted to know how and why do individuals (not the “nation”, the “people”) decide to take a variety of risks by participating in a struggle against an oppressive regime.
Using an interdisciplinary approach, Petersen examined the threshold or decision points of an individual within the broader context of his community and socio-economic system. Petersen identified seven threshold points of individual roles in a rebellion against or in collaboration with an oppressive regime. At Zero level, the individual remains neutral and does nothing for or against the repressive regime or the uprising/ rebellion. At Plus one, the individual is engaged in relatively low risk anti-regime activities such as attending mass rallies and protests, graffiti writing, passing out or seeking out anti-regime literature and participating. At Plus two, the individual becomes involved in locally based armed resistance units or providing direct support for such a unit. At Plus three, the individual becomes part of an armed resistance group.
Conversely, individuals may also collaborate with oppressive regimes. At Minus one level, the individual is involved in low level cooperation with the repressive regime by participating in such activities as officially sponsored mass rallies and working in some capacity for the repressive regime. At Minus two level the individual could be involved in locally based armed militia units organized to protect the regime. At Minus three level, the individual participates in extreme actions such as extrajudicial killings and torture on behalf of the regime or chooses to join the regime’s armed and security forces.
Facing extreme repression, individuals undergo a dual-stage process “moving first from neutrality to acts of nonviolent resistance and then to participation in community-based rebellion organization.” Petersen concluded that “whether individuals come to act as rebels or collaborators, killers or victims, heroes or cowards during times of upheaval is largely determined by the nature of their everyday economic, social, and political life, both in the time of the upheaval and the period prior to it.”
African Dictators’ Calculus of Individual Control
African dictators are fundamentally “briefcase bandits”, as George Ayittey describes them. These dictatorships function essentially as Mafioso-type criminal syndicates and cartels and are run and operated by and for members of the dictators’ families, friends, cronies, tribal, ethnic and religious group members. Stated simply, African dictatorships are kleptocracies or thugtatorships whose principal aim is to cling to power so that they can freely plunder the public treasury and the national economy. They cling to power by disempowering individuals and denying and violating their human rights, including universally-recognized and internationally guaranteed rights of self-expression and due process of law.
The power of fear is the supreme power in the hands of African dictators. The entire society is monitored by a vast network of secret police enforcers and informants (police state) who operate completely outside of constitutional or other legal constraints. For instance, dictator Meles Zenawi assured high level American policy-makers that “We will crush them [opposition leaders] with our full force, and they will vegetate like Birtukan (Midekssa) in jail forever.” Uganda’s dictator Yoweri Museveni echoed the same message when he told a press conference: “There will be no Egyptian-like revolution here. We would just lock them up. In the most humane manner possible, bang them into jail and that would be the end of the story.” Such resolute expressions of brutalization are intended to strike fear and trepidation in the heart of every individual in society. The message is clear: Resistance by any individual is futile. All resistance will be crushed.
African dictators understand that charismatic and ideologically driven individuals and small dissident circles are often “first actors” in the streets and catalysts for uprisings and rebellions. They understand that such dissidents could lead large numbers of dissatisfied citizens cross the bridge of fear to the land of freedom. They do not want a repetition of the Bouazzi syndrome in Tunisia. When Yenesew Gebre, a young Ethiopian teacher in Southern Ethiopia burned himself to death protesting human rights violations, the dictatorship paraded his alleged family members on the airwaves to testify that Yenesew was crazy as a loon. Yenesew was only mad as hell at those who had denied him his basic human rights. Gadhaffi said the young people protesting his regime were dope fiends who were being manipulated by outside forces.
Africans dictators maintain their kingdoms of fear through a system of informants, secret police forces and security agents. They create and maintain a pervasive climate of fear and loathing in society, and use every means at their disposal to completely disempower, disenfranchise and dehumanize the individual. They penetrate every nook and cranny of society to monitor fully the activities of each individual and household. Spies and informants are planted in village-level organizations, schools, universities, civil and religious institutions, the bureaucracy and military and beyond. Dr. Negasso Gidada, former Ethiopian president and presently the leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, has documented that in his parliamentary election district “the police and security offices and personnel collect information on each household using structures called “shane” in which five households are grouped together under a leader who has the job of collecting information on them. 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…” Robert Mugabe’s notorious Central Intelligence Organization maintains a similar system of monitoring and surveillance. The irony of it all is that African dictators who rule by fear and are feared by the people in turn fear the people who fear them.
One of the prominent Founders of the American Republic said, “This will be the best security for maintaining our liberties. A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.” Africa’s dictators understand that an ignorant population is the most fertile soil upon which they can plant themselves and flourish. Controlling a society teeming with ignorant individuals is much easier than controlling a nation of well-informed and inquisitive men and women. “Ignorance is bliss,” is the slogan of the high priests of African dictatorships. They toil to keep their subject population as ignorant as possible while providing and reserving extraordinary educational and learning opportunities for themselves and their supporters. It is a well-known fact that a young person in Ethiopia is unlikely to have access to higher education unless s/he becomes a party member and supporter of the dictatorship. Upon graduation, civil service jobs are generally off limits to non-party members. Banks will favor party members in giving out loans for business enterprises or other ventures over all others. African dictatorships aim to entrench themselves by cultivating their own enlightened elites while plunging the rest of society in a state of blissful ignorance.
On the other hand, African dictators will spare no effort to keep the population ignorant and benighted. They shutter independent newspapers and block any potential sources of critical information, including filtering of internet communication to prevent dissemination of critical information and jamming of external radio and television broadcasts. Zenawi jammed the broadcasts of the Voice of America (Amharic program), an official agency of the U.S. Government, by claiming that the VOA was advocating genocide. “Ethiopia has the second lowest Internet penetration rate in sub-Saharan Africa (only Sierra Leone’s is lower).” Equatorial Guinea’s dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema has done exactly the same thing by banning the independent press and blocking the foreign media. Such extreme actions are taken to keep individuals in society dumb, dumbfounded, uninformed, unenlightened and ignorant.
George Ayittey’s “Law” on Defeating African Dictatorships
George Ayittey, the distinguished Ghanaian economist argues that African dictatorship says African dictators cannot be defeated through “rah-rah street demonstrations alone.” To purge Africa from the scourge of dictatorships, Ayittey says three things are required:
First, it takes a coalition to organize and coordinate the activities of the various opposition groups. It is imperative that you have a small group of people– call them an elders’ council to coordinate the activities– [composed] of eminent and respectable personalities who have no political baggage. They must be able to reach out to all the opposition groups. We formed one in Ghana called the Alliance for Change… Second, you got to know the enemy, his modus operandi, his strengths and weaknesses… You find his weaknesses and exploit it…. All dictators [operate] by seiz[ing] the civil service, media, judiciary, security forces, election commission and control the bank. They pack these institutions with their cronies and subvert them to serve their interests. For a revolution to succeed, you have to wrest control of one of more of these institutions. Third, you have to get the sequence of reform correct…
Last year, there were ten elections in Africa. The dictators won all ten… Why? Because the opposition was divided. In Ethiopia, for example, there were 92 political parties running to challenge the dictator Meles Zenawi… It shouldn’t be this way. The council should bring all of the opposition into an alliance…
Before an “African Spring”, an African Reawakening From Hibernation
The power of the powerless individual is the power to say “No. No More! No Way. No How! Enough is Enough!” As Prof. Petersen suggests, each individual has a tipping point when s/he will fight or collaborate. For Bouazizi in Tunisia and Yenesew in Ethiopia, they reached their individual tipping points and, tragically, burned themselves to death. The question for every African living under a dictatorship is not whether to remain neutral (for there can be no neutrality in the face of evil), but whether to become or not to become part of a system of oppression, brutality and injustice. The university professor makes that choice when s/he waxes eloquent justifying that dictatorship is indeed democracy. The judge makes that choice when s/he imposes a judgment directed by the political bosses. The police or security officer makes that choice when s/he is ordered to shoot innocent civilians. The soldier make that choice when s/he occupies a village in search of “rebels.” The bureaucrat makes that choice when s/he uses official power to empower the powerful and disempower the powerless. The man and woman in the street will make that choice every day in everything s/he does and thinks about.
Kwame Nkrumah was right when he declared in 1957, “We have awakened. We will not sleep anymore. Today, from now on, there is a new African in the world!” Nkrumah himself, the international symbol of African freedom and Pan-Africanism, could not bear to see an awakened Africa. In 1964, he declared himself president-for-life, banned opposition parties and jailed labor and opposition party leaders and judges. Justifying his dictatorial actions he wrote, “Even a system based on a democratic constitution may need backing up in the period following independence by emergency measures of a totalitarian kind.” The great Nkrumah was fatally infected by the terminal disease known as “absolute power”. But Nkrumah was right before he started roller skating on the wrong side of history; and like all dictators who came after him, he underestimated the will and resistance of individual citizens and their ability to unite and wrest their freedom.
All African dictators mistake decades of fear-enforced silence for surrender and resignation. Their arrogance blinds them to the palpable anger, loathing and pent-up rage of their citizens. They ignore and sneer at the immutable law of history: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Africa’s Spring will arrive when Africans “have awakened; [when Africans] will not sleep anymore; [when] today, from now on, there is a new African in [Africa]” who is willing to stand up and say, “No! Enough is enough!”.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/