By Lasantha Pethiyagoda –
Most third world dictators tenaciously cling to power and refuse to step down when their beleaguered people get fed up with them. One tell-tale sign is, they somehow get this absurd notion that the country belongs to them, and them alone and their families and future progeny and must rule forever. This delusionary belief of state ownership by dictators is often derived from the feeling that they “liberated” or “saved” their countries, from an enemy either in the form of colonial rule, separatism or insurgency, etc.
It seems most prevalent among the first generations of post-colonial nationalist heroes but has manifested in village strong-man terms in modern times. Having won independence from insurrections or uprisings or provided leadership in ending civil war, they are hailed as heroes and deified. Called “father of the nation,” or “every child’s father”, criticizing them is deemed sacrilegious by followers. Some even take awe-inspiring epithets for themselves such as saviour, people’s leader or redeemer of the nation which, in the local languages, mean an exalted demi-god.
To drill into the docile and awed populace that they are “saviours,” they are present everywhere, in larger than life cut-outs and huge banners. Currencies bear their portraits and their grinning pictures hung in every nook and cranny in the streets of cities and roads of their country. Every monument or building of some significance is named after them: their face is everywhere, from the buttons, t-shirts and caps of “a tomorrow for youth” to the dresses of quasi-national dancers. Highways, stadiums and schools are named after them. National holidays are suggested to honour them.
It is forbidden to call them by their un-nationalist or Anglicised name; only “most-respected” or protector, or `the people-centred leader-president’ are allowed. The same sentiment becomes prevalent among the next generation of leaders, where ageing cabinet ministers have to address the young crown-princes, mere members of parliament, as “Sir” and rise upon the latter’s arrival. Military leaders are either immediately imprisoned on trumped-up charges, only later to promote themselves as “Generals” or even “Field Marshals” upon assuming office or affiliate power.
The often insecure heads of state surround themselves with loyal lackey supporters, often drawn from their own villages or electorates. Other supporters and henchmen are simply bought: soldiers with fat pay-cheques and perquisites; urban workers with free meal packets and local alcohol (“essential commodities”) public servants with “free” motor bikes and scooters; journalists with laptop computers, smart mobile phones and intellectuals, opposition leaders and lawyers with big government positions, appointments as heads of foreign missions and luxury four-wheel-drive SUVs.
Social scientists observe that one of the driving motivations to political office has been the power to dispense largesse at will, the power to appoint, transfer and dismiss on whim, and the power to make and unmake infrastructure projects. Therefore, the first official act of partisans in office has been to create departments, positions and appointments to be handed out. The customary method has been to dissolve the boards of government corporations to reload new bodies with lackeys.
Since security is their utmost priority due to guilt-conscience, dictators buy the loyalty of the various military corps by showering them with salary increases, purchase of new weapons, large emoluments, wide-open opportunity for graft, cars and other gifts.
Dictators also allow the military corps to engage in lucrative business transactions or own profitable businesses with full state patronage. Siblings with affiliated power ensure that the military control several high-profit yielding businesses while ignoring with the customary “blind-eye”, the plunder of historic archaeological artefacts.
Thus, even when the head of state has no option but to contemplate stepping down, these supporters and lackeys fiercely resist any cutbacks in government largesse or any attempt to open up the political system to transparency and good governance – for fear of losing the jobs, perks and privileges. Free loaders and patronage junkies publicly urge them to stay on, sometimes supplicating the occult conjurors and leading them on!
Official government spokesmen often warn that anyone talking about forming another party would be committing treason as loyalty to strengthen the dictator’s hands is paramount as he is saviour and the threat of enemy action looms around the corner. Ministers and MPs suspected of having anything to do with justice movements are routinely placed under surveillance.
To protect their perquisites and ill-gotten benefits, these spineless sycophants lie, deceive and misinform the head of state, sometimes with auspicious rituals of mythical beliefs. They continually praise their benefactors to the sky, even when their own futures are fatally compromised!
Most third-world dictators know that they have done extremely evil deeds to their people. Their dirty hands are so steeped in innocent blood and their bulging pockets so full of ill-gotten booty that they are afraid all their past gory misdeeds will someday be exposed and unpleasant reprisals will be taken against them. Or they could be hauled before international courts for crimes against humanity. So they invariably attempt to claw their way back to power, regardless of the human cost and consequences to the economy.
If fear is the primary motivating factor, there is a sensible way out of this dilemma for former tyrants. Most poor people in third world countries are very forgiving people compared to their rich counterparts. The wise head of state would call a meeting of all opposition leaders in a spirit of “national reconciliation” and negotiate a way out. Items for negotiation might include an indemnity, safe passage out of the country in return for the repatriation of the country’s wealth that was looted by their regimes.
An apology or compensation to the families of those executed might also be discussed. A broad spectrum of independent rights activists, human rights advocates and respected retired judiciary should be invited as observers with lobby facilities. While hatred and revenge do not resolve enmity or right wrongs, compassion and fairness will.