When Power Corrupts

It now seems that the days of dictators who go to great lengths to hold on to power through various devices are numbered — By MK

‘Men serve women on their knees; when they rise, they go away,’ wrote William Makepeace Thackeray. So it is too about the relationship that the people entertain with their leaders the world over: when the spell is broken, the same people who celebrated the men who stood out of the rest of the people by their ingenuity, intelligence and charisma, even to the extent of placing themselves at the level of human demi-gods, go away. It is unfortunately a truism which seems to have escaped a number of leaders, among them several African ones, for many years, though it now seems that the days of dictators who go to great lengths to hold on to power through various devices, constitutional or otherwise, or tweak the system and exploit loopholes in the system to their advantage are numbered.

The list of those who have persisted in staying on despite popular censure and finished ignominiously includes Colonel Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, Marcos, and Ceausescu to name but a few. Former President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal sought, despite the people’s disapproval, a third mandate for another seven years after completing 12 years as president at the age of 86; President Masire of Botswana only stepped down after 18 years in power – all of which are a far cry from the example set by Nelson Mandela, who stepped down after completing only one term as President of South Africa.

The recent Zimbabwean army’s initiative to remove Robert Mugabe as the country’s president has been followed with much interest the world over. Here’s the tragic story of a national hero recognised by his people for putting up and leading a successful struggle for freedom from colonisers, but who eventually became notoriously known for his despotism and his extreme abuses of power and who, despite a facade of constitutionalism and regular elections, became increasingly dictatorial. He abandoned adherence to the rule of law and his country’s economy collapsed – Zimbabwe went from bread-basket to basket-case.

Yet here was a man who had himself been a victim in the course of the struggle for independence, for he was imprisoned for nearly nine years. His child died while he was in prison, and he was not allowed to attend the funeral, shedding tears in front of the guard. So it is not as if he had no human sensitivity, and this is what makes his subsequent cruel behaviour towards his own people incomprehensible. He went after opposition and rivals with a ferocity and violence that belied his educational background. After all, he had studied law, and was well read, and has even been called an intellectual.

As we try to make sense of his descent into tyranny, it is equally important to note that many historians contend that the transition from national hero to despised dictator conceals however another story of how Mugabe was also a victim of the former colonial power, in the matter of land holdings and redistribution and the control of the means of production. This is treated in Heidi Holland’s biography of Robert Mugabe – ‘Dinner with Mugabe’. Far from condoning Mugabe’s abuses, Heidi Holland sheds light on ‘the dynamics in the struggles of African countries to renegotiate their freedom from their colonial legacies’. This is an aspect that will merit a more comprehensive analysis later.

For the time being, of immediate interest to us is Mugabe’s persistence to remain in power at all costs, as a result of which he amply fulfilled the adage, ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. He lived luxuriously in a 25-roomed mansion while his people starved, inflation went wild, AIDS ravaged his people with Zimbabwe holding the record for the number AIDS-orphans, and all this was compounded by the ostentatious and lavish lifestyle of his wife Grace Mugabe, his former secretary younger to him by 43 years. In 1999 she flew to London in the President’s plane for shopping at Harrods, where in one hour she spent over 30,000 pounds sterling. The journalist of Harare’s Daily News who blew the lid on this extravagance was charged and jailed, and if memory serves us right was eventually eliminated while in prison.

One has to ask oneself therefore whether the prolonged hold on power somehow turns the heads of the holders and make them vulnerable to delusions of permanency and to wifely influence in matters of the State. That is why, in mature democracies, though there are many dysfunctions too — as the current events in the US and in Britain show – there is at least one provision which acts as a brake to any emerging dictatorial tendencies. That is the limitation of the terms of the head of government.

As far back as in 2008, this paper had suggested that in the case of Mauritius, two consecutive terms of 5 years each for any Prime Minister would serve the needs of democracy very well. And that this issue needed to be debated in all seriousness. It was further observed that the Westminster system which has served us so well is now dépassé, and that the best system for us is the American system of only two mandates, with dates for elections and the swearing-in of the newly-elected Prime Minister fixed for good.

We underlined the reluctance of incumbents to implement such a measure, especially because once they are out of power they have no great standing in society. However, because of the urge to accumulate more and more, people were not willing to part with anything.

However, we also note that political parties have expressed views along these lines, which if genuinely held are a salutary beginning. They must not be allowed to put this idea on the backburner again. It has to be kept on the agenda as we move towards 2019, and all right thinking Mauritians must be stakeholders in this debate.

 

*  Published in print edition on 24 November 2017

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