George Ayittey’s war on African dictatorships By Alemayehu G. Mariam
George Ayittey, the distinguished Ghanaian economist, and arguably one of the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” (a person of ideas who stands for things far larger than one’s academic discipline) worldwide who “are shaping the tenor of our time” has been at war with Africa’s tin pot dictators and their lackeys for at least two decades. In 1996, he told African intellectuals exactly what he thought of them: “Hordes of politicians, lecturers, professionals, lawyers, and doctors sell themselves off into prostitution and voluntary bondage to serve the dictates of military vagabonds with half their intelligence. And time and time again, after being raped, abused, and defiled, they are tossed out like rubbish — or worse. Yet more intellectual prostitutes stampede to take their places…”
No one tells the truth about Africa’s dictators or their Western sugar daddies better than Ayittey. Recently, he was in Oslo at the World Freedom Forum skewering African dictators and mapping out battle plans. He reminded his audience:
In the 1960s, we got rid of the white colonialists, but we did not dissemble the oppressive colonial state. We removed the white colonialist and replaced him by black neocolonialists, Swiss bank socialists, crocodile liberators, quack revolutionaries and briefcase bandits. Africans will tell you, we remove one cockroach and the next rat comes to do the same exact thing.
Africa’s “briefcase bandits” run full-fledged criminal enterprises. Sani Abacha of Nigeria amassed $5 billion, and the Swiss Supreme Court in 2005 declared the Abacha family a “criminal enterprise”. Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan has stashed away $7 billion while Hosni Mubarak is reputed to have piled a fortune of $40 billion. In comparison, Ayittey says, “The net worth of 43 U.S. presidents from Washington to Obama amounts to 2.5 billion.”
How Do You Fight and Win Against African Dictators?
Ayittey’s “law” of 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…
What Can Ethiopians Learn from Ayittey?
Is Ayittey right in his assertion that “dictator Meles Zenawi” keeps winning “elections” because the opposition is divided? Why is there not a “coalition to organize and coordinate the activities of the various Ethiopian opposition groups”? Is it possible to set up an “Ethiopian Alliance for Change”? What are the weaknesses of the dictator? These are questions that need to be discussed and debated by Ethiopians in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora.
Looking Through the Dictators’ Lenses
Ayittey is absolutely right in his prescriptions on how to remove dictators. In understanding the modus operandi of African dictators, one must necessarily go beyond an examination of the dictators’ actions, decision-making processes and command-and-control relationships and try to see the world through the dictators’ lenses. I believe it is equally important to have a sophisticated understanding of the mindset of African dictators, the motivations that drive them to commit unimaginable acts of cruelty, the perverted logic of their thought processes and why they cling to power when they are totally rejected by the people.
Analysis of the psychodynamics (mental, emotional, or motivational forces especially at the unconscious levels) of African dictators shows some act out of hate and others from greed and the need to dominate. Still others act from painful early childhood impressions which “tend to coalesce into a natural view of the world”. They spend the rest of their lives trying to get even against those who may have slighted them. All of Africa’s dictators are sociopaths. They have no empathy (no emotional capacity for the suffering of others) towards others. They are devoid of ethical and moral standards. For them it is normal to lie, steal, cheat, kill, torture and violate the rights of others. It is vitally important to have a clear and objective understanding of the mindset of African dictators to anticipate their likely responses in a variety of situations and their tactical adaptations to actions taken against them by their pro-democracy opponents.
My view is that “if you have seen one African dictator, you have seen them all”. African dictators manifest three basic traits: 1) denial of reality, 2) narcissism and 3) paranoia (fear). African dictators have difficulty accepting reality, that is, the world as it objectively manifests itself. They see only what they want to see; and to avoid what they don’t want to see, they manufacture their own convenient world of illusions out of the whole cloth of their personal beliefs, opinions and fantasies. When they win elections, they win by 99.6 percent. When unemployment and inflation are skyrocketing, they see annual economic growth of 15 percent. When people are starving, they see “pockets of severe malnutrition”. As they continue to abuse power without any legal restraints and convince themselves that they are above the law and accountable to no one but themselves, they transform their world of illusion into a world of delusion where they become both the “lone rangers” of the old American West and the sole custodians of the Holy Grail, with miraculous powers to save their nation.
African dictators are narcissistic. They believe they are the center of the universe and everything revolves around them. Because they are narcissistic, they are limited in their thinking, selective in their views, narrow in their vision, intolerant of dissent, solicitous of praise and adulation often surrounding themselves with yes-men, distrustful of everyone (except those in the small close group of people who feed them only the information they want to hear). They remain rigid and inflexible and their approach and attitude towards their opposition is never to compromise or negotiate. At best, they see their opposition as wayward children who need constant supervision, discipline and punishment to keep them in line. Their mantra is: “It’s my way which is the only way, or the highway, ain’t no way or you-are-on-your-way-to-jail!” To their way of thinking, conciliation and reconciliation with their opposition is humiliation, and a deep wound on their pride.
African dictators rule by fear, yet they and their henchmen and cronies live in a state of fear. It is true that those who are feared by the people in turn fear the people who fear them. They are afraid of their own shadows. They are afraid of criticism, and most of all they are afraid of the truth. They interact only with those in their inner circle (the “state within the state”, the “knights of the roundtable”). They often find out that their trusted and loyal lackeys have little real understanding of the outside world or the complex domestic issues and problems. Even when there are a few in the inner circle who might have some sophisticated understanding, they are often afraid to tell the dictators the truth.
Coalition Against African Dictatorships
Unless pro-democracy elements understand the psychodynamics of African dictators, they will likely remain on the defensive and inherently reactive mode. The fact of the matter is that African dictators study and know their opposition better than the opposition knows itself. They know how their opponents think, at what price they can be bought and sold and that many of them would rather join them to rip off the people than fight them. As Ayittey observed, they know even Africa’s best and brightest can be bought and sold like those in the world’s oldest profession. African dictators are always making psychological assessments of their opposition. They know what to do to exploit the smallest disagreements among their opposition. They know the leadership of their opposition is fixated on strategies that will bring quick results and avoid tactics that will work but take longer time to produce results. They know their opposition cannot prevail because they do not have the youth on their side, or have the willingness, readiness and capacity to mobilize and engage the youth. African dictators know the meaning of the statement made by their patron saint: “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.”
Know Thyself, Not Just the Dictators
To defeat African dictators, pro-democracy forces must do a great deal of self-introspection. Why do many in the African opposition do things that will help dictators become stronger? Opposition infighting is the greatest source of strength to African dictators. Why can’t opposition leaders get along with each other if they are irrevocably committed to the causes of freedom, democracy and human rights? Often opposition leaders can’t see the forest for the trees. Why don’t opposition leaders actively work to build trust, cooperation and camaraderie across party, ideological, ethnic, religious lines? Perhaps a code of conduct for opposition groups is needed to promote a culture of truth-telling, fair and ethical dealing, tolerance and loyalty to principles and causes than individuals regardless of their leadership role.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a commentary complaining about the disarray in the Ethiopian opposition and pleading with opposition elements to put the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights above partisan or individual interests.
Those genuinely in the opposition must accept responsibility for their inability to come together and articulate a vision for the country. They deserve blame for squandering valuable opportunities to build organizational alliances, develop alternative policies and train young leaders… But that is no excuse for not closing ranks against dictatorship now, and presenting a united front in support of democracy, freedom and human rights.
When we understand the dictators and ourselves, we can devise strategies and tactics to replace the “vampire African states” that Ayittey often speaks about with democratic governments that operate under the rule of law and with the consent of the people. Ayittey said, “Africa is poor because she is not free.” I say Africa remains under the boots of ruthless dictators because her best and brightest children are the shoe-shiners of the dictators. It is time to close ranks against African dictators.