The Temptation of Power

Stephen DeAngelis

July 29, 2009

In late June, Honduran soldiers stormed the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa and forced President Manuel Zelaya into exile in Costa Rica. As The Economist reported, “It was a flashback to a nightmare that Latin Americans hoped they had awoken from for good” [“Lousy president, terrible precedent,” 4 July 2009 print issue]. Yet there was something very different about the coup in Honduras — it was a coup that had the support of the courts, the legislature, and most of the people. The reason that the ouster was so broadly supported was that Mr. Zelaya had taken a page from the playbook of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and had tried to organize “a referendum on convening a constituent assembly—the very device Mr Chávez used to establish an autocracy. Since such an exercise violated the constitution and both Congress and the courts were firmly opposed to it, this unleashed a conflict of powers.” In other words, Mr. Zelaya wanted to change the Honduran constitution so that he could be president for life. One can only assume that coup leaders in Honduras anticipated wide international acceptance for their attempt to save democracy in their country. They must have been startled when the coup was met with almost unanimous disapproval. The reason, of course, is summed up well in The Economist‘s headline. Zelaya may have been a lousy president, but sanctioning a coup that had ousted a democratically-elected president would have set a terrible precedent.

 

Affairs of state, especially those dealing with regime change, are never easy and always complex. For years, some European states have been supporting the concept of humanitarian interventions that could be used to remove regimes promoting policies such as genocide. Most of the international community supported President Bush’s intervention in Afghanistan that overthrew the Taliban. The Taliban had been committing unspeakable crimes against its people and had been crushing the aspirations of its women. The regime could also be directly tied, of course, to the terrorist attacks conducted in 2001. In a more recent case, the majority of the international community has backed the International Criminal Court’s attempt to prosecute the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, for crimes against humanity, over the mass killings in Darfur; which would remove him from office. Mr. Zelaya has not been accused of crimes against humanity just a bald-faced grab for power. That’s what makes his ouster unacceptable to most other countries. As noted above, Mr. Chávez has been manipulating his country’s political environment for years, but the international hasn’t called for an intervention to overthrow his regime.

 

Another leader that is making a grab for additional power is Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja [“Niger Senses a Threat to Its Scrap of Democracy,” by Adam Nossiter, New York Times, 13 July 2009]. Nossiter reports:

“Tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest President Mamadou Tandja’s slow-moving coup d’état, as his critics call it: his plan to stay beyond the legal limit of two terms in his colonial-era palace, a gleaming oasis of whitewashed order amid dilapidated government buildings and mud-brick houses. In his push for a new constitution that would abolish term limits and give him more power after 10 years as president, Mr. Tandja dissolved a high court that ruled against his bid to remain in office; dismissed a fractious Parliament; took steps to muzzle the press, including shutting down a radio and television station; and arrested opposition leaders.”

The temptation for leaders to stay in power is almost irresistible. Only when institutional safeguards are stronger than the political power of a country’s ruler is democracy safe. That’s why Chávez, Zelaya, and Tandja want to remove institutional obstacles to their aspirations. As institutional safeguards assume more historical and deeper foundations, the safer a democracy becomes. The problem is that democracy in many countries around the world remaind in its infancy. Niger is one of them.

“Democracy is new here in one of the world’s poorest countries, barely a decade old in this vast land of about 14 million people, most of it desert, bigger in area than France, Spain and Portugal together. Uranium deposits, among the world’s largest, provide the government with revenue, but the citizens here do not have much. Most live on less than a dollar a day, and mortality rates for mothers and children are well above the African average — double in the case of women giving birth. The country ranks fifth from the bottom in the United Nations human development index, and persistent malnutrition stalks rural areas, aid workers say. In the capital, the hugely swollen limbs of insistent beggars testify to the effects of unchecked disease.”

To read more about tensions in Niger that are being created by its uranium deposits, read my blog entitled Commodity Economics: Feast or Famine. Niger sits in the heart of what my colleague Tom Barnett calls “the non-integrating Gap.” It has been trying to move away from that status, but it has not been easy and Tandja’s power grab won’t help.

“One thing the people have dearly acquired, though, after decades of coups, military strongmen and weak governments, is a political order that has resembled democracy, albeit with lapses: two successful presidential elections, defeated candidates who go home without causing turmoil, an outspoken opposition and an alert if beleaguered press. The citizens are manifestly unwilling to give up their shaky gains. The street protests have given way to strikes and daily banner headlines in the nongovernment press, like the one last week proclaiming ‘The Dismantling of Democracy’ in the leading opposition newspaper, Le Républicain.”

One of the reasons that U.S. President Barack Obama made Ghana his first presidential visit in Africa was to honor the country for its commitment to democracy. By praising its efforts, the President hoped to deepen its commitment to democratic processes so that it could serve as example to other African nations (see yesterday’s post entitled Hope in Ghana). One thing for sure, President Tandja has taken himself out of the running for prestigious Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership (to learn more about the prize, read my post entitled Leadership and Good Governance in Africa). There is no delusion as complete as self-delusion; and leaders like Chávez, Zelaya, and Tandja are masters of the art. Nossiter reports:

“In the presidential palace, an airy Moorish-style edifice built for the French governors and well hidden from the road, Mr. Tandja beamed and said he wanted to stay on only because the people were begging him to do so. ‘The people demand it,’ Mr. Tandja said. ‘My obligation is to never betray the aspirations of the people. It’s the people who asked.’ In the great hall outside his office, a giant mural depicted Mr. Tandja, arms raised, in the center of lush fields, surrounded by tiny citizens with arms reaching out to him. Ticking off what he said were his accomplishments — public works projects, improvements in education — the president said, ‘When you look at all this, it’s normal that the people want to keep you as long as possible.'”

Tandja could just as well be chanting, “Hell, no, I won’t go.” The reason that I selected this topic for a post is that good governance is critical for sustainable development. Autocratic regimes inevitably find themselves snared in the tentacles of corruption and increasingly rely on force to mute opposition. As ethics decay, less effort is spent on planning for the future as more time is spent on planning to stay in power. Old regimes have a difficult time embracing fresh ideas. Everyone agrees that the future of Africa (or of any region for that matter) rests in the hands of the people living there. Unfortunately, too much power remains in the hands of too few people. Leaders like President Tandja are hurting efforts by other better-governed African nations to improve Africa’s reputation and secure a brighter future.