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Review of ‘Defeating dictators: Fighting Tyranny in Africa and Around the World’

Peter Wuteh Vakunta seems convinced that George B. N. Ayittey has written ‘a blueprint for oppositional militancy, a veritable modus operandi for undoing dictators in the contemporary world’. He thinks it is a must read for every student of African politics.

After publishing Africa Betrayed (1992) and Africa Unchained (2005), intellectual gadfly Professor George B. N. Ayittey has crafted yet another masterpiece, ‘Defeating dictators: fighting tyranny in Africa and around the world’ (2011) in which he adumbrates the deceptive habits of highly defective despotic regimes in Africa and beyond. Ayittey contends that a dictator is a dictator. He further points out that, ‘The only good dictator is a dead one’. The crux of the argument in his book is that Africans and other people chaffing under the yoke of despotism should steer clear of confusing ideological with systemic dictatorship - dictatorship that emerges from faulty institutions and systems. Any political system that concentrates power in the hands of one person, he argues, will inevitably degenerate into a dictatorship. The culprit is the system - not ideology or culture.

‘Defeating dictators’ is a vitriolic lampoon of abuse of power, electoral gerrymandering and rape of democracy in the developing world. Ayittey observes that ‘modern dictators come in different shades, races, skin colors and religions, and they profess various ideologies’ . This notwithstanding, despots have a lot in common: they are leaders who are not chosen by their people and therefore do not represent the people’s aspirations. As opposition mounts against them, they refine their tactics and learn new tricks in an attempt to stem the tide of pro-democracy forces. Despotic governments are highly deceptive regimes that are recognizable from distinctive traits.

Unyielding grip on power is the hallmark of every dictator in Africa. Elections are farcical and always won by the despot. As Ayittey would have it, dictators ‘fix the rules of the game and secure 90 percent of the vote all the time’. Dictators grow senile and then they start to groom their sons, wives and half-brothers to succeed them. African despots are notorious for these treasonous acts of insanity: Paul Biya of Cameroon, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Tunisia, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Idris Deby of Chad and more.

Dictators have the knack for looting the nation’s coffers. More often than not, the country is broke because the dictator and his henchmen have looted the treasury unashamedly and stashed their loot in foreign bank accounts – the safe haven is Switzerland. The dire consequence is that the country is saddled with a mountain of foreign debt. Ayittey laments the fact that ‘Paul Biya, the dictator of Cameroon, who has been in power for 29 years, has received a long series of loans – known as ‘Poverty Reduction Growth Facilities’ – from the IMF’. When the same poor Cameroonians in whose name he had received the loans protested in 2008 against skyrocketing food prices and a constitutional amendment that was intended to extend his rule to 2018, Mr Biya ordered his brutal security forces to fire live bullets at protesters. One hundred people died instantly. Ayittey notes that ‘many of the victims were apparently shot in the head at point-blank range…’

Dictators are impervious to reason. The only voice a dictator listens to is his own. Political repression is an effective weapon in his hands. Opposition parties are either outlawed or accorded very little political leeway. Key opposition leaders are arrested, intimidated, hounded and even killed. Cowed into submission, some intellectuals in the opposition tend to switch camps. In other words, they become political prostitutes. Though highly educated, with PhDs, a multitude of them have sold off their consciences, integrity and principles as they kowtow to the diktats of barbarous dictators. Ayittey says that ‘as prostitutes, they have partaken of the plunder, misrule and repression of their people’.

The pet aversion of all dictators is press freedom. Censorship is imposed; journalists, newspaper editors and columnists are harassed and arrested for telling the truth. Newspapers, radio and television stations that are critical of the despot are shut down. Ayittey points out that ‘it is important to keep in mind that a despotic regime can always block or shut down a critical media outlet and that the remaining ones are often state controlled’. Although freedom of expression is guaranteed by Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, Article 9 of the Banjul Charter of Human and People’s rights, and the constitutions of many countries in Africa, this has not deterred Africa’s dictators from violating this fundamental human right of citizens.

The reason for this state of affairs is simple: dictators love to hide their failures; they want to keep citizens and the international community in the dark about the heinous crimes they have committed and continue to commit. Free media exposes their lies, bloopers and gross incompetence. That explains why President Biya of Cameroon took it upon himself to imprison Mr Pius Njawe, owner of the ‘Le Messager’ group of newspapers more than 100 times for reporting on corruption and other sensitive topics before his premature death at the age of 53 in a car accident near Norfolk in the United States not long ago.

The grim reality about all this is that despotism and tyranny have socio-economic ramifications. Autocracy depletes the human conscience and dignity. It exacts a heavy toll on human and economic capital. Infrastructure such as telecommunications, roads, airports, bridges, schools, hospitals and seaports begin to crumble because contracts are awarded by the despot to his cronies, close friends and family members. Ayittey notes that ‘commercial properties of businessmen alleged to be ‘anti-government’ may be confiscated or seized for distribution to the poor masses in the name of social justice’ . He further points out that such was the case in Zimbabwe, where the despotic regime of Robert Mugabe (in power for 29 years) organized ruthless thugs to grab white commercial farmlands.

In a similar vein, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (in power for 10 years) seized rural estates and factories, including some assets of Lorenzo Mendoza, Venezuela’s second wealthiest man, and of HJ Heinz Co., the world’s largest ketchup maker. Such contempt of property rights undoubtedly scares off potential investors who nurse the fear that they may be the next victims in the hands of a predatory regime. Foreign investors have fled Venezuela on account of Chavez’s dictatorial policies. Inane diktats and reckless mismanagement of state funds inevitably engender economic doldrums.

Africa is replete with tin god dictators whose deleterious governmental modus operandi has brought untold hardship upon their people. A handful of despots on the continent have inflicted misery, despair, hopelessness and death on millions of citizens who have protested against tyrannical rule. Hundreds of thousands have been jailed. Women have been gang raped by security forces in open daylight on account of their affiliation to opposition political parties (Guinea and DRC). Some more have fled their homelands to become refugees in foreign lands.

Dictatorial leaders are self-seeking and insensitive to the plight of the governed. They take over and subvert key institutions (civil service, judiciary, media, etc) to serve their interests. They are poor at governance given that good governance entails not only cognitive wherewithal but also the ability to compromise and bargain successfully with a plethora of competing groups. They are terrible at economic management, hence the demise of domestic industries.

Interestingly, Ayittey does not handle Africa’s political opposition parties with kid’s gloves. Although he does not paint the continent’s tyrants and the opposition with the same brush, he finds fault with the modus operandi of most opposition parties struggling to unseat dictators in Africa. ‘It takes an intelligent or smart opposition to make a democracy work’ , not the rah-rah noisy type that simply chants ‘Biya must go!’ He maintains that dictators have triumphed mainly because the opposition is fragmented, lacks focus and is prone to squabbling.

All too often, opposition parties that set out to liberate their countries from tyranny wind up selling out, fighting among themselves and sowing seeds of discord. Some opposition leaders are themselves closet dictators, exhibiting the same dictatorial tendencies they so loudly denounce in the dictators they are eager to replace. Ayittey sounds a note of admonition to Africa’s opposition political parties: ‘No single individual or group by itself can effect political change. It takes a united opposition or alliance of democratic forces’.

The prime objective of any bona fide opposition group or groups should be to get rid of the dictatorial regime. Once this task has been accomplished, the opposition can then establish a level political playing field. All other issues such as who the new president should be, what the new flag or national currency should look like are distractions; they are irrelevant and secondary. These issues are divisive and nothing delights a despotic leader more than a divided opposition. The opposition has to be conscious of the fact that the dictator may infiltrate their ranks by planting moles among them with the intention of destroying the opposition. Such moles, Ayittey suggests, ‘need to be tracked down and squashed’. A smart strategy would be to identify the props of the despotic regime and sever them methodically, one at a time.

Last but not least, to defeat a tyrant in an election, a coalition of opposition parties must field only one presidential candidate. Once a coalition of opposition forces has been cobbled together, the second imperative should be to lay down the rules of combat. The first rule is to know the enemy - the type of dictator (civilian or military), how he operates, his strengths and weaknesses. Then, it is incumbent on the oppositional coalition to devise effective counter-strategies and modalities for defeating the despotic leader. Most importantly, the language of the opposition must be devoid of zealotry, incensed ideology, ethnocentrism and elitism.

In a nutshell, at time when the entire world is agog with expectations about what the ‘Arab spring’ portends for countless people gripped by stifling fear and apprehension under dictatorial regimes in Africa and around the world, Ayittey has produced a work that may fulfill the crucial function of a blueprint for oppositional militancy, a veritable modus operandi for undoing dictators in the contemporary world. ‘Defeating dictators’ is the handiwork of an academic virtuoso. The language is lucid and free of sophistry. This book is a treasure trove of information that deserves to be read meticulously by every student of Africa’s political economy. Students, researchers and casual readers would find Ayittey’s new brainwave a fascinating book to read.


* George B. N. Ayittey’s ‘Defeating Dictators: Fighting Tyranny in Africa and Around the World ’ is published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 (ISBN-13: 978-0230108592).
* Peter Wuteh Vakunta is professor of Modern Languages at the Department of Defense Language Institute, Monterey-California, USA.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.