John Swift

Defeating Dictators: Fighting Tyranny in Africa and around the World, by George BN Ayittey, Palgrave Macmillan, 288 pp, £10.62, ISBN: 978-0230341623

George Ayittey’s book is a curious hybrid, very good in its detail but uncertain overall in its organisation, style and language. Its target audience is unclear; it might read better as an undergraduate textbook or as a work of reference. The dust jacket advertising says it is “a timely and urgent narrative”; it is also a useful compendium of fact on dictatorships around the world, especially in Africa but including, under some headings, China and Russia. Disconcertingly, the dust jacket interprets the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt as evidence that the tide is turning against oppressive regimes. Ayittey’s text is more nuanced; for him the jury is still out; he may not have fully digested all recent developments as he was drafting, but he was clearly open to the possibility of negative reversals.

Professor Ayittey is a Ghanaian, the author of three previous books on Africa, (Africa Unchained, Africa in Chaos and Africa Betrayed), an academic economist at the National University in Washington DC and a journalist (Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and The Times). He is adviser to the Obama administration on Africa. The final chapter of this book constitutes an account of his intellectual development and struggles. While this could be seen as self-indulgent, it is useful in recording some of his politically activist roles – in combating Jerry Rawlings in Ghana, opposing other African dictators and strongmen, and especially in helping to change a standard mindset of the 1980s and 1990s which continued to blame all the ills of Africa exclusively on slavery, colonial oppression and Western economic rapacity.

His study has many strengths and some significant weaknesses. One particular strength is his fashionable but persuasive quasi-philosophical approach to African problems, which he repeatedly stresses. He argues:

Political reform must precede economic liberalisation, and intellectual freedom and a free media should come before political reform.

Ayittey calls this a law, which is perhaps to go too far; but it is a useful reminder that new institutional, political and constitutional systems cannot be constructed in a vacuum, and unless there is free consultation in advance with those immediately affected, such systems are not likely to last.

Traditional societies were innately suspicious of over-centralised authority and they built in checks and balances to limit despotism and corruption. The focus again is mainly on Africa but Ayittey also draws significantly on the examples of native peoples in North and South America and of indigenous societies in Asia. The common element is that the power of the king or chief was not unfettered; both psychologically, through a network of taboos, customs, kinship ties and ancestor worship and materially, through a series of privy councils, councils of elders and village assemblies, the king’s power, range of activity and consequently his scope for abuse were quite circumscribed. It may be rose-tinted to label the governance of pre-colonial African societies “serene”, but standing armies were exceptional, and the lack of centralised authority, coupled with underpopulation, made generally for light and non-intrusive rule. It is not unreasonable to describe the resulting type of governance as a rough-and-ready participatory democracy, built on consensus.

On this basis, the author views the sad African record of the fifty years since independence as an anomaly. He believes that only fifteen of the fifty-four African states have a reasonable claim now to be democratic and only ten can boast of a relatively independent media; but he also thinks this situation can be and must be reversed. In the Middle East, he awards a pass to only three of the twenty-two members of the Arab League. He rejects what he terms the lazy judgements of some commentators, for example Jacques Chirac’s opinion that Africa is not mature enough for Western-style democracy. His broad approach is to look to the weaknesses of the dictators and the counter-forces in play, and work to advise and strengthen democratic oppositions. With this in mind, he seeks to analyse successful and unsuccessful revolutions against despotisms, both peaceful and violent.

This may be overambitious. Some of the views expressed on why certain revolutions were successful and others not can be facile and over-schematic. As is often the case with political scientists, the analysis can be superior to the prescription. But what is immediately apparent is that a wide range of data can be presented to illustrate how bad the present situation is, especially in Africa. These examples lend strength and persuasiveness to the presentation. For example, politically motivated deaths in Africa in the fifty years since independence and self-rule, come to about nineteen million. This is about the same toll as lives lost through the activities of white and Arab slave traders over three hundred years; more than forty wars have been fought on the continent since 1970; of the eight hundred and seventy-five million people in sub-Saharan Africa, three hundred and ninety million live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25 per day in 2005; in the Foreign Policy 2010 list of failed states, almost all were despotic regimes and twelve of the twenty were in sub-Saharan Africa. Even more striking, of the twenty-four states at the bottom of the Human Development Index in 2010, twenty-two were in Africa; regarding elections, Ayittey mentions the reported result of the 2002 referendum in Iraq when Saddam Hussein won the support of every single one of the 11,445,638 eligible voters! President Jose dos Santos of Angola, in power since 1979, changed the rules in 2010 so that he could remain as president without elections until 2022; on the costs of corruption, the African Union estimated them at one hundred and forty-eight billion dollars per year in 2006, at a time when development aid for the whole continent was running at thirty billion per year. In Nigeria, the total oil revenue accruing to the state between 1970 and 2004 was four hundred and fifty billion; of this, for a slightly different period, the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission confirmed the diversion to personal use of about four hundred and twelve billion; as regards the regional “solidarity” which hides and sustains political repression and human rights abuses, Omar al-Bashir may have been indicted by the International Criminal Court and there may be an international warrant for his arrest, but he travels freely in Africa and the Middle East.

Ayittey is right to describe Africa as “treasure trove of information about despotisms and a laboratory for change”. However, his study is also not without significant weaknesses and lapses. His principal chapters – on advancing the cause of liberty, traditional societies and their built-in curbs on despotism, how despotic regimes operate and the ways they die, stirrings and strategies for freedom, how to avoid reversals in revolutions and international impotence in dealing with tyrannies – are repetitious and contain too many summaries, in the American textbook manner. Some of these “repeat points” slip into over-broad generalisations, exaggerated language or cliches. For example, summarising a section on the external props of despotic regimes, he writes:

Today’s geopolitical landscape is such that any despot can find a foreign patron in the blink of an eye. The United States may embrace a despot who has oil or land to lease for military bases, and who can be an ally in the wars on drugs and on terrorism. Russia will support any despot who is rabidly anti-West and seeks nuclear and missile technology. So too will North Korea. The French will support any lunatic who supports French cultures, seeks admission into La Grande France ‑ or greater global French community – and protects French economic interests. And China practises chopsticks mercantilism ...” Less than two pages further on, a similar combination of generalisations and abstract moralising introduces the chapter on the demise of despotisms. The author is evidently aiming to be inclusive; but a narrower scope and greater differentiation, anchoring comment in time and place, might result in more depth and persuasiveness.

In other sections by contrast, the language improves and the words sing. For example, he contrasts the younger, pro-democracy activists, “the cheetah generation”, with the “the hippos”, the lumbering, destructive autocrats of earlier years; regarding the latter, he observes that they often resemble a theatre of the absurd, with “the blind leading the clueless”.

Too many of the sources quoted in the early chapters lack authority. For example, in a section on corruption among dictators, it is stated that Hosni Mubarak was “said to have amassed” a fortune of $40 billion since 1981; the source is ‑ The Sun newspaper (January 2011). Similarly, he reports that Omar al-Bashir “has been accused of siphoning off up to $9 bn. of his country’s funds and placing them in foreign accounts, according to leaked US diplomatic cables”. This is based on a BBC Africa report of December 2010 and what the diplomatic cable said is not given; it could have been talking about something reported as hostile gossip. And the North American origin of some of the sources for opinions on economic development, foreign direct investment and state intervention raises questions of ideological slanting; no doubt there is a link between dictatorship and the “state interventionist behemoth”, a heading in Chapter 5, but, self-evidently, state activity in the economies of developing countries is not always unjustified.

I also had some difficulty with the chapter entitled “International Impotence and Hindrance”, which deals with what the developed states of the international community should be doing to fight dictatorships. As with the title, the text is not free of exaggerated language and simplistic notions. I suspect that the references in this chapter to the North African revolutions of 2010-2011 were drafted before the more sombre evaluations of the previous section, “Reversals in Revolutions – and How to Avoid Them”. The author is right, of course, to condemn the developed world for its inconsistencies, missteps and occasional betrayals. He is also right that, in relation to the Arab Spring, and not for the first time, the West got it wrong. He is correct, finally, to criticise the easy options to which developed countries are prone. These include the fond notion that more economic links will lead inevitably to a softening of dictatorial policies and movement in the direction of liberal democracy.

All of that having been said, Ayittey underestimates the complexity of the international political context in which these revolts unfolded. Developed Western states have a multitude of interests in Africa and the Middle East. Balancing a programme of maximising human rights, in substance and in timing, against desiderata in nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, global free trade, the free flow of oil and strategic minerals, as well as old cold war loyalties, the fight against narcotics and the war on terrorism, plus a host of other economic, ecological and political interests, will never be easy. To argue that if we can agree a no-fly zone in Libya, we should be able to have equally decisive action in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen is just foolish. It is equally foolish to imagine that the West, or the United Nations, can insist on opening free media or human rights centres in countries controlled by despots. And where does he suggest we draw the line? Is he also advocating Western support for young activists in the West Bank and Gaza? I note that Israel is not mentioned once in the book, (it does not figure in the index), even though Ayittey quotes aptly from Fareed Zakaria on “illiberal democracies”. In any event, it seems clear that the struggling democrats of Egypt and Tunisia emphatically did not want anything resembling the help that is being extended at present to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Reading this work, I considered the relationship between it and Gene Sharp’s classic, From Dictatorship to Democracy: a Conceptual Framework for Liberation, which is referred to briefly at the end of the introductory chapter. Sharp’s work is sometimes cited as influencing political movements in Eastern Europe and a number of African states; its impact on the leaders of the Arab Spring is controversial. Both books share common themes and some common approaches. Those interested in the connected problems of democracy, dictatorship and development will profit by reading both.

John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as Ambassador to Cyprus, Ambassador to the Netherlands and Permanent Representative to the UN (Geneva).