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Africa’s strongmen and the dying art of fine dictatorship



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Sudan’s embattled President Omar al-Bashir, facing three months of protests, has lost it.

As last week ended, Bashir, who first came to power in 1989 in a coup, declared a yearlong state of emergency. He disbanded his Cabinet and dissolved the federal and provincial governments.

Protests continued, and the economy tanked further, so he unleashed new rules on foreign currency and gold, and trading in or hoarding subsidised fuel products.

You cannot carry more than $3,000 (Sh300,000) and you can buy foreign exchange only at places designated by the government, at official rates.

What happened to the artful African dictator? Bashir’s way is, certainly, not the best way to oppress a country.

It used to be said that Mwai Kibaki was not a great democrat, despite the fact that his years as president saw the freest period in Kenyan media.

Rather, that he used freedom as a means of control. If people are free to shoot their mouths off, your Cabinet ministers are fighting one another in the Press and there is a lot of noise everywhere, it means everybody is too busy fighting someone else to fight you.

Few strongmen in Africa — and, indeed, the world — see things Kibaki’s way. When opposition mounts, they bring out the hammers and tongs. Yet, they would be far better served by enlightened dictatorship.

Some years ago, when I was editor of The Monitor, in Uganda, we ran a series of scoops based on leaked Cabinet minutes.

After a while, President Yoweri Museveni’s government got fed up and banned all government and state-affiliated agencies from advertising in the newspaper.

It was not uncommon for the paper, which in its early stages was still a bi-weekly, to come out with a forlorn quarter page in a whole edition. That circulation ticked up sharply saved us.

One day, some hard-nosed Indian chap from Mumbai dropped by to talk business. He was quite surprised that the government had issued a directive specifically targeting The Monitor, because it was likely to be counterproductive.

It made us victims, and brought sympathy buyers, he said (and, as indicated earlier, he was probably right). So how would it have been done in India, I asked.

“Since you are a bi-weekly, in India, the most likely thing is that they would have issued a directive saying that, for effectiveness, government and parastatal ads shall be published only in daily newspapers,” he said. “The Monitor would not have been named.

“They might even have added that, ‘except in exceptional circumstances’, to allow officials the discretion to place ads in other bi-weeklies, not The Monitor”.

The “Kibaki Way” and the “Indian Method” is smart repression. So what would a clever strongman who finds himself in Bashir’s position, in the shoes of Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe, or some wretched corner of Africa do?

If I were the dictator in their position, I would announce a constitutional review. I would divide it into two parts.

First, the people would have, to use that wonderful Brexit expression, an “indicative vote” on the first draft constitution, and then a “meaningful vote” on the final document.

Then I would stack it with many controversial proposals that I know would drive the conservative society nuts: Abolition of the death penalty; proposal to give same-sex marriages greater protection than heterosexual ones; proposal to tax church collections; giving children the right to renounce their parents; mandatory castration for rapists; a water tax; requiring 60 percent of MPs to be women; giving students the right to elect head teachers and principals; having salaries and allowances of civil servants, judges, parastatal workers, police and army posted on noticeboards every month; and, finally, banning the secret ballot.

The country would totally be upside-down and different groups, regions and professions would be tearing at each other all day over the proposals.

No one would have the time to bother me. In that mad house, I would appoint a Cabinet and it wouldn’t even make it to the front pages.

If Bashir just came out with a proposal to bar women from wearing the veil, proposing free religious conversion, granting self-determination to Darfur, dismantling exchange controls, ending fuel subsidies (but increasing the ones for bread) and opening an embassy in Jerusalem, he would send Sudan into a spin.

Most people would think he had finally gone mad. The protesters’ alliance against him would crack. He would have new friends, and new enemies.

The country would just melt down with exhaustion feuding over the conflicting proposals that he wouldn’t need a state of emergency.

And all this time I thought there was a secret good school for training African dictators. Wapi!

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of and explainer @cobbo3