MOHANDAS Karmachand Gandhi (The Mahatma or Great Soul) is today revered as a historical figure who fought against colonialism, racism and injustice. But he was also one of the greatest modern revolutionary political thinkers and moral theorists.
While Nicolo Machiavelli taught tyrants how to acquire power and keep it through brute force, deceit and divide and rule, Gandhi taught ordinary people simple sure-fire techniques to bring down dictatorships.
Gandhi learned from history that dictators, regardless of their geographic origin, cleverness, wealth, fame or brutality, in the end always fall: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it, always.”
Last month, it was Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s turn to fall, and for the Tunisian people to get some respite from their despair. In the dead of night, Ben Ali packed his bags and winged it out of the country he had ruled with an iron fist for 23 years to take up residence in Saudi Arabia, where he was received with open arms and kisses on the cheeks. Uganda’s bloodthirsty dictator Idi Amin also found a haven in Saudi Arabia until his death in 2003 at age 80.
Ben Ali’s sudden downfall and departure came as a surprise to many within and outside Tunisia as did the sudden flight of the fear-stricken Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia back in 1991.
When push came to shove, Mengistu, the military man with nerves of steel who had bragged that he would be the last man standing when the going got tough, became the first man to blow out of town on a fast plane to Zimbabwe.
Such has been the history of African dictators: When the going gets a little tough, the little dictators get going to some place where they can peacefully enjoy the hundreds of millions of dollars they have stolen and stashed away in European and American banks.
The end for Tunisia’s dictator (but not his dictatorship which is still functioning as most of his corrupt minions remain in the saddles of power) came swiftly and surprised his opponents, supporters and even his international bankrollers.
President Barack Obama, who had never uttered a critical word about Ben Ali, was the first to “applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people” in driving out the dictator. He added: “We will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard.” Those memorable images will be imprinted in the minds of all oppressed Africans; and no doubt they will heed the president’s words and drive out the continent’s dictators to pasture one by one.
After nearly a quarter century of dictatorial rule, few expected Ben Ali to be toppled so easily. He seemed to be in charge, in control and invincible. Many expected the 75 year-old Ben Ali to install his wife or son in-law in power and invisibly pull the puppet strings behind the throne.
But any such plans were cut short on December 17 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old college graduate set himself on fire to protest the police confiscation of his unlicensed vegetable cart. Apparently, he was fed up with paying “bakseesh” (bribe) to the cops.
His death triggered massive public protests led by students, intellectuals, lawyers, trade unionists and other opposition elements. Bouazizi was transformed into a national martyr and the fallen champion of Tunisia’s downtrodden — the unemployed, the urban poor, the rural dispossessed, students, political prisoners and victims of human rights abuses.
Bouazizi’s form of protest by self-immolation is most unusual in these turbulent times when far too many young people have expressed their despair and anger by strapping themselves with explosives and causing the deaths of so many innocent people.
Bouazizi, it seems, chose to end his despair and dramatise to the world the political repression, extreme economic hardships and the lack of opportunity for young people in Tunisia by ending his own life in such a tragic manner. He must have believed in his heart that his self-sacrifice could lead to political transformation.
Truth be told, Tunisia is not unique among African countries whose people have undergone prolonged economic hardships and political repression while the leaders and their parasitic flunkies cling to power and live high on the hog stashing millions abroad.
In Ethiopia, the people today suffer from stratospheric inflation, soaring prices, extreme poverty, high unemployment (estimated at 70% for the youth) and a two-decade old dictatorship that does not give a hoot or allows them a voice in governance (in May 2010, the ruling party “won” 99,6% of the seats in parliament).
In December 2010, inflation was running at 15% (according to government reports), but in reality at a much higher rate. The trade imbalance is mindboggling: A whopping US$7 billion in imports to US$1,2 billion worth of exports in 2009-10.
In desperation, the regime recently imposed price caps on basic food stuffs and began a highly publicised official campaign to tar and feather “greedy” merchants and businessmen for causing high prices, the country’s economic woes and sabotaging the so-called growth and transformational plan.
Hundreds of merchants and businessmen have been canned and await kangaroo court trials for hoarding, price-gouging and quite possibly for global warming as well.
Without firing a single shot, Gandhi was able to successfully lead a movement which liberated India from the clutches of centuries of British colonialism using nonviolence and passive resistance as a weapon. Gandhi believed that it was possible to non-violently struggle and win against injustice, discrimination and abuse of basic human rights, be it in caste-divided India or racially divided South Africa.
Ben Ali left Tunisia in a jiffy not because of a military or palace coup but as a result of a popular uprising that went on unabated for a month.
The Tunisian people’s revolution provides practical insights into the prerequisites for dismantling dictatorships in Africa. The first lesson is that when dictatorships end, their end could come with a bang or a whimper, and without warning.
Second, there is always the risk of losing the victory won by the people in the streets by a disorganised and dithering opposition prepared to draw out the long knives at the first whiff of power in the air.
Third, when tyrants fall, the immediate task is to dismantle the police state they have erected before they have a chance to strike back. Their modus operandi is well known: The dictators will decree a state of emergency, impose curfews and issue shoot-to-kill orders to terrorise the population and crush the people’s hopes and reinforce their sense of despair, powerlessness, isolation, and fear.
Fourth, it is manifest that Western support for African dictators is only skin deep.
Ben Ali was toasted in the West as the great moderniser and bulwark against religious extremism and all that. The West threw him under the bus and “applauded” the people who overthrew him before his plane touched down in Saudi Arabia.
Ultimately, the more practical strategy to successfully dismantle dictatorships is to build and strengthen inclusive coalitions and alliances of anti-dictatorship forces who are willing to stand up and demand real change. If such coalitions and alliances could not be built now, the outcome when the dictators fall will be just a changing of the guards: old dictator out, new dictator in.
The Tunisian people’s revolution should be an example for all Africans struggling to breathe under the thumbs and boots of ruthless dictators. It is interesting to note that there was a complete news blackout of the Tunisian people’s revolution in countries like Ethiopia. They do not want Ethiopians to get any funny ideas.
On November 11 2005, Meles Zenawi — defending the massacre of hundreds of people in the streets — said: “This is not your run-of-the-mill demonstration. This is an Orange revolution (in Ukraine) gone wrong.” Ben Ali said the same thing until he found himself on a fast jet to Jeddah.
From India to Poland to the Ukraine to Czechoslovakia and Chile decades-old dictatorships have been overthrown in massive acts of civil disobedience and passive resistance. There is no doubt dictators from Egypt to Zimbabwe are having nightmares from Tunisia’s version of a “velvet” or “orange” revolution.
In his “Quit India” speech in August 1942, Gandhi made observations that are worth considering in challenging dictatorships in Africa: “In the democracy which I have envisaged, a democracy established by non-violence, there will be equal freedom for all. Everybody will be his own master. It is to join a struggle for such democracy that I invite you today. Once you realise this you will forget the differences between the Hindus and Muslims, and think of yourselves as Indians only, engaged in the common struggle for independence…
“I have noticed that there is hatred towards the British among the people. The people say they are disgusted with their behaviour. The people make no distinction between British imperialism and the British people. To them, the two are one. We must get rid of this feeling. Our quarrel is not with the British people, we fight their imperialism.”
Alemayehu G Mariam is professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino. Follow him on twitter @pal4thedefense.