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Last week’s outrage by the people of Burkina Faso against the dictatorship of former President Blaise Compaore that eventually led to the downfall of his government showed once again that African autocrats never learn from history. Here is a man who had been in office for 27 years but felt unconvinced that he had stayed long enough in power to annoy the citizens by his corrupt lifestyle and his unwillingness to relinquish power.
Compaore was so much in a hurry to change the constitution that would allow him to be eligible to contest the next presidential election in November 2015 that he introduced a bill to immediately tamper with the constitution. It was his haste, his lack of patience that finally galvanised the people to rise in opposition to his evil plot. Compaore overreached himself by attempting to extend his tenure. This is the tragedy of one man’s idiotic decision to stay in office longer than the citizens were willing to accept him.
Compaore, it must be remembered, came to power in 1987. Initially, he was widely loved by his people through some of his policies. But, like all dictators, he systematically turned himself into a one-man brutal tyrant that tortured his critics as he clamped down on freedom of the press and the freedom of the people to express themselves.
All over Africa, we have seen this characteristic element of dictators before. Leaders once regarded as wise and skilful pathetically schemed themselves out of office. In less than one week of popular uprising against his government, Compaore was transformed from a dreaded and sinister president to an ordinary man who went into hiding to escape the anger of the people he once ruled with iron fist. Suddenly, a man who lived in his swanky presidential palace is now struggling to find a decent place to rest his wearied bones and his sleep-deprived eyes.
The last days of Compaore as president exemplify the ephemeral nature of life. One day you might be king but the next day you could start a life of misery. Life will never be the same again for this former president of Burkina Faso. He must be mulling over what might have been, how his life previously decorated with roses has taken a sharp and sudden turn to open disgrace.
Cushioned by of his ostentatious lifestyle that has tragically transformed into a self-imposed exile, deprived of his former battalion of aides, his fully-armed security guards and all the privileges that dictators enjoy, Compaore must be scratching his head, wondering how everything came tumbling down so quickly. He has dropped from the well respected position of president to the perplexing world of iniquitous men awaiting trial for abuse of office, for unprecedented corruption, for abuse of human rights of the citizens, and for dragging his country to take the unenviable position of the world’s poorest country.
The question that people across the world, who would have been surprised at the quick downfall of the legendary dictator, must be asking is: how could a man so obsessed with power, wealth, wine and women suddenly become so abhorred by his own people? The unmitigated answer is this. Compaore failed to learn from history what happened to dictators who overstayed their welcome in various African countries and indeed outside of Africa. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the world witnessed the extraordinary ousting of renowned autocrats such as Nicolae Ceau?escu of Romania and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines.
Beyond these two instances, Compaore should have learnt from the abuses committed by other despots in Africa that eventually culminated in their overthrow in 2011 in North Africa. No matter how his supporters choose to venerate him, it must be said that Compaore was pathologically blind and deaf. He failed to see and learn from other dictators’ cardinal sins. Authoritarian leaders tend to believe that the good times will last forever. They never imagine that the good life will come to an end for them and their family members.
Having watched last week the rapid outburst of anger by the people of Burkina Faso against the dictatorship of Compaore that eventually forced the despot to vacate office, I can now confirm the popular view that those whom the gods want to destroy they first crown kings. This is true in Compaore’s case as it was correct in the tragic stories of other dictators in Africa.
Compaore wanted to be smarter than the 17 million people of Burkina Faso who have been pauperised by his government. He wanted to tamper with the constitution to make himself legally qualified to contest the November 2015 presidential election. But civil society in Burkina Faso, long used to seeing the dominant face of only one man for 27 years, could not take it any longer. The people stood up against Compaore’s strategy to continue to impose himself and his family on the rest of the country. Since 1987 when he came into power, Burkina Faso had been synonymous with Compaore and vice versa.
Compaore should have known better. He turned out to be the bigger fool rather than the people he was trying to fool. He suffered from the same ailment that afflicted previous dictators in Africa. They always believed that the state belonged to them and no one dared to challenge their authority. Compaore was in a position to avoid the predicament that eventually led to his overthrow.
Three years ago, Compaore watched from the safety and comfort of his presidential palace the popular uprisings that overthrew three governments in north Africa in 2011, namely the despotic regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt who stayed in office from 1981 till 2011, and the 42-year tyrannical government of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Compaore should have avoided the fate that befell these north African despots but he waved aside all advice to quit when the ovation was loudest. He wanted an extended tenure as president because 27 years of his autocratic rule was, in his view, nothing worthy of note. In the end, he fell and so the people rejoiced and danced in the streets.
It is not easy to topple repressive rulers who have been in office for too long in Africa. This is because they are ever ready to set their presidential guards, secret service agents, and military tanks on the people who demonstrate against their government. That is why people who suffered during the authoritarian rule of a despot such as Compaore who brutalised his people and caused them sleeplessness, mental distress, body aches, torment and migraines engage in ceaseless merrymaking in public spaces in any way they can.
Beyond the political events in Burkina Faso last week that ended the interminable rule of Compaore, we must look at other parts of Africa in which some dictators continue to hold court undeterred by growing public criticisms. Take, for instance, the endless reign of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. While the Zimbabwean public expects the man to relinquish his office soon, the man himself has given no indication that he would retire any time shortly. In the early years of Mugabe’s endless presidency, Zimbabwe was known as the food basket of southern Africa owing to abundant agricultural production. Now, the country has taken up the unappealing title of the basket case of Africa.
In Zimbabwe, all the good things that Mugabe introduced in the country in the early years of his long reign has been overshadowed by his authoritarian style and widespread abuse of human rights of the citizens. When the man finally goes or is forced to relinquish his grip on leadership, there will be many Zimbabweans who have known no other president since their birth other than Mugabe. That says a lot about the long period that the wise old man has served as president.
At least for the past 34 years, Mugabe superintended over all political, economic and social decisions in Zimbabwe. During that period, he ceased listening to advice from his official aids, his ministers and friends of the country. His contempt for western leaders prevented him from distinguishing good advice from bad advice.
Perhaps Mugabe can point to the precedents set by his contemporaries many of who have since passed on. In Africa there were despots who maintained unparalleled iron grip on their countries. They included Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire who ruled for 33 years, Gnassingbe Eyadema who ruled Togo for 38 years, Mobutu Sese Seko who reigned for 32 years in Zaire, Kenneth Kaunda who ruled for 27 years in Zambia, Daniel Arap Moi who was in power for 24 years in Kenya, Mathieu Kérékou who ruled for 19 years in Benin Republic, and Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the little man who called himself the emperor.
As the people of Burkina Faso celebrate boisterously the downfall of the tyrant that held power for more than 27 years, there are some lessons to be learnt even by other autocrats in the making. The first message is all about the transient nature of political power. For 32 years, Mobutu Sese Seko felt nothing could stop his hold on power other than death. He was right but so too were all those who cautioned him that, regardless of how he entertained himself while in power, he would never outlive the Zairean state. True to prediction, Mobutu Sese Seko died in exile but the state continues to live long after his demise.
On the home front, we must not forget Olusegun Obasanjo’s attempt to prolong his term as president when he tried to amend the constitution. He quickly found out that the people and the legislature were not cut out to serve as his submissive servants.
If the military in Burkina Faso are genuine about fashioning an enduring democracy for their country, they must use the exit of Compaore to create strong institutions and policies that will prevent the emergence of any dictator that could drag the country further down the ravine.
Article written by Levi Obijiofor
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