Modern Dictators: Third World Coupmakers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants » Chapter 7-Africa- Soldiers and Radicals
Africa: Soldiers and Radicals
Captain Thomas Sankara, chairman of the National Council of the Revolution and head
of state of Burkina Faso, is an obscure dictator running an equally obscure country. He
changed the name from the more prosaic Upper Volta to its new moniker meaning
“Country of Incorruptible Men.” The new name is an example both of the wish
fulfillment that so commonly colors Third World rhetoric and of the importance of
symbolism in shaping the consciousness of the people. Sankara’s political ideas are also
typical of the military and radical-sounding regimes that have come to dominate Africa.
Speaking in his capital, Ouagadougou, on the second anniversary of the “Popular
and Democratic Revolution” in August 1985, Sankara explained: “The aim of our
revolution [is] the constant search for the happiness of our people … the continual,
eventful transformation and departure from the present which has kept us prisoner.”
The desire to escape from underdevelopment and weakness is a powerful
incentive; the rejection of an unhappy present is a rationale for revolution. Explains
Sankara, referring to the wasted post-independence era: “What does going too fast mean
when we still have 23 years to catch up [on]!” Modern dictators not only rail at the
country’s underdevelopment but also reject the efforts of their predecessors in trying to
cope with it. Many citizens, whose own lives have not been visibly improved by the
preceding regimes, are ready to agree that too much time has been lost in bickering and
that something new is needed.
In and of itself, Burkina Faso is one of the least important countries in Africa, but
its history provides a good case study for the appeal of modern dictators and their ideas.
Sankara’s radical Third World ideology includes such ingredients as Marxism, Qaddafi’s
influence, Maoism, African socialism, and French leftism.
Burkina Faso has only 7 million people, almost all of them poor peasants. Its
infrastructure was only slightly improved by the French colonial rulers. Exports of beef,
peanuts, and cotton bring in little money, and many workers have emigrated to the
relatively booming Ivory Coast. Inevitably the country has been dependent on foreign
assistance, and aid agencies from abroad compete for scarce office space in the capital.
The government put into place by the departing French did not last very long; and
a military regime took power in 1968 under General Sangoulé Lamizana. The junta made
no major changes in the country and a decade later held elections under a new
constitution promising civil liberties, the right to work, health care, and education. These
three stages were seen in other African countries where no strong leader emerged to
become a modern dictator:
The original regime rules without any real effort to win popular allegiance or to
guarantee control of the military. It lasts only until the army realizes its own
The military seizes power but does not know what to do with it. The costume of
the ruler but not the system itself has been changed.
Finally, the dictator returns to a familiar civilian model, either keeping power
himself or turning it over to the older generation of politicians.
These all were fairly minimalist types of government, content with the issuing of orders
in the capital city and control of the treasury. On one level this approach is realistic. A
five-year development plan can be more easily drawn up than funded. Universal primary
education may be pledged, but by 1975 Burkina Faso had been able to enroll only 14
percent of children.
Given the inevitable disappointment with the government’s performance and the
ambitions of officers, the elected government lasted two years before it was overthrown
by the Military Committee for the Recovery of National Progress in 1980. The new
junta’s name shows the soldiers’ belief that the country was stagnating. Having observed
the outcome when Lamizana stepped down, this military regime was determined to be
tougher. It arrested trade unionists and student leaders, outlawed strikes, and banned
meetings of independent organizations. But the Military Committee did not take the
additional step of creating its own supportive groups.
So in 1982 the Military Committee in turn was overthrown the People’s Salvation
Council, from which emerged Captain Sankara, already distinguished as a hero of earlier
border skirmishes with Mali. The colorful Sankara, then in his mid-thirties, enjoyed some
support from Libyan dictator Qaddafi and composed his own “revolutionary music” on
his guitar. Regardless of how long Sankara personally will rule Burkina Faso, the
political and ideological underpinnings of his regime take the country to the level of
While Sankara can attract some Libyan and Soviet bloc aid, his takeover hardly
solves the country’s shortage of resources. His first step is to argue that
underdevelopment is an artificial situation created by the local elite’s selfishness and
incompetence and by the domination of foreign imperialists. In contrast with previous
regimes that were content to cultivate popular passivity, Sankara argued that development
can arise only from the willpower of a highly organized and motivated people.
Radical ideology is supposed to be the key to unleashing this great effort. It
provides an explanation for the failures to date–the obstructionism and exploitation of
foreign imperialists and domestic class enemies-and a method for defeating them. It
glorifies the people and rationalizes the dictatorship. When leaders cannot cope with their
tremendous problems, the ideology of modern dictatorship provides ways to turn rivals
into scapegoats and to keep the masses enthusiastic and in line. Even if a given dictator is
discredited and overthrown, his successor can use the same arguments and the same
system. The people, who yesterday abandoned the old dictator, will cheer the new one
out of fear, opportunism, conformity, conviction, and patriotism-or some mixture of all
these factors. Just as the structure of populistic dictatorship can survive, its ideology
becomes a new opiate of the people, easing their pain and sorrows at their current sad
The Chinese approach to ideology, unlike the Soviet one, offered an unbounded
belief in the creative power of the people. Mao’s “foolish old man who removed the
mountain” did it little by little with his patient labor. He, did not need a bulldozer or
dump truck. This was, of course, the philosophy of the Cultural Revolution, before
Peking decided that modern technology, expertise, and material incentives were
necessary. The African ideologists who embraced or duplicated such views in the 1970s
and 1980s were simply taking and adapting what most fitted their needs.
To provide an appearance of progress, keep the masses busy, stir the enthusiasm
of a long-passive people, and tie them to the government, radical modern dictatorships
pursue one campaign after another. There have been Stalin’s dams and canals, Cuba’s
pursuit of a 10-million-ton harvest, Iran’s crusade against Iraq, Nicaragua’s literacy
campaign, and so on. Sankara recalls Burkina Faso’s “crash vaccination campaign as a
successful gigantic effort to check diseases. Along with the battle for a railroad, the
campaigns are achievements that only the revolution can make possible.” Other
innovations include the Revolutionary People’s Tribunals and efforts to make prisoners
productive: “At Baporo and Yelkoto, 40 prisoners are successfully exploiting 50 hectares
of land, thus confirming that it is possible to instill … the ethic of progress when a man is
determined to earn forgiveness from the people.”
As in Sankara’s prison reform, campaigns are intended to develop resources and
train the “new man,” whose ethic is cooperation, self-sacrifice, dedication, and reliability.
Some of the goals are deemed good in most societies. For example, Sankara advocates
the fair treatment of women and children in a historically male-dominated society of
polygamy in which wives are turned “into maid servants.” The state mandates
laws.guaranteeing wives “reasonable financial support” from husbands. This is the kind
of social program–along with public education, unemployment insurance, old-age
pensions, and so on–common in countries thinking of themselves as developed but rarely
available in Third World countries.
Lacking organized social reform movements or lobbies and lacking the time for a
long, slow process of progress, the state must become the principal innovator of and
educator toward change. In terms of Third World rhetoric, this role of the state is what is
most often behind the word “socialism.”
Building a nation and national identity is the state’s most important single task.
Sankara claims, “Our society is becoming mature and united and the [people] are
beginning to understand and agree on the need for solidarity beyond the small family,
tribal, or village cells. When the children from Ouagadougou and the women from
Orodara raise funds to assist the victims of the Gorom-Gororn disaster … this is surely an
eloquent sign…. When militants of the Revolutionary Defense Committees … from
various provinces come together to build the Sourou canal or lay the rails for the Sahel
railroads … they think of the whole of Burkina Faso.”
Some of this boosterism is trying to talk away real problems. “In spite of the
mobilization of our masses to move mountains [a paraphrase of Mao] we felt that we
were still moving in lukewarm semidarkness,” complains Sankara. It is often difficult to
tell whether the “militants” are really volunteers or sullen victims of forced labor or if the
prisoners being allegedly rehabilitated through work are actually being starved and
tortured. Such realities often-but by no means always-stand behind the slogans and
billboards of modern dictatorships.
Training people for national loyalty and responsibility is a necessary and desirable
duty of the state. The people must become socially conscious and nationally conscious,
able to look beyond their families, tribes, and regions to the needs of the nation as a
whole. Thus, Sankara trumpets his revolution’s social and psychological function:
“Progress, true progress, would not have been achieved as long as man himself remained
But the modern dictatorship wants to foster only activism that it closely directs.
The regime’s subjects frequently see their ruler’s double standards and hypocrisy. Even
criticism of the society can become a government monopoly: The state media may
publicize abuses of power in order to purge individual officials and provide scapegoats.
All such shortcomings are transmuted into propaganda for the regime since they are
labeled as counterrevolutionary and temporary phenomena that will be eliminated by
“We must root out … impersonators, opportunists, and hypocrites incapable of
leading a consistent struggle,” says Sankara. “it is among them that we find neofeudal …
elements with base ambitions…. We must emphatically tell our military and paramilitary
law enforcement forces that [they] cannot behave like the drunken, barbaric, repressive,
and cruel agents of bygone times.” We must “rid our forces of law and order of their
repulsive image without harming their firmness and their vigilance.”
Such talk and the action it sometimes-though not always-entails serve several
purposes. The regime’s misdeeds are rationalized since those who behave badly are by
definition not true revolutionaries. There is an element of sincere effort to set up a selfcorrecting
mechanism. Since there is no opposition, independent judiciary, or free press,
the government tries to police itself. Such efforts almost always fail to end dictatorship’s
innate abuses-Khomeini’s endless preaching of Islamic morality could not root out even
clerical corruption–though they may curb the unbridled looting and humiliation of
common people that wreck so many traditional dictatorships.
The leader thus faces a major paradox. He is attempting to convince the people to
step forward, become active, complain when things go wrong, and refuse to become
cynical about the revolution. Yet a citizen unprotected from powerful officials and liable
to be called a traitor for the mildest deviation is likely to remain silent and passive. Most
peasants will not complain if agents of the secret police are rude to them. But the tamed
conformist participation that the regime seeks in order to mobilize support for itself is
easier to organize. When leaders and policies are periodically denounced for failures, lose
in factional battles or become victims of new coups, the masses are allowed some
officially sanctioned revenge against some of their rulers.
The dictator’s life is a dangerous, insecure one, and it is not surprising that he is
obsessed with discovering and denouncing enemies. Sankara even anticipates criticism of
paranoia and repression by charging that foreign conspirators “finance and arm
counterrevolutionaries to attack us and then invoke human rights considerations.”
The claim that critics are tools of imperialism fulfills both domestic and
international purposes. Western leftists and many intellectuals remain silent lest they help
the reactionary forces against the progressives. Some foreign journalists and scholars
whitewash repressive and incompetent Third World regimes to avoid charges of racism.
These groups often accept the governments’ claims to represent the people’s will.
Within the country itself the regime’s cries of subversive conspiracies may he
believed by many and sometimes are even true. Aside from fear and national pride, the
regime’s warnings of subversion strike a responsive popular chord for another reason. It
is easy to believe that undermining the current rulers is more likely to produce anarchy
than improvement. The understandable fear of average people that things could be worse,
in view of the destructiveness of civil war or constant changes in government, makes the
incumbents’ survival more acceptable if their rule is at all tolerable. In many cases the
alternative leaders would not act any better if they actually gained power.
The dictator, of course, has no difficulty in choosing repression in order to
survive. If political rivals or dissidents–in Sankara’s words, “plotters and assassins”–are
not crushed, “they would persist and threaten to overthrow our regime.”* (*Sankara was
correct but, as so often happens, the effective “plotters and assassins” were within his
regime. In October 1987 Sankara was overthrown and killed by his second-in-command,
who branded him a “traitor and renegade,” but then established a similar regime with the
So faintheartedness or half measures are unacceptable. The personal and
collective, selfish and idealistic costs of defeat–death, exile, the loss of privileges, a
reversal of the regime’s achievements, the forfeiture of national independence–are too
high to risk. “Comrades,” concluded Sankara in his anniversary speech, “as you know, it
is a matter of winning.”
What Sankara is preaching-and the same sentiments can be found more or less
articulately expressed by several dozen African and other Third World rulers like Qaddafi
and Khomeini-is a hybrid philosophy adapted to the needs of developing countries and
the requirements of modern dictators. It provides not only a set of words and symbols for
speeches on revolutionary anniversaries but also a guide for the regimes’ cadres and an
inspiration for its citizens. The fact that the ideology is imposed does not necessarily
vitiate its appeal. If the new ideas provide an interpretation of reality in accord with the
population’s experience and prior culture and belief, they may be widely accepted. In the
dizzying progression of change and novelty brought on by even the smallest doses of
modernization, many people are desperately seeking to understand what is happening to
The Third World radicalism of modern dictatorships tries to meet this demand by
blending traditional loyalties with “scientific” interpretations of international relations
and the problems of development. It tries to combine the ideas of immediate survival ,
progress in development, and a utopian goal.
First, the regime claims that only centralization, mobilization, and obedience to its
directives can save the country. Otherwise, the state will be riven with civil strife;
foreigners will destroy the nation’s sovereignty and turn its culture into a pale imitation
of the West. The leader is the symbol of national unity at home and the champion of the
people standing up to powerful enemies abroad.
Second, unless all the national resources are organized and properly directed,
there can be no hope of progress. An immediate dividend is won by expropriating the
homegrown elite or foreign interests. For the long haul, however, the economy must be
directed by the state (socialism).
Third, if this political and ideological road is properly followed, the result will be
a powerful nation, respected (and feared) abroad; blessed and happy at home. Materially
the people will enjoy the highest benefits; ethically the nation will be superior to the West
and-depending on the specific country–the Soviet bloc as well. Culturally it will raise the
existing to a higher level rather than abandon them.
The fact that such ideologies have not produced the promised results has by no
means discredited them. Even if the regime’s campaigns fizzle, large sectors of the
people remain cynical, and economic mismanagement brings disaster, such politically
useful ideas are not easily abandoned. The appeal of self-interest and idealism dictate
continued efforts. Outsiders can often underestimate the effects of partial successes like
slow but steady improvements in living standards, the promotions achieved by
individuals, or the psychological benefits of pride and national self-respect.
If the USSR remains a Communist modern dictatorship after seventy years, one
should not underestimate the strength of a roughly and theoretically comparable system
in states like Angola, Zimbabwe, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopa and others. If it has done
nothing else, the technique of modern dictatorship has taught how to gain and retain
power, and for the leaders who use it, this is a great enough achievement to justify it.
In Africa modern dictators have come to power as founding fathers of new
countries, as commanders of armed liberation movements against colonialism, or as
leaders of coups. African military takeovers have differed in several ways from the Latin
American pattern. Latin American militaries are professional, officers’ loyalties are
primarily to the institution and to the chain of command. African armies are often divided
by ideology, ethnicity, and personal ambitions. In Africa and the Middle East colonial
powers tended to recruit from smaller, marginal tribes and communities. Such soldiers
had grievances against the indigenous ruling establishment and were tempted to use their
guns to advance group interests. Officers who saw their elders quickly promoted after
independence were impatient for advancement to the higher ranks. Consequently, they
were willing and able to stage coups against each other.
When Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings staged his 1979 coup in Ghana, for
example, he executed several senior military officers, three of them former heads of state.
Most of the takeovers in coup-ridden Nigeria have been against fellow soldiers. A wouldbe
modern dictator can be somewhat less dependent on the army by becoming a civilian
and seeking popular support as an alternative. But he must still keep a firm hold on the
officer corps to avoid another coup.
The formula, perfected by Ethiopia’s military regime, which took power in 1974,
combined a revolutionary social policy (nationalization of land and industry, liquidation
of the old ruling class), an ethnic base (Amhara tribe), an imitation of Marxism-Leninism,
a close-knit group of officers (the Dergue junta), a charismatic leader (Colonel Mengistu
Haile Mariam), the repression of all competitors (secessionist ethnic groups, leftist
students), and tightly controlled party, media, and economy. In Ethiopia’s case the
regime’s political survival also entailed its stealing foreign food aid from starving people
during the famines of the 1980s to give soldiers, civil servants, and supporters.
No dictator can long forget that his principal problem is not how to bring
overnight progress or democracy but how to survive the inevitable and tremendous social
and economic problems. Usually no swift and satisfactory solution exists. The key issue
for the Ethiopian rulers, for example, is to solve the problem of power, not starvation.
African militaries all may rule by virtue of their weaponry and relatively disciplined
organization, but the life span of an individual leader or junta depends on skill in holding
on to power.
Economic disarray by itself does not cause a military coup or a dictator’s fall;
many African countries are in such dire straits most of the time. More important in
triggering a coup is the failure of any one leader or political force to gain national
hegemony. The independence leaders almost universally tried to use their broad
popularity to establish modern dictatorships. Offsetting their advantages, however, was a
lack of experience in controlling the military. They were most vulnerable in the early
years, when a few hundred, even a few dozen, troops could catch them off guard. Mobutu
took Zaire with 200 men; the anti-Nkrumah plotters had 500 reliable troops in an army of
Another superficially appealing but ultimately erroneous expectation is that a
junta is more likely to provide stable control than is a single leader. African militaries
usually lack the cohesion to make a junta work very long. Ironically, this situation
reinforces the chances of a modern dictator rather than a traditional one. An individual is
hard put to control an African army without a communal and organizational base to
inspire fear and loyalty in a larger group. Nigeria, so much bigger and more complex than
Burkina Faso, shows how difficult it is to assemble a stable and legitimate ruling group
under either a parliamentary democracy or a military junta.
Nigeria has 100 million people, 20 percent of the continent’s population. On
independence in 1960-before the discovery of extensive petroleum reserves-it had few
developed resources but at least was able to feed itself. Apart from economic
underdevelopment, tribal friction was its biggest problem. Among Nigeria’s 400
linguistic groups, three major ethnic factions disputed power: the Muslim Hausa-Fulani
in the north, the lbo in the southeast, and the Yoruba in the southwest.
For the first six years after independence Nigeria retained the parliamentary
system organized by the British. The era did not produce fond memories of electoral
politics; it was a time of rigged elections, endless legal battles, bewildering shifts in
political coalitions, sporadic violence, and revelations of corruption at every level. The
three regions were each dominated by a tribal-based party that ran its domain like an
ethnic mini-state. The politicians were not only greedy but more localist than nationalist.
Since the party system functioned in a divisive way-just as the advocates of one-party
states charge-it was impossible to assemble a strong, widely accepted central
In January 1966 Nigeria’s first coup, initiated by lower-ranking officers but
quickly co-opted by the high command, occurred after the murder of many leading
politicians. Although greeted with popular enthusiasm, the junta squandered this support
because it had not yet learned how to rule and, far worse, was considered an lbo front. A
second coup led by northerners in July–they called it a “return match”–murdered the
junta and put General Yakubu Gowon in power. The politically inexperienced Gowon
could not bring the regional governors under control. About 20,000 lbo were killed in
massacres and the lbo area seceded as the state of Biafra in May 1967.
In short, during its first political phase the army was the tool of battling ethnic
groups (as in Uganda) and only further divided the country. The politically inexperienced
officers understood little about how to rule and stay in power. By the time Biafra
surrendered in 1970, an estimated 600,000 people, mostly civilians, had died. Thereafter,
experience with the war’s horror helped deter ethnic strife, the military’s role in saving
the nation legitimized its rule, and Nigeria’s oil production strengthened the economy.
Gowon made many serious errors. His governors, many of them officers, were
notoriously corrupt. After Gowon’s fall almost all were convicted of embezzlement and
bribe taking; nine of them were ordered to return loot totaling $16 million. Oil earnings
brought inflation, expensive imported goods, and a breakdown in the harbor and transport
systems. A controversial census to determine the size of tribal groups was bungled, and
the regime broke its promise to return to civilian rule.
As the country became impatient with mismanagement, officers felt their
reputations were damaged by the regime’s poor performance. Still another coup
overthrew Gowon in July 1975 and purged the civil service and military. The army had
now learned to act decisively, in contrast with the two earlier juntas, but it also accepted
the legitimacy of civilian rule. The generals allowed the formation of new parties and of a
carefully crafted constitution combining a U.S.-style system with Nigerian guarantees
against ethnic and regional strife. The new parliament convened in December 1976, and
national elections brought to power a civilian president.
There was a bicameral legislature, an independent judiciary, elected state
governors and assemblies, and thirteen daily newspapers to watch over the system. But
there were also five parties, none of which enjoyed a majority. The difficult task of
development was worsened by Nigeria’s declining oil income and mounting debts.
President Alhaji Shehu Shagari warned against expecting miracles, but Nigerians and
foreign well-wishers at least thought the country would settle down under a beneficial
Honest men were increasingly hard to find as the poison of corruption permeated
the society and paralysed the civil service. Contracts cost the taxpayers twice as much as
they should have to cover the cost of kickbacks to officials. Consequently, the number of
development projects was drastically reduced, and hospitals, housing projects, and roads
were left unfinished. Ironically, the free press increased popular disgust by showing the
extent of fraud: illegal import-export transactions exceeding $6 billion, the mysterious
disappearance of $2.5 billion allocated for import licenses, scandals surrounding
construction of a new capital city, the disappearance of building supplies from
warehouses, payments for nonexistent workers on government payrolls, fires that
destroyed records, and so on. Having more elected officials meant more people to he
paid off and more money to he skimmed off.
Family loyalty, personal greed, and the need of underpaid civil servants to
supplement their incomes had always resulted in officials’ pocketing a certain proportion
of the national wealth. Now the centralized state’s control of vast resources and its
regulation of the economy provided vast new opportunities for corruption. The influx of
large amounts of oil money and the presence of foreign companies willing to offer or
required to pay huge bribes transformed traditional, small-scale corruption into a
paralysing sickness. A democratic civilian government lacked the will or ability to
prosecute thousands of people in its bureaucracy and political coalition. New values and
controls did not exist to deter such overwhelming criminal behavior, which weakens and
discredits parliamentary democracies and traditional dictatorships alike at a particular
stage of development.
Shagari’s reelection in 1983 was marred by widespread accusations of fraud and
police intimidation. Once again, in December 1983, the army took over. This event
marked a third phase in Nigerian political history. Each coup had lowered the threshold
for the next one. The army was no longer hesitant about ruling-as were the earlier juntasnor
did it see a return to civilian rule as the right and necessary step. Two factors also
strengthened the staying power of the military in government, if not the prospects of any
particular junta. Officers had reduced the problem of ethnic conflict within the military
by carefully balancing the distribution of power in the juntas. The central government
now had more power over the regions because it controlled oil money.
These new attitudes were reflected by Major General lbrahim Babangida, a key
organizer of the 1983 coup who took power himself two years later. “I think that each
and every one of us,” he said of the junta members, “is quite conversant with the way
governments are run.” Babangida made clear his disgust with civilian rule: “The history
of our nation had never recorded the degree of indiscipline and corruption as in the period
between October 1979 and December 1983.”
In short, Nigeria seemed on the road to becoming a modern dictatorship. Yet the
country was also something of a special case, since it had never produced an
exceptionally charismatic leader or ideology. The armed forces are too large to be
brought under control without massive battle and bloodshed. The complex tribal balance,
mirrored by interest groups in the army, has required shaky coalitions within the military.
Political parties have been so discredited as to make officers unwilling to establish a party
of their own.
During the early years of Shagari’s civilian rule, many commentators claimed the
military’s willingness to restore civilian control demonstrated that representative
democracy is deeply ingrained in Nigerian society. But the Nigerian juntas show that
electoral systems are not necessarily better-or even more popular-governors than are
juntas. As one expert on the country, Larry Diamond, commented after the republic’s fall,
“What caused the coup was not the ambitions of the soldiers but the decay of the country
under four and a quarter years of civilian rule.”
There are no simple Answers for Nigerians contemplating the relative advantages
of civilian and military rule or comparing electoral democracy and the army’s
dictatorship. Neither system has worked well, but popular bitterness toward civilian
politicians and parties made army rule seem preferable to anarchy. No one could easily
argue that the military had run the country worse than the civilians, that civilian rule was
proper state of affairs, or that an electoral multiparty system would work in Nigeria. As
one highly respected Nigerian intellectual put it, “At least the military limits its own
corruption. The politicians seemed to be competing to see who could more thoroughly
betray their sacred trust.” Nigeria’s history makes this kind of attitude understandable and
explains why many Third World people find military rule and dictatorship as plausible as
This growing self-assertion by the Nigerian military was matched and exceeded
by the attitude of officers in other countries who found it easier than their Nigerian
colleagues to rationalize their rule and maintain solidarity. The 1985 Nigerian coup was
Africa’s seventy-third since Ghana attained independence in 1957. Thirteen heads of state
had been assassinated. As one of Babangida’s fellow coup makers said in his broadcast
announcing the Nigerian coup, “No nation has ever achieved meaningful strides in its
development where there is absence of cohesion in the hierarchy of government.”
Without unity at the top, stability is impossible; without stability, increases in
productivity and living standards are impossible.
The officers’ answer to the problem of conflict among the political leadership is
not to stop making coups but to consolidate their own unity so as to preserve military
regimes. Whether the dictator dominates the army or is only first among equals, he must
always watch over and extend the soldiers’ privileges.
Samuel Doe, who led the coup in Liberia, speaking at the country’s 1985 National
Day celebration, called on Liberians to “become fully committed to all that is true, good,
and beautiful. We must care for and sustain our spirit of national identity and
togetherness.” Doe had overturned a corrupt, oppressive civilian regime, dominated by
the descendants of American slaves who had returned to Africa, and executed its leaders.
He added, “This administration has maintained a commitment for the development of this
country…. Consistent with this commitment, we had the occasion yesterday to dedicate
the first communal home of our national police force…. We also look forward for the
time when our men and women of the Armed Forces of Liberia will be beneficiaries of
similar facilities.” He would not repeat his predecessors’ mistake of underpaying and
mistreating soldiers, conditions that spurred Sergeant Doe himself to revolt.
While the junta’s leadership is engaged in reshaping the armed forces, it also
seeks to be recognized as the true defender of the state’s sovereignty. Nationalism is the
natural ideology for African military regimes. As soldiers they have built their careers on
preserving the country from enemies, foreign and domestic. As rulers they want to make
the decisions governing the state rather than bend to powerful foreigners. As an elite they
want development to enrich the country and, thus, themselves. As leaders faced with a
difficult and dangerous task they want unity and a sense of national identity to make their
jobs easier and their tenures longer. As administrators they detest outside pressures,
which frequently come from multinational institutions like the International Monetary
Fund, to adopt fiscally sound but unpopular and disruptive economic policies. Moreover,
nationalism has a tremendous appeal to the urban and rural masses. Even socialism is
largely presented as a way of strengthening national unity and promoting progress.
In contrast with Middle Eastern dictatorships, however, this radical nationalism is
directed toward domestic change rather than used as an excuse for expansionism.
Africans are too busy with development to think seriously about aggression against
neighbors. The two examples in which troops were sent across borders for such purposesldi
Amin’s invasion of Tanzania and Somalia’s attempt to conquer portions of Ethiopiaended
in such disasters as to discourage imitation.
Social radicalism, like nationalism, is also shaped by domestic requirements. The
style and rhetoric of Marxist militancy suit the basic objectives of those like Sankara or
Rawlings who are in no way Communists. It provides a theory of governance, a route for
development, and a set of symbols. The imitations can he seen in the Ethiopian junta’s
self-conscious modeling on the Bolshevik Revolution, the renaming of Congo-
Brazzaville as the People’s Republic of the Congo, Ghana’s Committee for the Defense
of the Revolution, the hammer and sickle and AK-47 assault rifle that adorns
Mozambique’s flag, and the profusion of ruling workers’ parties in countries with tiny or
nonexistent proletariats. Marx’s theory and the USSR’s Leninist-Stalinist institutions are
a treasure chest through which African leaders can rummage for useful tools and
weapons to consolidate and justify their rule.
This pattern gives rise to the ironic development that such regimes’ left wings,
usually Marxist intellectuals, have the biggest aversion to democratic participation since
they accept the Leninist idea that top-down rule is necessary. Militants in Tanzania, for
example, argued in the 1960s that any competitive elections, even with TANU members
as the sole candidates, threatened domestic security.
The TANU militants’ underlying idea-rejected by Nyerere but central to most
modern dictatorships–is to replace any shred of real consultation of the people
themselves with the party hierarchy’s decisions. This is the deeper significance of the
term so often used by quasi-Marxist Third World regimes, “scientific socialism.” If
Marxism-or the local regime’s ideology-is a science for directing government and
society, then it is as necessary for modernization as any other type of science or
technology. In such circumstances, public opinion is no more useful than would be taking
a vote to solve some problem in chemistry or physics.
Marx and Lenin even warned that the ballot box had a negative effect on
revolutionary progress. To Marx, most people failed to understand the true nature of their
society because of false consciousness. Lenin predicted that workers would always
choose “economism,” an improvement in their wages and conditions, rather than
revolution unless prodded, organized, and led by a vanguard party. His Third World
successors argued that peasants and others would choose economic development without
social transformation. The masses must he told, not asked, what they required. These
Third World leaders not only believed that social revolution was preferable but also
considered it a precondition for successful economic development or even true national
By the 1980s the economic argument of radicalism had been badly battered. Some
states, most notably China, decided that dramatic internal reforms were needed to unleash
the initiative and creativity of the people. More concluded that a greater receptivity to
Western investment and technology would be sufficient. But none of them was willing to
abandon either the political power that radical ideology justified centralizing in their
hands or the institutions that helped guarantee their continued rule.
Mozambique provides an interesting example of these developments. Stretched
along the southeast edge of Africa, Mozambique was a Portuguese colony for 400 years.
Its beautiful port cities flourished for the hundreds of thousands of Portuguese settlers,
but the interior was left undeveloped. The black Africans fought a ten-year guerrilla war,
gaining control of large numbers of villages and rural areas. Finally, a coup by Portugal’s
exhausted army produced a government in Lisbon eager to divest itself of the costly,
On June 24, 1975, came Mozambique’s epiphany. At Machava Stadium in
Laurenço Marques people embraced as the country’s flag was officially raised for the
first time. Veteran militants, the widows of national martyrs, and representatives of other
movements who dreamed of their own independence day marched in review. Receptions,
street theater, and celebrations turned the modern city into a festival. Eyes filled with
tears as the new president, Samora Machel, intoned the revolution’s motto, La Lutta
continua (“The struggle continues”).
From the very beginning the leaders of Frelimo, the Mozambique Liberation
Front, had known that while the guerrilla struggle against the Portuguese was the first
part of the battle, the problems of independence were its continuation. In 1971 Marcelino
dos Santos, vice-president of Frelimo (and later vice-president of Mozambique),
explained, “Our goal from the beginning has been to achieve victory in the struggle for
national liberation … but [one] which at the same time would enable us to create a really
In this two-front war, liberation was a way station to creating a “new man” and a
successfully developing, egalitarian state. Continued dos Santos: “We have to create
relationships of perfect identification between the fighters and the population, and
between the leaders and the guerrillas.” The liberated zones would he the new state in
But there was a profound difference between the way Frelimo governed the areas
it controlled during the independence war and how it behaved afterward. In the first
stage, rule was decentralized and participatory. Villages chose their own councils, which
had a great deal of autonomy from the Frelimo leadership. Of course, the movement-the
single party in embryo-lacked the time and personnel to institute tight control and needed
the peasants’ support against the Portuguese.
In 1977, at Frelimo’s third congress, it adopted scientific socialism as the guiding
ideology and condemned the idea that Mozambique might have its own interpretation of
Marxism. Now “dynamizing groups” of party supporters were established to mobilize the
villages, and these cells were soon to take over control of their local areas. Not only were
nonparty people and democratic decision making excluded, but even the party cadre
lacked any independent role. Their job was to implement the policy made from above.
At the top, Samora Machel, Mozambique’s president until his death in an October
1986 plane crash, introduced centralized planning modeled on Cuban and Eastern
European practices. State farms replaced the communal cooperatives that gave peasants
more control and benefits. “Commandism” replaced populist democracy; the theory was,
as in so many other places, that the state would give orders and the people would
produce the results.
Obviously only the government could run the industrial and service enterprises
abandoned by Portuguese settlers since there was no other organization capable of doing
so. But the destruction of the independent peasantry or small-business sector-which the
regime’s Marxist ideology distrusted as petty bourgeois-mangled the already hardpressed
economy. As has frequently been observed in the USSR and China as well as in
the Third World, peasants will work harder and produce more for themselves than as
employees of the state. Decisions made by bureaucrats in the capital will he less effective
than those of the experienced farmers on the scene.
Within a few years the combination of the inefficient system, drought, a guerrilla
war launched by South African-aided dissidents, and Moscow’s unwillingness to provide
more aid and military support brought the regime to serious straits. Debts grew, the stateowned
“people’s stores” were empty, tourism disappeared, and red tape blocked
corrective action. The country moved away from strict import substitution. “Our
government doesn’t have to make match boxes,” said Machel.
In 1982, the government moved toward a rapprochement with the West in order to
obtain aid. Frelimo’s fourth congress, in April 1983, decided to decentralize economic
planning and to put more emphasis on family farming rather than on state farms. A new
investment code offered foreign companies safeguards against nationalization and
guaranteed their right to transfer profits abroad in hard currency. To handle its debt
situation, Mozambique became a member of the International Monetary Fund. In an
effort to stop the disruptive guerrillas, it even went so far as to make a deal with South
Africa, the political equivalent of the devil.
The economic evolution was both promising and surprisingly easy. Mozambique
has extensive mineral resources and agricultural potential. Multinational companies,
which once would have been frightened off by the regime’s rhetoric, were now hesitant
only because they questioned its ability to repress opposition. They had learned that joint
ventures or contracts with the government could he as lucrative as any old-style wholly
owned mine, plantation, or factory.
Machel turned himself into a salesman for Mozambique with the same drive and
enthusiasm that had made him such a successful guerrilla leader. He dined with Ronald
Reagan and harangued, teased, encouraged, and even embraced corporate executives. In
turn, businessmen already involved in Mozambique treated him with a deference, flattery,
and submissive bearing that reversed the traditional relationship between coloniser and
The government’s special inducement was low-cost, cooperative labor (no strikes
allowed). But companies did not invest since Mozambique could not provide another
prerequisite-a stable security situation-as a result of the operations of South Africanbacked
guerrillas. In general, however, corporations were discovering that doing business
under socialism could be even better than dealing with a less predictable capitalist
system. The Third World host’s independence would he safeguarded by the regime’s own
power, share in the enterprises, and option to play off a variety of investing companies.
By the 1980s, then, some modern dictatorships adjusted their economic policies
when radical theories of economic development did not work. Those like Zambia
(copper) or Ghana (cacao), which were dependent on a single export product (except for
oil, the price of which, though failing, could be somewhat buoyed by the producers’
cartel, OPEC), and those which stubbornly clung to the “pure” socialist system, like
Tanzania, did badly. Other countries made an economic opening to the West with varying
degrees of success.
The essential point is that these economic decisions had limited or no effect on the
political structures of Third World modern dictatorships. As Mao Zedong had said, they
would keep “politics in command.” To show that economic policy would not be
deterministic, these regimes resisted pluralism, free speech, or any detraction from the
power of the leader, single party, and government.
In fact, they argued that allowing some greater role in economic decision making
to foreign corporations and to managers or peasants at home required renewed vigilance
on the political front. An influx of Western fashions or music was allowed, though often
limited, but any deeper contamination would he fought. These regimes were making a
wager: For the sake of development (or to avoid economic collapse), they would bet that
private agricultural plots, small private urban enterprises, and foreign participation would
not undermine their own systems.
Although in the long run these governments might prove to he wrong, economic
changes have so far not produced political shifts in countries like Mozambique. One of
Machel’s aides, at an international conference, gave a Marxist political speech in the
country’s lingua franca, Portuguese, and then shifted to English for a talk on the
economy. He explained, “Our [Marxist] ideology governs our country, English is the
language of international capitalism. “ The modern dictators’ regimes believe the
separation can be maintained, and their chances of doing so should not be
In the days when it was still called Dahomey, the country now known as the
People’s Republic of Benin was probably Africa’s most chronically unstable country. A
1972 coup brought to power Ahmed Mathieu Kerekou, who established a modern
dictatorship complete with a People’s Revolutionary party. In the 1980s he began
reversing his earlier nationalizations. “A pilot can land his plane from any direction, east
or west,” Kerekou told a party congress, “and there are different ways of maneuvering a
plane towards the airfield.” He certainly intends to remain at the controls. Similarly, the
People’s Republic of the Congo, led by Denis Sassou-Nguesso and his Congolese
Workers’ party, adopted Marxism as its official ideology. In the face of slumping growth,
the regime rebuilt relations with France; most of its oil was sold to U.S. companies. But
foreign investment and a mixed economy did not erode the rule of the regime’s politburo.
The sloganeering billboards in red lining the road to the capital-”The five-year plan is
everyone’s business”; “Earn your daily bread through work” -probably do not inspire
much idealism. Nevertheless, the regime’s ideology and institutions are all that transcend
the country’s quilt of tribes and local loyalties.
Nationalism is a vital and constant factor in the definition of the modern
dictatorships’ foreign policies. It is genuinely felt by the leaders themselves and is usually
the one really effective ideology in their countries. One day Mozambicans, Syrians, and
Nicaraguans may see themselves as Marxists, but now the average government supporter
defines himself as a patriot. Even if the people have no say in choosing the regime, it
remains “their” government in a passionate sense, particularly when memories of foreign
rule are still fresh.
Thus, despite its Marxism and imitation of Soviet institutions, Frelimo’s
nationalism made it refuse Moscow permanent military facilities. Soviet bloc advisers are
more acceptable than bases because the regime believes that it can control them.
Mozambique–and Angola, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Libya, and other leftoriented
modern dictatorships-welcome thousands of Soviet, Cuban, and East German
soldiers and secret police technicians. When local pilots are lacking, Soviet bloc
substitutes can fill in. If the leader does not completely trust his own colleagues to refrain
from staging a coup, foreigners can he sprinkled through the intelligence apparatus to
keep an eye on them.
Obviously precautions are taken to keep these outsiders from dictating which
coups triumph or who succeeds to the leadership, but such checks are not necessarily
dependable. Secret internal political leverage is a real danger posed by Soviet
involvement in Third World states, but as the United States has learned, this strategy can
sometimes backfire. Moscow did not endear itself to Anwar al-Sadat, for example, by
sponsoring a rival leadership faction. The KGB recruits agents among the local cadre,
providing money to the venal and promises of political support to the ambitious. Modern
dictators are aware of these dangers and have expelled Russian influence-in Egypt,
Somalia, Sudan, Guinea-or kept it strictly limited-in Syria, Libya, and radical African
states-when the occasion required.
Still, while the economic gamble opens up the door to Western influence, the
security gamble can make modern dictatorships dangerously subject to Soviet
manipulation. It is not easy to decide which of these two types of leverage is more
powerful, and perhaps the answer depends on whether a regime is more worried about
economic collapse or military disintegration.
Soviet bloc assistance has saved a number of regimes from the latter fate. It
enabled Ethiopia to defeat a Somalian invasion and to hold off internal insurgencies, and
it maintains the Angolan modern dictatorship against highly motivated rebels. Moscow is
the primary arms supplier for Syria and Libya, gives Cuba security guarantees against
U.S. pressure, exercises impressive leverage over South Yemen, and actually invaded
Afghanistan to save the Marxist government there from its own people.
The Soviets are not personally popular even in the most closely allied Third
World states. Unlike the Cubans, they are thought to he arrogant and racist. They do not
mix well, if they mix at all, with the local people. Still, the need for Soviet
help to survive and to some extent the links provided by parallel ideologies mean that
modern dictatorships’ relationships with the USSR are not based on personalities.
Mozambique, Iraq, and other countries will seek Western aid and superior technology,
but they generally will be unwilling to compromise their politically and strategically
valuable ties with the Soviets to do so.
Economically the Soviet bloc is certainly a disappointment. Despite all the talk of
fraternity and cooperation against imperialism, Soviet behavior is often blatantly
imperialist. It grabs Ethiopian coffee, Somalian meat, Mozambican fish at low priceseven
rescuing them on international markets for hard currency-and overcharges for its oil
and arms. Advisers sometimes have to be paid by the host states. These countries find
themselves increasingly in debt to Moscow. One factor in Egyptian President Sadat’s
1972 decision to break with Moscow was the neat escape it gave him from repaying these
At first glance, then, if the Soviets sell Ethiopia arms and the Americans give food
to its starving people, the Ethiopian regime should be more grateful to the United States.
In the framework of a modern dictatorship, however, this is not at all logical. The regime
views the arms as a higher priority to keep itself in power. The people are not consulted;
much of the famine relief is diverted to ensure the loyalty of the military and the
bureaucracy. Sometimes the masses are not even told that the food aid, in fact, comes
from the United States.
Ethiopia is, indeed, a fascinating example, showing how modern dictatorships are
formed and the factors shaping their foreign and internal policies. Like Iran, Ethiopia
underwent a deep and thoroughgoing revolution that destroyed an entrenched system, of
traditional dictatorship and replaced it with a modern dictatorship. The army played the
principal role in this process, and Mengistu Haile Mariam, son of an enlisted
man and a servant, shot his way into its leadership.
After overthrowing Emperor Haile Selassic in 1974, the military went through the
“onion-peel” politics that so often characterizes Third World political struggles. One after
another, the factions belonging to the original coalition of armed forces’ and civilian
groups were defeated and discarded until a single leader had assembled a base of power.
The dictator then had to protect his own support from this erosion principle-the falling
out of personalities, ethnic groups, classes, and ideologies-by institutionalizing it.
The arena in which the battle for control was fought out was the Dergue, the junta
that took over in 1974. Its first chairman, General Aman Andom, was murdered after a
majority of the Dergue decided his policies were too soft. Over the next few years
Mariam similarly eliminated other rivals as the Dergue was reduced in size by the purges.
Marxism, adapted to African conditions and military rule, was his organizing tool and
rationale for seizing control.
The junta launched a “national democratic revolution”–in Marxist theory a
transitional stage to the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” in which the Communist
vanguard makes a temporary alliance with the peasants and middle class. True to this
blueprint, the junta seized large enterprises and the property of the aristocracy while
distributing land to the peasantry.
The regime neutralized the old ruling classes through its nationalization and
repression. Some members of the aristocracy were executed; many more fled the country.
Those who stayed were deprived of their wealth. While the National Resources and
Development Ministry, formed to manage the businesses taken over, did not do a very
effective job, it certainly guaranteed that control of those resources stayed in government
To reward, mobilize, and monitor the urban population, the Dergue established
neighborhood committees called the kebeles. The value of this type of arrangement for a
modern dictatorship is shown by its widespread use in countries as diverse as Iran
(Komitehs), Cuba (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), Iraq, Nicaragua, and
elsewhere. Like these other groups, the kebeles collect rent on nationalized homes,
provide local justice and police services, and run stores. The leader of each committee is
a specially trained cadre (given courses in Marxism-Leninism), and the lower committees
elect higher kebeles up to the level of a mayor. While there is some elective function,
choice of the officials is firmly in the regime’s hands.
Kebeles can punish their constituents–they furnish the rulers’ ‘eyes and cars in
every neighborhood-and their patrols have license to shoot curfew violators or
lawbreakers. But these groups also award compliance and build loyalty for the regime. If
farmers do not provide enough food, the kebeles send trucks into the countryside to seize
crops. In the face of shortages and long lines, the kebeles supply activists with necessities
and luxuries and carry out social welfare programs. Bringing a sense of solidarity and
cooperation among the urban poor, the kebele and other mass organizations give them a
sense that they can improve their lot and control their destiny-at least as long as they
accept the regime’s overall authority and directives. Inculcating these attitudes, in turn, is
a prerequisite for both economic development and political mobilization.
The kebele may maintain playgrounds and kindergartens while teaching the
children military drill and the government’s ideology. It forces shopkeepers to keep
prices down and punishes hoarding. In short, it is the microcosm of the modern
dictatorship, mixing repression and rewards to ensure the regime’s control and survival. It
is an institution beyond the imagination of a traditional dictatorship and far more
effective than even the most lavishly financed old-fashioned secret police organization.
The regime was particularly successful in winning support from the peasantry
with its land reform program. Sharecroppers who formerly paid most of their crops as
rent gained their lifelong dream of having their own land, particularly in the southern part
of Ethiopia. Government policies canceled the peasants’ debts and set higher prices for
their produce. More than 24,000 peasant associations, slightly more democratic than the
kebeles, were formed to administer rural life and local cooperatives. Reluctantly, though
wisely, the regime limited attempts at forced collectivization, which would have met
strong resistance. Those forced to migrate from famine areas were bitter but were also too
weak and desperate to protest.
High school and college students were sent into the countryside to implement a
literacy campaign, build schools and health clinics and dig wells. Such programs not only
provided material benefits for the peasants but also allowed the idealism of young people
to be used in a socially constructive way from the standpoint of the regime.
Those students and intellectuals who had their own ideas about the revolution’s
direction, however, were another matter entirely. The soldiers needed their organizational
and technical skill, even their mastery of the approved ideology, but were not eager to
share power. Fortunately for the Dergue the Marxist groups, many of whose members
returned from abroad after the revolution, were divided.
One such group, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary party (EPRP), opposed the
Dergue, launched an urban guerrilla warfare campaign, and was violently repressed in an
orgy of mutual killings. Its rival, the All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement, worked with the
Dergue, running the Provisional Office for Mass Organizational Affairs, which helped
create the kebeles, peasant associations, and the ruling Marxist party. When this work
was completed, and the EPRP eliminated, the regime also arrested, tortured, and killed
many of the Socialist Movement’s leaders.
One of the collaborating Marxists’ most important tasks was the subordination of
the trade union movement. When union federation leaders called for a people’s republic,
civil liberties, and the right to demonstrate and strike, they were arrested and their
organizations were dissolved. A new All-Ethiopia Labor Union, subservient to the
government, was created.
Thus, while the Ethiopian regime faced a number of serious problems-famine,
regional revolt, serious debt, a virtual freeze on economic development, and others–an
irreversible revolution had been carried through and a powerful modern dictatorship had
been established. Even if Mariam himself were overthrown, the regime’s style and
structure would likely continue. The revolution had entrenched a new type of system and
set Ethiopia on a different course.
The Ethiopian regime is far more rigid and brutal than the post-independence
government in Zimbabwe, which still has a nominally parliamentary system.
Nevertheless, the political and intellectual frameworks of the two states come from the
same mold. After the white settlers in the British colony of Rhodesia had issued a
unilateral declaration of independence in 1965, a guerrilla war gradually developed,
particularly after 1973, between the white minority and the black nationalist movements.
The conflict was finally resolved by a British-brokered agreement, and Rhodesia became
independent Zimbabwe in 1978. While the Portuguese fled Mozambique and Angola, a
majority of whites-including the highly productive commercial farmers-stayed on in
newly independent Zimbabwe, where their rights were safeguarded by a constitution
reserving 20 percent of the seats in parliament for them.
Zimbabwe’s leader, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, was a fascinating blend of
characteristics. In contrast with the murderous Mengistu Haile Mariam, Mugabe had a
legalistic side. Compared to the flamboyant Machel, he was introspective, even cold.
Like both of them, Mugabe was a type of Marxist, but he was also a practicing Catholic.
While Zimbabwe’s flag was almost identical to Mozambique’s, it had a bird in
place of Machel’s AK-47. Observing neighboring Mozambique’s economic disaster,
Mugabe was cautious about implementing revolutionary changes and wanted to avoid
driving out the economically useful whites. Mugabe’s armed struggle had been diverted
to the ballot box and council chamber by British mediation. But the resulting
constitutional restraints-parliamentary representation for the tribal and white minoritiesalso
brought him some unique constraints for an African leader.
Zimbabwe took so long to gain its independence because the white settlers were
willing to fight a prolonged war for their own continued rule and because of deep
divisions among the black Africans themselves. The two liberation movements-Mugahe’s
Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwean
African People’s Union (ZAPU)–were unable to unite primarily because of tribal
divisions. ZANU had overwhelming support among the majority Shona people of the
north and cast; ZAPU held the loyalty of the Ndebele tribe of the south and west. In
elections, ZANU was bound to gain a large parliamentary majority, but ZAPU won all
the Ndebele seats. The political role of the Ndebele and whites did not stop Mugabe from
ruling but made it difficult for him to impose one-party rule.
Although ZANU predominance was beyond question, Mugabe and his party did
not feel secure but only more determined to institutionalize their political monopoly.
Instead of seeking a compromise with the Ndebele, the ZANU regime appointed its own
men-usually Shona-to posts in the Ndebele regions. A relentless pressure was kept up on
ZAPU, with Nkomo constantly in danger of arrest and many of his colleagues thrown
into prison. The result was the return of many ZAPU fighters to the bush and a
consequent escalation by the government side. Troops in pursuit of the guerrillas
brutalized Ndebele villagers.
After the July 1985 parliamentary elections, when ZANU won almost all the
black seats (63) except for 15 in the Ndebele region, members of its youth league beat up,
clubbed, and expelled opposition supporters from the capital, Harare. One ZANU activist
explained, “These people must not stay here any more. Their parties have been beaten
and beaten well. There is no space for them in the one-party state.” Here was the real
tribalist sentiment lying behind the rhetoric of a united people. Having “lost” the struggle,
the Ndebele had no rights, though fortunately Mugabe was mild-mannered enough not to
kill or long imprison many of their leaders.
Zimbabwe prospered economically. By allowing white family farms to go on
earning foreign exchange, Mugabe had to go more slowly on land reform, but there was
still a good deal of land and plenty of jobs in the bureaucracy to give supporters.
Psychologically the joy of national independence and black rule provided an impressive
political dividend as well.
It was still surprising how quickly ZANU officials, despite their reference to each
other as comrade and their radical rhetoric, formed a new privileged elite. As elsewhere
in the Third World, the Mercedes-Benz was their symbol. They bought up the houses and
farms of departing whites, often using government funds for the purpose. Mugabe
denounced those who “preach socialism by day and practice capitalism by night.” Like
most modern dictators, Mugabe was not personally corrupt, but he needed the support of
many men who were less fastidious or less easily satisfied with the exercise of power as
an end in itself. Despite a leadership code which, as in Tanzania, prohibited officials from
having outside business interests or income-earning property, no one was forced to quit
office or sell his assets.
In a major July 1985 speech, Mugabe amplified his philosophy of government, an
archetypal one for modern dictatorships. “We are one family, one country with one
nation, one government. And so we must have one party. It’s that simple…. We believe in
the inexorable law of unity: You must he united or else you can be divided and perish.”
The continued existence of an organized opposition, Mugabe declared, only encouraged
resistance to the regime. “Without ZAPU, without the dissident elements, they [the
Ndebele will fall in line.” In short, the way to eliminate conflict within the country was to
repress those voicing complaints–a philosophy basic to all dictatorships and abhorrent to
the democratic viewpoint.
Mugabe’s refusal to seek unity through compromise and concessions to the
minority threatens Zimbabwe with future bloodshed. Yet he was acting within the
political framework of modern dictatorship under the assumption that given the
opportunity, the opposition would be equally merciless. There was a populist side to his
policy as well: Dividing the spoils with another group would reduce the resources he
could distribute to his own followers. Thus, Mugabe was also right. Either he would
break the Ndebele’s power or the Ndebele (or rival Shona politicians who would take a
more chauvinistic anti-Ndebele line) would displace him.
Radical African regimes were based on just such a manipulation of popular sentiments
and distribution of resources. Since these regimes were still very much in the building
stage, their dictators had to mobilize supporters among both the elite and masses through
bribery, organization, ideology, nationalism, and fear. Since the problems faced were so
difficult, even insurmountable, the extravagant promises of demagoguery and the cruel
victimization of scapegoats often seemed a necessity for political survival.
All else failing, the revolutionaries’ deep belief in the power of words and theories
hypnotized them into believing in their own success. In the regime’s rhetoric, everything
up to independence or the rise of the new regime was one long night of exploitation and
oppression; everything since is glorious. Each success is due to the revolution; every
failure is the fault of its enemies. New laws promise freedoms never delivered., the
leader’s speeches pledge benefits never to materialize. Yet this role-playing serves a real
political purpose particularly since the other side of the story is edited out of the regime’s
statistics, schools, and media. In the best tradition of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen
Eighty-four, the Ministry of National Guidance becomes one of the most powerful
government agencies. The modern dictatorships have, in fact, guided their countries to
national independence and relatively improved the lot of some of their people. Patriotism,
desire for stability and fear of anarchy, traditional attitudes toward the sacrosanct nature
of leaders and unity, the focusing of repression and corruption, demagoguery and
overspending, plus the feeling that the nation is marching toward progress, help cement
support for the regime. The laxness of regulations, the extent of nepotism, corruption, and
the central government’s weak control in the outlying provinces all provide citizens with
a great deal of breathing space that would not exist in a “totalitarian” state.
Similar considerations apply for the Middle Eastern modern dictatorships, to
which we now turn. In no other part of the world is the institution so widespread and
deeply entrenched to the point that any other form of government has become almost