Thugtatorship — the highest stage of African dictatorship

OPINION – If democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people, a thugogracy is a government of thieves, for thieves, by thieves.

Simply stated, a thugtatorship is rule by a gang of thieves and robbers (thugs) in designer suits. It is becoming crystal clear that much of Africa today is a thugogracy privately managed and operated for the exclusive benefit of bloodthirsty thugtators. 

In a thugtatorship, the purpose of seizing and clinging to political power is solely to accumulate personal wealth for the ruling class by stealing public funds and depriving the broader population of scarce resources necessary for basic survival. The English word ‘thug’ comes from the Hindi word ‘thag’ which means ‘con man’.

In India ‘thugees’, well-organised criminal gangs, robbed and murdered unsuspecting travelers over a century ago. Africa’s ‘thugees’ today mug, rob, pillage, plunder and rape unsuspecting nations and peoples and secrete away their billions in stolen loot in European and American banks.

Today, we see the incredibly extreme lengths Libyan thugtator Muammar Gaddafi is willing to go to preserve his thugocratic empire floating on billions of stolen oil dollars hidden in foreign bank accounts and corporate property holdings.

The British government recently announced that it expects to seize ‘around £20 billion in liquid assets of the Libyan regime, mostly in London.’ The Swiss government has similarly issued an order for the immediate freeze of assets belonging to Gaddafi and his entourage.

The Swiss central bank announced that it will freeze Gaddafi’s 613 million Swiss francs (USD$658 million), with an additional 205 million francs (USD$220 million) in paper or fiduciary operations.

In 2008, before a diplomatic incident involving the arrest of one of Gaddafi’s sons for assault in Switzerland, Gaddafi’s Swiss holdings amounted to 5.7 billion in cash and 812 million francs in paper and fiduciary operations. In 2006, the Libyan Sovereign Wealth Fund had investments of $70 billion. The US closed its embassy in Triopli and slapped a freeze on all Libyan assets described as ‘substantial’.

To protect his empire of corruption, Gaddafi has ordered his air force to bomb and strafe unarmed civilian demonstrators demanding an end to his 42-year rule. His son Saif al-Islam threatened to dismember the country and plunge it into a civil war. Gaddafi himself has vowed to fight on and die ‘like a martyr’. It is not enough for Gaddafi and his thugs to have bled the Libyan people dry for 42 years, they now want to burn down the whole country to ashes.

The Ivory Coast is on the verge of civil war, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. In December 2010, Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after he was decisively defeated in the presidential election. In 2000, Gbagbo imposed a curfew and a state of emergency and ordered security forces to shoot and kill any demonstrators in the streets: ‘Police, gendarmes and soldiers from all branches of the armed forces are ordered to use all means throughout the country to oppose troublemakers.’

Like Gaddafi’s mercenaries today, Gbagbo’s troops back then went on a killing and beating rampage. The European Union, the Swiss and United States governments have frozen Gbagbo’s assets in their countries.??In May 2010, Meles Zenawi said he won the parliamentary election by 99.6 per cent. The European Union election observer team said the election ‘lacked a level playing field’ and ‘failed to meet international standards’, a well-known code phrase for a ‘stolen election’. In its 2005 report, the team said exactly the same thing.

Zenawi’s EPDRF party pretty much owns the Ethiopian economy. ‘According to the World Bank, roughly half of the rest of the national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT).

EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favourable terms on loans from government banks.’ The regime’s own anti-corruption agency reported in 2008 that ‘USD$16 million dollars’ worth of gold bars simply walked out of the bank in broad daylight.

In 2005, Zenawi demonstrated the extremes he will go to protect his empire of corruption. Zenawi’s own inquiry commission documented that troops under Zenawi’s direct command and control mowed down 193 documented unarmed protesters in the streets and severely wounded nearly 800. Another 30,000 suspected opponents were jailed.

In a meeting with high level US officials in advance of the May 2010 election, Zenawi told them in plain words what he will do to his opposition if they try to ‘discredit the election’.

‘If opposition groups resort to violence in an attempt to discredit the election, we will crush them with our full force; they will all vegetate like Birtukan (Midekssa) in jail forever.’ If Zenawi will ‘crush’ those who ‘attempt to discredit an election’, it does not leave much to the imagination to figure out what he will do when the people ask him peacefully to leave power.

In April 2010, Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan claimed victory by winning nearly 70 per cent of the vote. The EU election observer mission declared the ‘deficiencies in the legal and electoral framework in the campaign environment led the overall process to fall short of a number of international standards for genuine democratic elections.’ Another election stolen in broad daylight; but that is not all Bashir has stolen.

According to a Wikileaks cablegram, ‘International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told (US) Ambassadors Rice and Wolff on March 20 (2009) that (Ocampo) would put the figure of Sudanese President Bashir’s stash of money at possibly $9 billion.’

After the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, the first warrant of its kind for a sitting head of state, a sneering Bashir flipped his middle finger at the ICC: ‘They will issue their decision tomorrow, and we are telling them to immerse it in water and drink it’, a common Arabic insult.

In February 2010, a group of soldiers in Niger calling itself the ‘Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy’ stormed Niger’s presidential palace and snatched president Mamadou Tandja and his ministers.

In 2009, Tandja had dissolved the National Assembly and set up a ‘Constitutional Court’ to pave the way for him to become president-for-life. Niger’s state auditor reported that ‘at least 64 billion CFA francs (USD$128-million) were stolen from Niger’s state coffers under the government of former president Mamadou Tandja.’ Tandja is sitting in jail in southwestern Niger.

In March 2008, Robert Mugabe declared victory in the presidential election after waging a campaign of violence and intimidation on his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai and his supporters.

In 2003, Mugabe boasted, ‘I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be Hitler tenfold. Ten times, that is what we stand for.’ No one would disagree with Mugabe’s self-description.

In 2010, Mugabe announced his plan to sell ‘about $1.7 billion of diamonds in storage’. According to a Wikileaks cablegram, ‘a small group of high-ranking Zimbabwean officials (including Grace Mugabe) have been extracting tremendous diamond profits.’ Mugabe is so greedy that he stole outright ‘£4.5 million from [aid] funds meant to help millions of seriously ill people.’

In December 2007, Mwai Kibaki declared himself winner of the presidential election. In 2002, Kibaki, criticising the regime of his predecessor Daniel Arap Moi, urged the people to ‘remain calm, even when intimidated or provoked by those who are desperately determined to rig the elections and plunge the country into civil war.’

In 2007, Kibaki and his thugs unleashed such violence against the civilian population that 1,500 Kenyans were killed and some 600,000 displaced, almost plunging Kenya into civil war.

The Kroll Report revealed that Moi stole billions of dollars using a ‘web of shell companies, secret trusts and frontmen’ and secreted the loot in 30 countries. Kibaki stonewalled further action on the report, including prosecution of Moi.

The story of corruption, theft, embezzlement and brazen transfer of the national wealth of African peoples to European and African banks and corporate institutions is repeated elsewhere in the continent.

Ex-Nigerian President Sani Abacha, who was judicially determined to be a member of a criminal organisation by a Swiss court, stole $500 million. Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt also have their stolen assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars frozen in Switzerland and elsewhere.

Other African thugtators who have robbed their people (and pretty much gotten away with it) include Nigeria’s Ibrahim Babangida, Guniea’s Lansana Conte, Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema, Gabon’s Omar Bongo, Equatorial Guniea’s Obiang Nguema, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Campore and Congo’s (Brazaville) Denis Sassou Nguesso, among others.

In previous commentaries, I have argued that the business of African governments is corruption. African thugtators cling to power to operate sophisticated criminal business enterprises to loot their national treasuries and resources. These African ‘leaders’ are actually ‘godfathers’ or heads of criminal families.

Just like any organised criminal enterprise, African thugtators use their party apparatuses, bureaucracies, military and police forces to maintain and perpetuate their corrupt financial empires.

When the US first announced its ‘kleptocracy asset recovery program’ to the world in July 2010, US Attorney General Eric Holder delivered the message, not at some international anti-corruption forum, but at the African Union Summit in Kampala, Uganda.

Holder told the gathered African thugtators:??‘Today, I’m pleased to announce that the US Department of Justice is launching a new Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative aimed at combating large-scale foreign official corruption and recovering public funds for their intended – and proper – use for the people of our nations.

‘We’re assembling a team of prosecutors who will focus exclusively on this work and build upon efforts already underway to deter corruption, hold offenders accountable, and protect public resources.’

Holder’s announcement was nothing short of breathtaking. In Kampala, Holder was talking directly to the African equivalents of the Godfathers of the Bonnano, Columbo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese crime families in one place.

Political economy of thugtatorships

Thugtatorships in Africa thrive in the political economy of kleptocracy. Widespread corruption permeates every corner of society. Oil revenues, diamonds, gold bars, coffee and other commodities and foreign aid are stolen outright and pocketed by the thugtators and their army of thugocrats. Public funds are embezzled and misused and state property misappropriated and converted to private use.

Publicly-owned assets are virtually given away to supporters in ‘privatisation programs’ or secretly held in illegal transactions. Bank loans are given out to front enterprises owned secretly by the thugtators or their supporters without sufficient or proper collateral.

Businessmen must pay huge bribes or kickbacks to participate in public contracting and procurement. Those involved in the import/export business are victimised in shakedowns by thugocrats. The judiciary is thoroughly corrupted through political interference and manipulation.

One of the common tricks used by thugtators to cling to power is to terrorise the people with warnings of an impending Armageddon. They say that if they are removed from power, even after 42 years, the sky will fall and the earth will open up and swallow the people. Thugtators sow fear, uncertainty and doubt in the population and use misinformation and disinformation to psychologically defeat, disorient and neutralise the people. ??

Both Gaddafi and his son have warned of chaos. Zenawi has been talking about ‘genocide’ for years. The 2005 European Union election observer mission in its final report strongly chastised Zenawi and his associates for morbid genocide rhetoric. If Africa’s thugtators plan to use the ‘nuclear option’ and bring Armageddon on their societies, they would be wise to know who is destined to win the final battle between good and evil.

Gaddafi’s fate now dangles between what he wants to do to bring this unspeakable tragedy to a swift conclusion, the will of the Libyan people once they vanquish his mercenaries and the International Criminal Court to whom the US Security Council has voted unanimously to refer Gaddafi and members of his government in Libya for investigation and prosecution for crimes against humanity and war crimes.?

Like al-Bashir of the Sudan, Gadhafi and members of his thugocratic empire will not escape the long arms of justice. The days of massacring unarmed demonstrators, strafing and bombing civilians and detention of innocent people by the tens of thousands with impunity are gone. Justice may be delayed but when the people open the floodgates of freedom, ‘justice (not blood) will run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream’ and wash out the wreckage of thugtatorship into the sea.??

Africa’s thugtatorships have longstanding and profitable partnerships with the West. Through aid and trade, the West has enabled these thugocracies to flourish in Africa and repress Africans. To cover up their hypocrisy and hoodwink the people, the West is now lined up to ‘freeze’ the assets of the thugtators. It is a drama they have perfected since the early days of African independence.

The fact of the matter is that the West is interested only in ‘stability’ in Africa. That simply means, in any African country, they want a ‘guy they can do business with’.

The business they want to do in Africa is the oil business, the (blood) diamond business, the arms sales business, the coffee and cocoa export business, the tourism business, the luxury goods export business and the war on terrorism business. They are not interested in the African peoples’ business, the human rights business, the rule of law business, the accountability and transparency business and the fair and free elections business.??

Today, the West is witnessing a special kind of revolution it has never seen: a youth-led popular nonviolent revolution against thugtatorships in Africa and the Middle East. Neither the West nor the thugtators know what to do with this kind of revolution or the revolutionaries leading it.

President Obama said, ‘History will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt, that we were on the right side of history.’ Well, what is good for Egypt is good enough for Ethiopia, Libya, Tunisia, the Sudan, Algeria, Kenya, Bahrain, Djbouti, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

The decisive question in world history today is: are we on the right side of history with the victims of oppression or are we on the wrong side with thugtators destined to the dustbin of history???Power to youths in Africa and the Middle East! –??This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.?

* Alemayehu G. Mariam is professor of political science at CSU San Bernardino.