Archive for the dictators Category

Ironing out Burkina Faso’s problems

Posted in Africa, dictators with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 13 June, 2012 by Virgil

President Compaore. Photo by Damien Halleux Radermecker under a CC Licence

Burkina Faso’s parliament has just granted immunity from prosecution to President Blaise Compaore and all of the country’s other presidents since independence. Whatever threat there was of Compaore being held responsible for the assassination of his predecessor (and friend and colleague), Thomas Sankara, is now gone.

Thomas Sankara, who had himself risen to power through a coup d’etat in 1983 at the tender age of 33, was gunned down in 1987. The French secret service, the CIA, the government of neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, and/or then Liberian rebel Charles Taylor are believed to have been involved in the assassination plot, but as yet a definitive account does not exist. Western-friendly Compaore immediately assumed power and has been president of Burkina Faso ever since.

Sankara’s presidency lasted only four years, but what an eventful four years they were. The country was in a terrible state and he quickly set about making his revolutionary vision for the country a reality. He even changed its name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means ‘the land of upright men’.

Sankara lamented what he saw as neocolonialism, not least in the dependency of the country on foreign aid – in his words “he who feeds you, controls you”. Focusing on the promotion of local consumption of local production, he achieved food self-sufficiency for the country within three years. Burkina Faso’s economy was (and to a large degree, still is) dominated by cotton. As part of his bid to promote local industry, Sankara required civil servants to wear traditional tunics made locally from local cotton.

Sankara’s revolution was far-reaching in other areas. He was the first African leader to openly recognize the dangers of HIV/AIDS, and made major (often record-breaking) inroads in areas such as women’s rights, child immunization, the reversal of desertification, land rights and infrastructure development. He halted the practice of the president’s portrait being displayed in public and private establishments throughout the country, reduced the salaries of government officials (himself included) and took away their Mercedes and first class travelling privileges. Sankara travelled in a Renault 5 and took a monthly salary of 450 USD.

We should be careful, however, about being overly romantic about the Sankara years. He was impatient in achieving his vision, and did not tolerate opposition parties, unions or a free press. His authoritarian tendencies appeared to grow over the course of his rule, and this had serious implications for his domestic popularity. It was perhaps the example he set to the rest of the world, however, that was one of the greatest causes of his undoing.

Having deposed Sankara and having taken his place, Blaise Compaore set about reversing most of the policies of his predecessor, in what was known as la rectification’. He liberalized and privatized, and made Burkina Faso one of the first ‘beneficiaries’ of the debt relief and poverty reduction programs of the IMF and World Bank. Today it remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Burkina Faso’s cotton industry has been crippled by massive US government subsidies for cotton farmers there that serve to suppress the global price of cotton to levels so low that growing cotton even in impoverished Burkina Faso is barely viable. Subsidies for US cotton farmers alone add up to triple the amount the US allocates in aid to the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa.

But Compaore seems to be doing quite well under the circumstances. The winds of change that blew through north Africa and the Middle East in 2011 also blew through Burkina Faso, with protests over rising prices and unemployment, and mutiny by parts of the armed forces, but Compaore appears (for now) to have weathered the storm. He is also thought to have amassed considerable personal wealth, and now, with the new blanket amnesty, can look forward to a comfortable and safe retirement.

There is, of course, always a chance that the amnesty will be overturned by future regimes, and he is not protected from arrest and prosecution outside of Burkina Faso. Thus, there remains the possibility that, for example, his long-term collaboration with convicted war criminal Charles Taylor could lead to international prosecution. Burkina Faso was a hub for the illicit trade in arms and diamonds that helped facilitate west Africa’s bloody conflicts in and beyond the 1990s, and his prosecution was considered at the time of Taylor’s indictment. But in the case of this Western-backed government, such a turn of events appears somewhat unlikely.

For those who’s sense of justice is offended by this chapter in Burkina Faso’s history and wish to show their solidarity, there is a wide variety of Thomas Sankara t-shirts available online. With no apparent irony, many of these garments made from 100 percent cotton are proudly advertised as being “Made in the USA”.

Buyers of these t-shirts can thus advertise their admiration for a leader who had his own image removed from public display, and who struggled to protect and nurture the local cotton industry vital to his country’s well-being and growth, through the display of his image printed on material made from the heavily subsidised cotton that continues to threaten the survival of that very industry.

Between the blanket amnesty and the t-shirts, Thomas Sankara must surely be turning in his grave.

Arab Spring in slow motion?

Posted in activism, Africa, dictators with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 12 May, 2012 by Virgil

Vote counting in Chipata, Zambia. Photo by afromusing under a CC Licence

One night in February 2011, I happened to be walking past a bar in Lusaka, Zambia, when out staggered an inebriated man who I quickly recognized as a prominent politician belonging to the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), Zambia’s ruling party at the time. For some reason, he felt compelled to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger (me), and for some other reason, the conversation turned to international politics. Egypt’s iron-fisted ruler had just followed the example of his Tunisian counterpart and had reluctantly relinquished power. It was looking as though Bahrain (among other countries) would go the same way, although this popular uprising was soon to be crushed with the assistance of Saudi tanks.

The US government, after weeks of dithering, had recently switched sides in Egypt, coming out in support of the protesters, and against the dictatorship it had propped up for decades with generous military and political support. History (at least the Western version of it) now seemed to be on the side of the revolutionaries. But the Zambian politician was having none of it. The revolutionaries were “promoting chaos” and should all have been “locked up”. Now the Muslim Brotherhood was going to “unleash terror” on Egypt and on the region. “Responsible governments” around the world should not tolerate “such anarchy”.

It was clear that his anti-revolutionary zeal (as alcoholically enhanced as it was) was closely linked to an underlying fear of the implications of the so-called Arab Spring for his own administration’s grip on power in distant Zambia. The administration in Zambia, however, could hardly be considered a repressive dictatorship. It regularly held elections in a manner that allowed the opposition a respectable chunk of the votes, and it tolerated a private press that seemed to pride itself on going for the jugular of the government (with the editor only occasionally being arrested).

But nor was it a shining beacon of democratic practice. The ruling party had held power for twenty straight years. It had taken advantage of its position in power to mobilize state resources for the political benefit of the party; opposition parties were, for all intents and purposes, excluded from the state-owned media; and a variety of fraudulent tactics were allegedly employed to give them the boost they neededeach time at the polls. Despite economic growth fuelled by the rising price of copper (Zambia’s main export), frustration was clearly growing with the government’s prolonged rule. For a short period in the aftermath of elections in 2006, for example, protests became violent as opposition supporters claimed that opposition leader Michael Sata had been robbed of victory.

As it turns out, the fears of the Zambian politician that I had happened to meet were well-founded. To the surprise of some, the MMD was eventually unseated by Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) at elections held in September 2011. There were a few tense days as delays in announcing the results saw increasingly agitated groups of youth, suspecting that the electoral books were being cooked, come out onto the streets. But in the end the ruling party gracefully admitted defeat and the president packed his bags and left.

This was an election, not a revolution. Votes were held, votes were counted, a winner was declared, and the reigns of power were handed over – standard procedure in a democracy. But such a democratic relinquishing of power to the opposition remains something of a rarity in Africa. And if the unprecedented levels of celebration in the streets of Lusaka were any indication, it certainly seemed to feel like a revolution to many Zambians. One cannot help but wonder if the events in north Africa earlier that year contributed in some way to the movement that swept the ruling party from office.

The Arab Spring seems to have provided inspiration to many who oppose governments with dubious democratic credentials in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And at the same time, rulers have been quick to recognize the dangers and take countermeasures. Demonstrations have been organized (and suppressed) in countries throughout the continent, including in places (such as Angola) where such demonstrations have, until recently, been largely unthinkable. But the democratic changes in sub-Saharan Africa were, of course, under way in many forms long before the Arab Spring erupted. Although often in little more than name, many sub-Saharan countries made the move from one-party states to multi-party ‘democracies’ in the 1990s. And despite numerous obstacles, in many cases, organized opposition to ruling parties have for years been gradually building up and chipping away at undemocratic institutions and practices.

Although the circumstances in sub-Saharan Africa are certainly very different from the those that led to the revolutions in north Africa, there are elements of what can perhaps be likened to a kind of Arab Spring in slow motion in much of sub-Saharan Africa, marked by small victories for democratic practice. The elections in Zambia in 2011 were perhaps one, just as the transfer of power following elections in Senegal in March this year could be considered another. In a slightly different sense, the eventual transfer of power in April this year (following some tense and unsure moments) to the vice-president of Malawi following the sudden death of the president, in accordance with the constitution, is perhaps another reassuring sign.

The road ahead is long. Many rulers and/or ruling parties in sub-Saharan Africa are still in the same place they have been for decades. And democracy involves far more than simply holding elections, even if those elections do result in the peaceful transfer of power. It is about developing and consolidating institutions and practices that are able to consistently hold politicians accountable to the people. And this requires something of both the politicians and the people that is much more long-term and much less glamorous than a revolution.

(This article was originally posted on the recently established Southern African Peace and Security Blog. It is just starting to take off but is well worth a visit).

Why Zimbabwe?

Posted in dictators, Zimbabwe with tags , , , , , , , , , on 21 April, 2012 by Virgil

President Robert Mugabe. Photo by Gregg Carlstrom under a CC Licence

Africa may well be a continent that is routinely marginalized by most of the media in the outside world, but Zimbabwe is one of the few exceptions to the rule. Isolated murmurs in the Western media about democratic shortcomings in the 1990s gave way to much more substantive coverage in 2000 when President Robert Mugabe began pursuing aggressive land reforms that saw white farmers ejected from their land (a number were killed). Media interest in Zimbabwe continued to grow beyond this point, with coverage focusing largely on political turmoil and oppression, peaking (for the time being) with the controversial elections of 2008. On balance, few countries in Africa (perhaps only South Africa and Egypt) can match the levels of media coverage in Western countries devoted to Zimbabwe. But why the interest?

Coverage is, of course, to a large degree, a reflection of policy interest. The existence of a ‘free’ press notwithstanding, the media tend to take many of their cues on how to look at (and whether to look at) foreign policy issues from the policymakers in their ‘home’ countries. Zimbabwe is certainly not found wanting in this regard. It was the only African mention on Condoleeza Rice’s ‘outposts of tyranny’ list, and while red carpets are regularly rolled out for leaders with arguably worse democratic and human rights records than Zimbabwe, Mugabe is treated as a pariah. He is banned from travelling to the EU, for example, and the UK’s Prince Charles and former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, have both found themselves in deep public relations trouble for shaking hands with Robert Mugabe, and were forced to make excuses (Prince Charles was ‘taken by surprise’ while Jack Straw claimed it was too dark to see with whom he was shaking hands). Zimbabwe appears to occupy a unique place in Western consciousness – a place reserved for those reviled as the ‘world’s worst dictators’.

Indeed, much has been made of Zimbabwe’s democratic shortcomings – the suppression of dissent, the intimidation of political opponents, and the rigging of elections. While these are certainly valid criticisms, the selectiveness with which countries are held to certain democratic standards naturally calls into question the motives of those making the assertions. The actions of regimes with considerably worse democratic records tend to be swept under the rug, or result in little more than a mild expression of criticism.

North Africa was a case in point (at least until the wave of the so-called ‘Arab spring’), but such double-standards are equally apparent in much of sub-Saharan Africa as well. Deaths associated with election-related violence have far outnumbered Zimbabwe in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Togo, and yet none of these cases could compare with Zimbabwe in terms of levels of media concern and indignation. The same can be said in cases where ruling party control over the electoral process remains arguably tighter than that in Zimbabwe, such as Eritrea, Angola, Chad and Rwanda. For all of the intimidation and alleged rigging, in Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, there was at least a sufficient degree of ‘freedom’ to allow the incumbent to lose the first round of the voting.

So then what are the real reasons behind the media interest? Western strategic and economic interests do not serve as particularly convincing explanations, considering that, relatively speaking, Zimbabwe does not appear to have a great deal to offer in this regard. It does have some diamonds and was once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa, but in terms of size, population, geostrategic significance, resources and ease of access, for example, a country such as Nigeria – a regional power that accounts for as much as 20 percent of US oil imports – could be expected to attract considerably more attention. Yet in the first ten years of the new millennium, the amount of coverage the New York Times devoted to Zimbabwe was more than double the amount it devoted to Nigeria.

A much more credible explanation can be found in Mugabe’s refusal to play ball with powerful Western governments. His impassioned railings against the West, in perfect English, undoubtedly designed to help shore up support within Zimbabwe, certainly raise his ‘public enemy’ credentials in Western countries. It is also interesting that it took the expulsion and killing of white farmers (rather than the political oppression of the black population) for Zimbabwe to begin to take a prominent place on Western media agendas, this was a key trigger event for attention.

Zimbabwe is hardly a geostrategic threat to the West, but Mugabe’s badmouthing and attempts to whip up opposition to Western policies threaten to tarnish the image of certain Western countries. This cannot be ignored, and thus enhanced punitive measures focusing on ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’ are typically employed. Mugabe remains one of the most popular ‘bad guys’ on the continent (despite Joseph Kony’s star rising) – a leader that people love to hate.

(This article was originally posted on the recently established Southern African Peace and Security Blog. It is just starting to take off, but is well worth a visit).

Libya and moral imperative

Posted in Africa, conflict death tolls, dictators, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 14 May, 2011 by Virgil

Photo by Ammar Abd Rabbo under a CC Licence

Since it began earlier this year, the conflict in Libya was marked as a chosen one, attracting a powerful media spotlight. This should have come as no surprise. The events in Tunisia and Egypt set in motion a broad movement for reform in many democratically challenged countries and Libya was next in line.

As demonstrations transformed into armed rebellion, media coverage quickly took on a Hollywood action movie format – with Gaddafi as the ‘bad guy’, the rebellion as the true representative of the oppressed people that could do no wrong, and the Western powers (who became the air force of the rebellion) as the heroes who were going to save the day. Nor should this simplification have come as a surprise. In covering foreign conflicts, the media tend to rely on simplicity and good-guy/bad-guy formats to sell their products. And although relations between Libya and Western countries had been thawing in recent years (as witnessed by state visits and the conclusion of major oil and arms deals), Gadaffi had a long history of being a ‘bad guy’ that could easily be revived.

With this good-guy/bad-guy format, comes the implication that there is a moral imperative to ‘do something’. To stop the bad guy and the humanitarian suffering he is causing. This humanitarian focus or sense of moral imperative, while of course being very pronounced and emotive in lighter, tabloid type media, creeps into even the most serious of media publications. Libya has been the subject of a number of cover stories in the Economist, for example, and the sense of moral imperative is clearly a part of that coverage. In an article entitled ‘Don’t let him linger‘, the Economist asks us, “If the death toll suddenly rises into the thousands, can the rest of the world stand idly by?” It answers, “Surely not. But dislodging Libya’s tyrant is proving hard”. It goes on, “if the Libyan regime starts killing people in their thousands—and especially if it uses helicopter gunships or aircraft—diplomatic reluctance should melt away. Too often the world has dithered open-mouthed as evil men have slaughtered Darfuris or Rwandans with impunity”.

One of the problems of such expression of moral imperative lies, of course, in the selectivity with which it is applied. Why is Libya currently the prime focus of our humanitarian concern? Why not Somalia? Can the rest of the world stand idly by as thousands of people are killed? It most certainly can and does in far too many cases. In this world, ignoring or failing to respond in a substantive manner to conflict and its humanitarian consequences is more the rule than it is the exception. Policymakers and the media routinely brush over news of large scale massacres or even the deaths of millions of people from conflict-related causes in cases where attention does not serve their interests or where the story is simply too complex to sell. The very fact that Rwanda and Darfur are mentioned as examples of past shame, but the Democratic Republic of Congo (with a conflict-related death toll measured in millions) is not, speaks volumes in this regard.

This criticism of the world ‘standing idly by’ should not be taken as a call for military intervention. Far too often is military intervention impractical and/or counterproductive, and its deadly results (intended and unintended) equally morally unacceptable. There are so many other (potentially more productive) ways in which ‘the world’ can do something other than standing idly by. For the media, couldn’t choosing to give substantive coverage to the world’s deadliest conflicts be a good place to start? Is it really that hard?

Also behind this problem of moral imperative is the simplistic notion that there is one ‘evil’ leader who, single-handedly terrorizing his/her country, serves as a floodgate holding back an overwhelming dedication to and respect for democratic practice, separation of powers, the rule of law and human rights. The notion that if this one person could be removed from power or ‘taken out’, all would be well. These ‘dictators’, while sometimes mentioned as having ‘cronies’, are seen primarily as lone actors and become recognizable ‘faces of evil’. Where it suits Western strategic, economic and political interests, we remember their names and faces – Saddam, Milosevic, Mugabe, Gaddafi. Where friendly relations with such dictators serves these interests, names and faces tend to disappear from view – Niyazov, Abdullah, Saleh, Dos Santos.

But in international politics, the ‘face of evil’ or ‘school yard bully’ frame really doesn’t hold all that much water. Dictators are able to keep their grip on power through a massive network of strongmen and economic interests that trickle down to even the lowest levels of power holders – groups and individuals that benefit from the current configuration of power. Cutting off the head does not suddenly mean that this network will be dissolved, or that the entire population will rejoice at the removal of a dictator. Demonstrations continue today in Tunisia and Egypt, for example (although admittedly to a lesser degree). In both these countries, many observers (locally and foreign) have pointed out that ‘the dictator is gone but the dictatorship remains’. What is often worse, is that when a power vacuum occurs, those with political and/or economic ambitions rush to fill it, resulting in violent clashes as power structures are reconfigured.

Unfortunately, when looking at conflict and crisis in this world of ours, keeping things simple doesn’t really work. Whether it be in how we go about choosing a particular humanitarian crisis to champion, or how we go about attempting to solve them, a broad view and a healthy appreciation for complexity is clearly in order.

Whose world history?

Posted in academia and conflict, Africa, conflict analysis, Congo, dictators, DRC, history with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 1 March, 2009 by Virgil

The world’s deadliest conflict of our times – that in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – is not only being marginalized by the policymakers, the media and the public today, but it is also in danger of being marginalized by the history books of tomorrow. Keep in mind that the conflict in the DRC has involved nine countries over a battlefield the size of Western Europe, and has cost more than 5.4 million lives. Also keep in mind that an estimated 88 percent of the entire world’s conflict-related deaths since the end of the Cold War have occurred in Africa. Then pick up a ‘world’ history book (any will do) and see how much recent history of the DRC or Africa you find in its pages.

Here’s an example: Martin Gilbert’s History of the Twentieth Century. The chapter covering 1990 to 1999 (70 pages) contains 27 paragraphs on conflict and politics in Israel-Palestine, 15 on Kosovo and 11 on Northern Ireland, but only 1 paragraph each on Zaire and the DRC. Incredibly, the book mentions Angola (a conflict that cost as many as 800,000 lives in that period) only with a reference to the visit by Princess Diana of the UK to that country to support de-mining! The conflict itself apparently does not have any historical significance.

Another example is the Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare (revised and updated), edited by Geoffrey Parker. Looking inside the book reveals a subtitle for the book – The Triumph of the West – and this book indeed represents that very triumph. In the chronology provided in the book, the only African conflicts that have occurred since the end of World War II that can be found are the Algerian War of independence and Somalia’s conflict in the early 1990s. While the world’s deadliest conflicts (most notably those in the DRC, Sudan and Angola) are nowhere to be seen, there are entries instead for much smaller conflicts in Bosnia, Israel-Palestine, Kosovo, Chechnya and Iraq – conflicts involving or of interest to the West. The sudden large-scale invasion of the DRC in 1998 by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, and the counterattack by forces from the DRC, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Sudan and Chad is apparently not worthy of mention, yet the relocation of Osama Bin Laden in 1996 from Sudan to Afghanistan gets its own entry, as does Israel disabling the Syrian early warning defence system in 2007.

Similar Western-centric views of history can also be found in the highly subjective ‘selection’ of dictators. Diane Law’s The World’s Most Evil Dictators is a case in point. The two ‘most evil dictators’ selected for the period after the Cold War are Saddam Hussein (Iraq) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe). The selection of Robert Mugabe as a key dictator of the world is an odd one indeed – especially as of 2006, when the book was published. While Mugabe has certainly put a considerable amount of effort into manipulating election results, he at least holds elections – even in the 2008 elections, Mugabe ‘allowed’ himself to lose the first round of the elections. The label ‘dictator’ in this case is stretching the interpretation of the word. There are many world leaders that are far ahead of him in the running for the title of worst dictator. Mugabe’s first major ‘crime’ – the one that set him on the path to high-priority Western target – was his eviction of white farmers. A far milder and low-key place in history is reserved for absolute ‘dictators’ that are Western friendly – in places like Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan, and in African countries with much more questionable democratic credentials than Zimbabwe, and who have sparked so much more violence (see this post).

In many cases it seems that the writers of world history use the term ‘world’ in the same way as Western policymakers use the term ‘international community’ – selectively referring to limited parts of the world in a way that best suits their purposes and subjective perspectives of what, where and who in the world are to be deemed ‘important’.

I invite you to go through other ‘world’ history books that you have (or have access to), count the pages, paragraphs and references devoted to certain world events and certain world leaders to see if the world’s deadliest conflicts are getting the attention they deserve, or if they are in danger of being left out of our accounts of history. Write ups of your findings are welcome at Stealth Conflicts Forum. See the Stealth Conflicts book for a more detailed handling of this subject.

Not so fast (Guinea revisited)

Posted in dictators, Guinea, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , on 28 December, 2008 by Virgil

In my previous post, I wrote:

 

“In the interests of an uninterrupted flow of natural resources from Guinea to the industrialized world (under terms favourable to the latter) and business as usual, expect more silence from Western policymakers and the media on what becomes of the government of this poor West African country and its people.”

 

Things might not be so silent after all. Captain Camara, who took power in a bloodless coup hours after the death of President Conté, has claimed to have blocked the mining sector and pledged to review mining contracts and stamp out corruption. He announced that gold extraction had been suspended for a start (see this article). This could shake things up.

  

Alexandre Foulon)

Bauxite extraction in Guinea (Photo: Alexandre Foulon)

 

As things stand today, too much of the mining and exploitation of other valuable resources in much of Africa happens under dubious contracts, by which foreign multinationals pay off local officials to sign deals that give the bulk of the country’s wealth to the multinationals at giveaway prices. Valuable minerals and other resources are hauled off leaving very little, if anything for the people in the country (except perhaps a small boost in employment, a token payment for the government coffers, a wad of cash in the pockets of the government officials negotiating the deal, and a dose of environmental degradation as a souvenir). This kind of scramble for resources is at its worst in situations of conflict – the conflict itself inevitably becomes linked to this scramble. See this article, this article and this report for an idea of how bad things can get – the DRC is a prime example.

 

The silence of powerful policymakers and the media on the situation in Guinea to date is, to an extent, a sign that foreign multinationals and their backers (policymakers in their home countries) have been happy about the way things are – mining contracts are lucrative for them. The question is: how far will the new military administration go in changing this? Of course it is entirely conceivable that Captain Camara is playing to the gallery, making noise as a strategy to ensure that the current ‘arrangements’ for distributing the spoils of mineral wealth are reconfigured in his favour. He may also be making announcements like this in an effort to boost his popularity and shore up local support, but is not serious about following through with reforms. But if he is in any way genuine and determined to bring about reform, then things could get interesting.

 

Having taken power by force, Captain Camara is, of course, subject to obligatory condemnation by other countries for his disregard for the democratic process. But whether this condemnation ends up as a kind of formality for the gallery, or develops into something more serious (with pressure that will hurt), will probably depend on how willing he is to ‘play ball’ with the foreign multinationals and their backers in maintaining the status quo.

 

If it is to be a continuation of the same game with a new player, then the players (with the exception, of course, of the people of Guinea) will be happy, and talk of the situation in Guinea will fade away. The same applies if the new military rulers can be quietly convinced (behind the scenes) to play ball. But if Guinea keeps popping up in the news, complete with indignation about the flagrant abuse of democracy and human rights, then it just may be that some changes in how valuable resources in Guinea are handled are on the way. Let’s not hold our breath just yet…

Pan-African News Wire)

The coup leader (Photo: Pan-African News Wire)

Lansana who? The death of a ‘dictator’

Posted in dictators, Guinea with tags , , , , , , on 26 December, 2008 by Virgil

Diabetes did to the leader of Guinea (that country in Western Africa bordering better-known Liberia and Sierra Leone) what numerous opposition leaders and civil society movements had failed to do – remove him from power. President Lansana Conté of Guinea died on 23 December due to complications from the disease that he had battled for many years. He had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1984, and the iron fist continued until the end – the editor of a local newspaper was arrested just last week for publishing a photo of Conté struggling to stand up.

 

 

But to what extent is this president (and his actions) known outside Africa? Interestingly, at around the same time as Western policymakers and media corporations were speaking out in furious indignation against the suppression of an opposition movement by Robert Mugabe’s security forces in Zimbabwe, resulting in one death, the beating of the opposition leader and numerous arrests (in early 2007), they seemed to be by and large pretending not to notice the suppression of an opposition movement in Guinea, in which Conté’s security forces gunned down and arrested civil society representatives and students, resulting in the deaths of more than 130 people (see this report and this video).

 

One could assume that a large proportion of people in Western countries know who Robert Mugabe is and would not hesitate to label him a ‘dictator’. One wonders how many in the West even know who Lansana Conté was, let alone label him a ‘dictator’ – I would venture to suggest very few. Newspapers and news corporations have devoted copious amounts of attention to the democratic credentials of the Zimbabwean leader – long before the country’s economic woes became so glaringly obvious. They have maintained a virtual silence on the actions and democratic credentials of the Guinean leader. The New York Times, in an article it devoted to the death of Conté and the apparent coup by the military that followed, refrained from using the term ‘dictator’, opting instead for ‘strongman’. The same newspaper frequently associates the term ‘dictator’ with Mugabe in its numerous opinion pieces and editorials on the subject of Zimbabwe.

 

Pan-African News Wire)

After the coup (Photo: Pan-African News Wire)

Being called a dictator is sometimes a little like being called a terrorist. It is a politically charged label that depends not as much on what you do, but rather on who you do it to (just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, one man’s dictator is another man’s loyal ally and friend). For observers (outside policymakers or the media, for example), there is very little in the way of an objective evaluation of governance and admittedly, there is an awful lot of grey area – rigging elections happens in many countries at various levels, and the rule of law and checks and balances to power can be shaky in varying degrees.

 

The word ‘dictator’ is at times thrown around quite liberally – the key is whether or not the nasty label sticks. This often seems to depend largely on whether or not you are a friend or enemy of powerful Western leaders. Interestingly, some leaders who actually follow through with some of the elements of democratic process, holding elections, allowing opposition parties and parliaments (although rules are clearly bent, or the democratic process is, to varying degrees, abused, or at times rendered powerless), for example, can be labelled as ‘dictators’ by Western leaders and the media, with all of the indignation about the lack of democratic freedoms and the colourful descriptive language that goes with it (‘murderous regime’, ‘evil despot’, and/or ‘brutal tyrant’ just to name a few). Just ask Robert Mugabe or the late Slobodan Milosevic.

 

Being friends with powerful Western governments, on the other hand, is often like a free pass to exist as a full-blown dictatorship, with precious little in the way of scrutiny, criticism or censorship. Indignation (or colourful and emotive phrases like ‘brutal dictatorship’) is rarely heard in response to many ‘governments’ that don’t even bother with the appearance of something that resembles democratic process or the maintenance of basic human rights, in places like Saudi Arabia or Turkmenistan, for example. The former leader of Turkmenistan (Saparmurat Niyazov), apart from arresting and torturing anyone resembling a political opponent, closed down all hospitals outside of the capital and built a powerful personality cult (building grand monuments to himself and renaming the months of the year after his parents). But his friendship with Western countries – largely based on natural gas reserves and his willingness to allow military bases for NATO during their attacks on Afghanistan – seemed to exempt him from any kind of meaningful censure.

 

In fact, being friends with powerful Western leaders often seems to pretty much guarantee a very convenient silence on the state of governance and democracy in one’s country – not only by the Western leaders themselves, but oddly enough also by the majority of Western media corporations, whose positions on foreign affairs issues seem to so frequently resemble those of the leaders in their countries. So what is it that made Conté and his actions so ignorable? What is the basis for the friendship between Guinea and powerful Western counties?

 

One clear answer is that Guinea happens to have the world’s largest reserves of bauxite – an ore that is processed into aluminium. It also has significant deposits of high-grade iron ore, gold, diamonds and some uranium. The mining of these resources is conducted under joint ventures by the government of Guinea and foreign multinational companies based in USA, Russia, Canada, UK, Australia and Switzerland, among others. Another answer is that Conté has maintained a relatively low profile on the international scene (apart from military involvement in conflicts in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone), supporting powerful Western leaders and their policies. This puts him in stark contrast to Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, who makes regular use of vocal railings in English against Western governments to help keep internal dissent at bay.

 

Conté lived and ruled Guinea behind a veil of silence that largely insulated him from unwanted outside attention and indignation. His death and its aftermath have made the news to a degree, but it remains to be seen if this will become any more than a brief blip on the radar. In the interests of an uninterrupted flow of natural resources from Guinea to the industrialized world (under terms favourable to the latter) and business as usual, expect more silence from Western policymakers and the media on what becomes of the government of this poor West African country and its people.

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