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Guns, Idiots, Screams

Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 208 - June 1990

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Guns, idiots, screams
'In traditional African society no jackass waving a bazooka just gets up and declares himself
chief-for-life.' Ghanaian journalist George Ayittey throws peasant logic at the politicians.

The 1980s were a lost decade for Africa. While other regions of the Third World made economic progress, sub-Saharan Africa regressed. As many as 13 African countries are now actually poorer than they were at independence. And hideous tyranny reigns supreme in the region. Black Africa has more dictatorships per capita than anywhere else in the world: since 1957 only six out of 153 African heads of state have relinquished power voluntarily. Most of the rest were a disgraceful lot who looted and mismanaged their economies until someone booted them out of office or shot them in the head.

Modern African leaders model themselves on their colonial forebears, blindly copying alien systems regardless of the circumstances that led to their evolution. Thus the military government of Nigeria has determined that because the US has only two parties, so too must they. Accordingly, two political parties have been created for Nigeria - one 'a little to the left and the other a little to the right' - and the military government wrote up their manifestoes as well.

Military dictatorships have proved no better than multi-party democracy - and often more oppressive. And in the same way that colonial rule was deemed 'good' for Africans because it liberated them from despotic chiefs, all sorts of charlatans and snake-oil merchants have claimed to speak on behalf of African peasants, insisting that only socialism can assure rapid development in Africa. They have erected decrees, laws and regulations - all of them supposedly protecting peasants, but really exploiting and subjugating them. As one Zimbabwean minister said: 'Socialism means what is mine is mine, but what is yours we share'.

To the peasants, all the heated debates about ideology and political systems - one-party or multi-party - are irrelevant. In most African nations, the peasants constitute the majority. Yet they have no voice in government, no protection before the law and no guarantees of human rights and freedom. Since independence they have been systematically exploited for the benefit of the tiny elites which dominate all political systems. They often pay some of the world's most confiscatory taxes - in Ivory Coast, for instance, they part with an unbelievable 80 per cent of the value of what they produce, all to enable the Government 'to finance development'.

Development for whom? is the question. Describing himself as the 'Number One Peasant', Ivory Coast's President Houphouet-Boigny is building a magnificent basilica for himself costing an astonishing $360 million and financed from his own pocket. Some deep pocket!

In Kenya, preparations are under way to build a 60-storey office tower for the ruling Kenya African National Union. It will cost $200 million, and will feature a four-storey-high statue of President Daniel Arap Moi.

Meanwhile in Dakar, Senegal. the Governor of the Central Bank gets to his office without stepping out of his car. One of the perks of his job is a private lift that hoists him and his Mercedes Benz to his 13th-floor office.

Africa is a graveyard of 'black elephants'; development monuments of little economic value built with wealth extracted from the peasants to satisfy the megalomaniac proclivities of their rulers. Back in 1977, Bokassa of the Central African Empire spent $20 million crowning himself 'Emperor' just to prove that Africa, like France, could produce emperors.

And during the 1985 famine crisis in Ethiopia, Comrade Mengistu Haile Mariam found the wherewithal to spend $100 million celebrating his 'socialist revolution'. About $10 million worth of Scotch whisky was airlifted into Addis Ababa for the festivities, in callous indifference to the suffering of the country's ordinary people.

For decades while Africa's peasants were being exhorted to tighten their belts, elite bazongas or raiders of the public treasury were loosening theirs with fat bank balances abroad. It is thought that over 3,000 Nigerians have Swiss bank accounts and that Kenya's elites have hoarded billions of dollars abroad, possibly exceeding Kenya's entire foreign debt. Some of Africa's heads of state are among the richest people in the world. They would never dream of sharing their wealth with their people. Yet they demand that the rich nations share theirs with Africa.

As if economic exploitation were not enough, in Benin, Burundi, Ethiopia, Liberia, Somalia, Zaire and in many other African countries, military rule heaped brutalities and repression upon the people. In 1986, an Issaq peasant was arrested by Somali security agents for not informing the Government of the presence of rebels in his area. He did not know the difference between soldiers and rebel troops, he protested. And for that ignorance part of his tongue was cut off.

Ethiopian troops recently opened fire on a group of peasant farmers in the northern town of Korem when they refused to participate in a government resettlement program. This is mild treatment compared with that meted out to Ugandans by the successive regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, who killed an estimated 800,000 people between them, most of them innocent peasant farmers.

These same peasant farmers, many of whom are women, produce Africa's food and real wealth. But today they see their lives disrupted and their livelihoods destroyed by so-called 'liberators' as senseless civil wars and political strife rage in at least 15 countries. Useless idiots armed with bazookas blow up their countries and people, leaving a trail of carnage across the continent. Africa's refugee count now exceeds 10 million. The wars in Angola and Mozambique alone have cost over $30 billion, 1.5 million lives and an equal number in refugees - resources that could have been used for development. Over a third of Mozambique's 14 million people have been displaced while in Angola thousands of peasants have had their legs blown off by stepping on land mines. Meanwhile the wars drag on with elites arguing furiously about who is supporting whom in the conflicts.

Many African governments have human-rights commissions - usually set up by the tyrannical governments themselves. In Nigeria the Babangida government vowed to defend human rights. But when, in 1988, principal officers of the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organization published a report on human-rights violations, they were arrested and charged with subversion. In an irate editorial, the national newspaper, Daily Sketch, scolded: 'We claim to be a civilized country but we do not really respect free speech, even when it is responsible. Those who do not hold the same views as the Government are regarded as traitors, people to be harassed and thrown into jail without trial.'

Out of the 51 African countries, perhaps only six - Botswana, The Gambia, Mauritius, Senegal, Tunisia and Algeria - have a free press and tolerate criticism of government policies. Elsewhere in Africa if you write or say something the government dislikes - 'Poof!' you are dead or in jail.

Most of Africa's great writers, poets and journalists have 'disappeared' or gone into exile. Corruption goes unchallenged. Foolish government policies pass uncriticized. Information is locked away instead of being available for all. And while this intellectual barbarism holds the region back economically, African leaders lament a 'book famine'.

Even during the abominable colonial period, many African nationalists wrote and published freely. And the so-called 'backward and illiterate' chiefs of Africa have always tolerated and solicited dissenting opinion, since by custom they rule by consensus. In traditional African society, no jackass waving a bazooka just gets up and declares himself to be 'chief-for-life'. Nor do these chiefs declare their villages to be one-party states and impose alien ideologies on their people.

Traditionally the chief and his councillors sat under a tree and debated issues until they reached unanimity. If the chief and councillors were deadlocked, a village meeting would be called and the issue placed before the people for a consensus to be reached.

There are still chiefs and kings in Africa; Ghana has 32,000. But the new elites have stripped them of much traditional authority while giving little back to Africa in return. Give Africa back to its chiefs. Had the colonialists done so, it would have been a far better place to live in today. Get the media out of the hands of incompetent elite governments and let the voices of the peasants be heard. True reform in Africa requires peasant empowerment - the enfranchisement of the peasant majority to overthrow the tyranny of the elite minority.

In Romania it is instructive to note that a National Peasant Party has been formed. One of these days, Africa's peasants, chanting kirikiri and waving cutlasses, will march to their state capitals and ask the vampire elites a few questions about their Swiss bank accounts. It will be an interesting spectacle to behold.

The author is a Ghanaian who is currently Bradley Resident Scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC. His book Africa Betrayed will be published this year.


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human rights
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The problem
Independence brought with it an idealism that has been blasted apart by the brutality, looting and mismanagement of too many African governments. Whether they opted for multi-party democracies or one-party states has usually proved irrelevant for the peasant majorities who have accustomed themselves to hunger, lack of education, unemployment, poor health and brutal repression. Local democracy and freedom of expression are rare. And the peasants are powerless to do anything but watch as the fruits of their labour are squandered on development follies, personal luxuries and weapons of war and repression.


The facts

  • Africa spends more than $12 billion annually on weapons and armed forces; in Benin, 22% of the national budget is spent on the army.
  • In August 1988 the Somali Government bombed its own citizens for protesting against President Barre's despotic rule and the military government in Burundi massacred around 20,000 Hutus.


The way forward
The enshrining of freedom of speech would make African governments more accountable. They would have to explain how public funds were spent and answer their critics - rather than simply silencing them. Financial leakages would shrink, making economies stronger. And populations could better ensure that money was spent on food, education, health care and other majority benefits. Improved literacy would increase people's ability to monitor national affairs. And freedom to organize politically would follow, enabling those who disagreed with leaders to offer political alternatives. The peasant majority would be able to choose whom they had in power and to get rid of unsatisfactory rulers. Aid should only be given to African governments on condition that they have a good human-rights record.

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New Internationalist issue 208 magazine cover This article is from the June 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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