THOUGHT UNDONE: A Tale of Two Dictators: Musharraf, Mugabe and the Dangers of Absolute Power

It’s often best to reflect on certain issues once the storm is over and the dust has settled. I’m going to try it on the recent events surrounding two dictators and their dictatorships, much in the news recently: Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.

Both have much in common. Nothing perhaps more significant than the hope and optimism the two generated for their people on coming to power. Mugabe overthrew the colonial British, while Musharraf overthrew the colonial locals (corrupt, decadent, feudal democrats). Both promised freedom and development to their nations. Both glowed and basked in the glory of their place in the sun, until things began to unravel. And with no checks and balances on their power, the unraveling took on a more dangerous form. And their lies the danger of absolute power, never mind the benevolent smokescreen.

Governance is a difficut art and often even the best tend to come up short. Dictators are no different. Except that we can’t change them. Dictators tend to be liberal as long as you agree with them. Any serious opposition, and they tend to want to crush it, never mind the democratic intent. Mugabe hasn’t turned violent or suppressive recently vividly depicted by the press photographs of the battered face of Morgan Tsvangirai. He crushed a revolt by the Ndebele speaking people of Matabeleland way back in the 1980s. Musharraf too has gone about ruthlessly suppressing regional opposition, most famously in the state ordered assassination of prominent Baloch leader Nawab Bugti.

Freedom of the press, or other institutions of the state, like the judiciary for instance, is another sham in these regimes. Freedom is about the same as for an animal in a zoo, okay in confined spaces. Mugabe feels free to expel, intimidate or even kill the press reporters he doesn’t fancy. Musharraf while not so bad (but then he’s been around for less time), too doesnt think highly of independent opinion. The Chief Justice of Pakistan recently found out the hard way, earning the sack for questioning the military regime on its human rights record. The media which backed the judge saw their offices vandalised, and freedom clamped down upon. One of the more subtle methods being the slow withdrawal of government advertisements from prominent anti-government newspapers, thus choking their resources. The state can also put pressure on other private actors like industrialists to follow their No-Ad byline in such a system.

Oh, and lets not forget the false enemies, the straw men which keep the likes of Mugabe and Musharraf going, well past their ‘best before’ dates. It would be the ‘white man’ or the long gone British for Mugabe, or India and its intentions to nuke Pakistan, for Musharraf. The trouble is that they ignore the trouble within, and deflect attention towards the irrelevant. Yet, some people buy it, I wonder why?! Or maybe it isn’t such a wonder. Its just simple self-interest. Those small groups who profit from the regime within the country are collaborators, and the rest suffer from the age old problem of collective action: who’s going to organise them cohesively? Important actors outside the country are relevant too. Powerful countries back these regimes for their own self-interest. Nigeria and South Africa continue to prop up Mugabe fearing an improbable but possible backlash on their domestic politics, while the US and the West does it with Pakistan, allegedly fighting terror together, more likely like dosuing a fire with oil and then fighting it with more fire. The rest, like in the UN are vetoed, and some like in teh Commonwealth are simply impotent.

So the regimes survive and prosper as the people suffer. Yet the dictator’s unshakable belief in themselves ( hubris if you ask me) to be seen as the ‘true democrats’ doesn’t seem to blinker. The only instrument to prove the point seems to be a sham election ,or a ridiculous referendum, which give people no real choices, either because their is no opposition (or they have tapes on their mouths), or because the questions are so cleverly phrased (in referendums) that they have only two answers: yes and yes!

So don’t ever be fooled by a dictator because he’ll get you by the throat later, if not sooner. It’s only a matter of time before the whole edifice of state begins to crumble. It has already happened in Zimbabwe. One feels that it may be a matter of time in Pakistan.

The only rays of hope: civil society groups. Let’s everyone back the Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe who have taken the lead in calling for free and fair elections in that country (or alternatively for the incumbent regime to face a mass revolt). Let’s everyone back the lawyers of Pakistan who have taken to the streets demanding greater freedom and accountability for the judiciary and for the rest of the country, from the military regime in Pakistan. A utopian hope probably. They should actually demand that the military return to the barracks or that the people will push them there.

It isn’t all wishful thinking. Nepal has rid itself of an autocratic and dictatorial king through a popular uprising. Ukraine had its Orange Revolution. Georgia had its own Rose revolution. The people must rise, and they must be backed politically across the globe, to restore democracy. Despite its many flaws, it is still the best political system. And despite their many mirages, dicatorships are really an unending desert of hopelessness.

It’s time everyone recognised that. Don’t even spare a second to praise Mugabe, Musharraf, and the like. You give them a hand, they will take your arm, then your limbs, and then everything.