After Revolutions, Beware of Crocodiles

Revolutions today seldom produce the outcomes that the masses desire. Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution flopped and the flower revolutions in Eastern Europe wilted. Egypt is now suffering under the yoke of a military regime seeking to entrench itself.

Toppling a dictator is only the first step in establishing a free society. The next step is dismantling the dictatorship itself. It is analogous to a defective vehicle with a bad driver. After sacking the driver, the vehicle itself must be fixed or the new driver will quickly land in a ditch.

In far too many countries, the second step is either not attempted or botched, which leads to a reversal or hijacking of the revolution. This happens when a “crocodile liberator,” like Charles Taylor of Liberia, turns out to be far worse than the dictator he claims to have overthrown. It can also occur when quack revolutionaries flaunting fake democratic credentials hijack revolutions to stay in power and pursue their own megalomaniacal agendas.

Africa has experienced more revolutions — at least 50 since 1970 — than any other continent. But a vast majority of these uprisings were unsuccessful; only a few countries escaped the curse of a reversed or hijacked revolution.

Just two weeks ago, Mali’s 1991 revolution was reversed when mutinous soldiers overthrew a democratically elected government. As seemingly stable Mali revealed, hard-won democratic gains in Africa remain fragile. And these weaknesses can be traced to the aftermath of independence in the 1960s.

During the struggle against colonialism, African nationalist leaders made democracy their rallying cry, demanding it across the continent. But suddenly after independence, the same nationalist leaders rejected democracy as a Western institution. (In my country, Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah dismissed it as “imperialist dogma.”) They then proceeded to establish Soviet-style one-party states and declare themselves “presidents for life.” Statues of Marx and Lenin graced the capitals of Angola, Benin, Ethiopia and Mozambique. In 1990, just 4 of 53 African countries were democratic.

Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “village revolutions” swept across Africa. In the 1990s, ordinary Africans, including women with babies strapped to their backs, braved bullets and staged street protests, demanding democratic pluralism and resignations of their presidents. Dictators responded with tear gas, arrests, kidnappings and curfews.

Africa’s village revolutions produced various results: peaceful transitions to democracy; ferocious resistance to change resulting in civil war and carnage; successful overthrows of dictators followed by crocodile liberators or quack revolutionaries; ousted dictators clawing their way back to power; or dictators learning new tricks to beat back democratic challenges. Defining democracies as nations with deeply entrenched democratic institutions, the number in sub-Saharan Africa grew from 4 in 1990 to 12 in 2004 but remains stuck at 15 today. Africa is still not free.

In addition to the dictator’s willingness to accept change, three factors will determine the success or failure of revolutionary upheavals: the duration of the transition process; who manages the transition; and implementation of constitutional and institutional reforms.

Hasty transitions almost always lead to failure. After all, it took the United States 13 years to transition from British control in 1776 to stable democratic rule in 1789. South Africa took three or four. A short transition period of six months, which is what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, doesn’t allow new parties time to organize and gives old opposition parties an edge. As Tunisia’s prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, recently acknowledged, although the dictatorship has been toppled, “the whole system has not yet been overturned.”

After a transition, a whole battery of reforms must be implemented. To sustain a revolution, the constitution must be revamped and institutions freed from the control of the “nomenklatura.” Sadly, in many countries, real reforms were not implemented, allowing the return of authoritarianism from Ethiopia to Uganda.

And it is clear that wherever transitions were managed by armies or rebel groups, the outcome has been disastrous: Military dictators simply manipulated the process, created their own parties, shooed in their favorites or “civilianized” themselves by shedding their uniforms and donning civilian clothes.

Nigeria’s transition was the most egregious. In 1985, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida created two political parties and then wrote the manifestos for both. When the 1993 elections produced a winner he didn’t like, he annulled the vote. Egypt’s transition today is similarly flawed; the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces botched it so badly that protesters are now demanding its resignation.

It is tough to start a revolution and topple a dictator. More formidable still is managing the transition and implementing reforms. Bungling that process allows crocodile liberators and quack revolutionaries to take over. And as Africans are wont to lament, “We struggle to remove one cockroach from power and the next rat comes to do the same thing.”

George B. N. Ayittey, an economist and the president of the Free Africa Foundation, is the author of Defeating Dictators.

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