The how-to guide to toppling tyrants

Defeating Dictators: Fighting tyranny in Africa and around the world, by George B. N. Ayittey, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP$28

When do dictatorships reach their tipping point? What is it about veteran autocrats that they delude themselves about the stability of their regime even as their last citadel is about to be stormed? Is it right to conclude, to paraphrase Tolstoy, that all unhappy (for that read, troubled) dictatorships are unhappy in their own way ... ? Or are there enduring lessons about the nature of their rule that will enlighten us about the prospects of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad?

Amid the stirring events of the past year, as one Arab despot after another has fallen by the wayside, a spellbound watching world has been avidly posing such questions. Vast businesses and critical alliances depend on the answers. Also, of course, for those not enduring it, tyranny – and its toppling – is compelling spectator sport. Herodotus was merely the first known chronicler to latch on to autocratic myopia as a source of great copy.

Who of adult age in 1989 did not watch and then watch again the grainy footage showing the bewilderment on the face of Nicolae Ceausescu as he stood on the balcony of Romania’s Central Committee building on a freezing December day? As so many times before, he had had factory workers bussed in to acclaim him. Yet as he gazed out, chants of “Timisoara” (pronounced Teemeeeshwara), the small town where his forces had massacred scores of protesters, rippled through the air.

That was the fairytale model for the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, just a year ago. Then, of course, there was the more violent variant on the theme: the downfall of Muammer Gaddafi, ranting to the last about his imminent comeback. To those fortunate enough to live in freedom it is easy to think that the moral is clear: all dictators grow complacent and will ultimately fall. Sic semper tyrannis!

But as Professor George Ayittey, Obama adviser and veteran Africa author and analyst, knows too well, such drama is merely the denouement. There is far more to ousting dictators than convening a crowd, as in Tahrir Square. And western military intervention, while it toppled its targets in Libya and Iraq, is hardly a template that should or will be rolled out across the world. (Atrocious as the crackdown in Syria is, few expect the west to intervene.)

Rather, as Ayittey makes clear in his latest work, undermining dictators is a science that requires time and thought, not to say a long hard grind. He correctly concedes that there is one enduring lesson once a revolution is under way: as soon as army units turn, the end is in sight. The principal reason most in the region expect Mr Assad to cling on for a while is that soldiers have defected as individuals and not en masse. After all, it was only when Romania’s crowds could confidently shout “armata é cu noi” (“the army is with us”) that Ceausescu’s goose was truly cooked. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has defied political logic and stayed on primarily because he has kept the security chiefs on side.

But Ayittey is rightly more interested in the long haul. In his view tyrannies are indeed ultimately doomed but he also stresses that we should not be tempted to fall for the sometimes tempting alternative scenario of a reformist strongman. He argues passionately that it is a chimera to believe, as many businesspeople contend, that economic reforms may eventually lead to political liberalisation: not for him the west’s sympathy for authoritarian economic reformers such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. Such systems can achieve short-term prosperity, he says, but it will not endure. Corners should not be cut. A free press and a vibrant opposition are essential.

Some of his generalisations about dictatorship seem better suited to Africa and more specifically sub-Saharan Africa, than the rest of the world. Also, his suggestion that there are contemporary lessons to be learnt from the role of tribal elders and the collectivist style of traditional African societies seems a little starry-eyed.

But, to be clear, there are few greater experts in the nature of and flaws of tyranny. His record in opposing authoritarian misrule in his native Ghana is unimpeachable. Fifteen years ago when Zaire’s kleptocratic “Big Man”, Mobutu Sese Seko, was in his last months in power, Ayittey’s devastating account of Africa’s predatory elites, Africa Betrayed, was rightly in the suitcase of anyone seeking to understand the continent’s recent past. Now he has done it again.

All those labouring under authoritarian systems that seem invulnerable, from Zimbabwe to Jordan and even maybe China, should heed his strictures. So should their rulers. So too should western officials tempted to water down their principles when working in illiberal regimes.

The writer is the FT’s comment and analysis editor

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