IN his seminal work, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule, Milan Svolik says a typical journalistic account of how dictators are swept from power invokes the image of a spontaneously gathered crowd in the central square of the country’s capital; throngs of people riotously chanting “Down with the dictator! He must Go!! Go now!!!”, as the despot desperately tries to hang onto to power by his fingernails.
Editor’s Memo by Dumisani Muleya
Some of such episodes end up with the dictator evicted from power, and the dawn of a new democratic dispensation, while others result in a vicious backlash.
Recall the story of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu whose brutal rule ended in 1989 after a state-sanctioned rally swelled into a dramatic popular uprising.
Ceausescu was given the freedom of the City of Harare after a state visit to Zimbabwe in 1983 as he had helped the liberation struggle and established close ties with President Robert Mugabe.
Following nearly a decade of fierce repression and severe shortages of goods under a draconian command economic policy, riots erupted in Timisoara, the country’s third largest city, in December 1989.
When government called for a rally in the capital Bucharest — during which Ceausescu intended to condemn the riots and intimidate protestors — a crowd of about 100 000 revolted, demanding he must go.
Faced with frightening confrontation, Ceausescu first offered a carrot — higher salaries — but when this was rejected, he ordered security forces to descend on the crowd. Security forces initially cracked down on protestors but when demonstrations spread across the country and spiralled out of control, the army refused to continue with brutality against the population.
Within 72 hours, Ceausescu was unexpectedly arrested and, after a summary military trial, he was executed by a firing squad with his wife Elena, beside a toilet block in a freezing courtyard.
Paratrooper Ionel Boyeru led them out as Ceausescu sang the Internationale and his hysterical wife — who was very powerful and had a fake PhD — screamed “f**k you!”, lined them up against a wall and then strafed them with bullets from his AK assault rifle. But those few seconds have shadowed Boyeru’s whole life.
The decisive confrontation between Ceausescu’s regime and Romanian masses epitomises the first of the two fundamental problems of dictatorial rule which Svolik identifies: authoritarian control. The second one is power-sharing.
Conventional wisdom suggests most dictators are ousted through popular uprising, as happened during the 2011 Arab Spring. Yet Svolik says this is simply inconclusive.
Svolik details various non-constitutional ways through which dictators are booted out and includes how despots who held office for at least one day between 1946 and 2008 were removed.
Out of 303 leaders toppled between those years, only 32 went through popular uprisings, while 30 were forced out via irresistible public pressure — accounting for only about one-fifth of non-constitutional exists. About 20 were assassinated, while 16 were overthrown by foreign intervention.
The remaining — 205 dictators or over two-thirds — were removed by the regime’s insiders; disgruntled influential individuals or elites from the despot’s inner circle.
Over the years there have been numerous attempts to remove Mugabe and Zanu PF from power through different methods ranging from elections, sustained popular pressure to Western measures. There have also been stay-aways, protests and even riots by soldiers. All this failed, not just because Mugabe is shrewd but largely due to internal cohesion. The regime’s elite and ordinary supporters stood by him.
However, due to infighting over his succession, Mugabe and his party now face a tragic endgame.
The expulsion of former vice-president Joice Mujuru and hordes of allies has created a conflict of elites that could consume and finally destroy Zanu PF.
As Svolik shows such authoritarian regimes are usually destroyed by disgruntled insiders. The Mujuru affair is possibly going to be the pathway to Zanu PF’s eventual demise.