Review by Didas Gasana
‘Dictators are impervious to reason. The only voice a dictator listens to is his own voice. Political repression is an effective weapon in the hands of African despots. 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. As prostitutes, they have partaken of the plunder, misrule and repression of their people’, writes George Ayittey in his latest masterpiece ‘Defeating Dictators: Fighting Tyranny in Africa and Around the World (2011).
After publishing Africa Betrayed (1992) and Africa Unchained (2005), intellectual gadfly, Professor George B.N. Ayittey has crafted yet another masterpiece 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”(218). 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. It is worth your time.
Interestingly, Ayittey does not handle Africa’s political opposition parties with kid 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 political opposition parties struggling to unseat dictators in Africa. In his own words, “It takes an intelligent or smart opposition to make a democracy work”(4), not the rah-rah noisy type that simply chants ‘Biya must go!’ He maintains that dictators have triumphed mainly because the opposition is fragmented, lack focus and prone to squabbling.
All too often, opposition parties that set out to liberate their countries from tyranny win 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 (164). 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” (165). 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. One would imagine he had Rwanda in mind. 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” (181). 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 (168). 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.
My own view on the argument pointed at by the writer regarding when to agree on the rules of the political playing field is that they cannot be defined easily once the dictator has been ousted. Opportunism and guns might be running high and loud at that time. Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo are typical examples where no possibility of changing the scenery was predictable after the departure of so called dictators. It all depends on how the incumbent is forced out of office. The more a level playing field could be established before, the more it would help, since there would be at least a reference for any unruly player after the dictator would have been removed from power. Another point concerns the objective of any political opposition. It should not be only the removal of the dictator where dictatorship prevails but to uproot the corrupt and sometime criminal system that the incumbent might have established over the years.