The West And African Dictators

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The Eritrean government shuns Western criticisms as “hypocritical, misguided or misinformed.� Although the human rights situation in Eritrea is far worse than in Zimbabwe or anywhere else in Africa, the European Union has never threatened the Asmara regime with any sanctions.

[Op-Ed: Africa Update]



It is hard to get the world to take a closer look at all the brutal African dictators of the 21st century.

No wonder, the call by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders to bar the Eritrean Strongman Isayas Afeworki from entering Europe to attend the recent EU-African summit in Portugal, failed to draw the international attention it deserved.

Unlike Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the equally, if not more ruthless regime of Afeworki, has not yet come on everybody’s radar screen for public scrutiny and denunciation.   

In dealing with human rights issues, most world leaders are guided by political expediencies rather than lofty principles and ideals. Human rights become nobody’s business when national interest alone takes precedence.  

Aware of this state of affairs, over 30 years ago, Idi Amin, the ruthless Ugandan dictator terrorized an entire population with impunity. Amin simply rebuffed and mocked Western condemnations as mere racist rhetoric.

Ironically, many Pan-Africanists of the time, though often embarrassed by his vulgar behavior, admired Amin for standing up to old colonial Europe and imperialist USA. 

Indeed, in 1975, after reportedly murdering up to 200,000 of his citizens, Amin was unanimously selected by his contemporaries to chair the Organization of African Unity, the forerunner of the African Union.

The OAU never condemned Amin for his flagrant human rights abuses under the  pretext of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. The Ugandan bully also had non-African friends. Soviet Communists armed him to the teeth to counter Western influence in East Africa, and Arab governments took care of his finances because he hated Israel.  Not much has changed since the Amin’s days. Only the players have changed.

Like Uganda’s Amin, President Mugabe conveniently shrugs off European and American criticisms of his failed policies as racist. At the same time, he is hailed by many African leaders for standing up to Western double standards and for seizing thousands of white farms. 

But the mismanaged and corrupt land reform process, launched in 2000, has only managed to enrich Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party and consolidate his power base. It has further alienated and embittered Mugabe’s political opponents who are the main target of his repressive policies.   

There is no argument against the idea of land redistribution among Zimbabweans to redress past white racist policies. But the rash to destroy thousands of commercial farms has led the country to abject poverty and famine. Half of the country’s population of 12 million now depend on food aid donated by the US or Britain. Millions have left the country in the past few years to escape repression and poverty. 

To control a restive population, the regime uses imprisonment, torture, killings and mass starvation. Instead of feeding its people, the regime has purchased billions of dollars worth of weapons from China for no other purpose than to intimidate Mugabe’s political opponents. 

It is widely recognized that the Zimbabwean leader was a dictator from the start. In a political purge, before and immediately after independence in 1980, Mugabe - member of the majority Shona ethnic group - unleashed genocide against the minority Ndebele killing thousands of them. In 1984, he imprisoned his chief political rival Baptist Bishop Abel Muzorewa without trial for 10 months on false treason charges.

He is as oppressive today as he was then. Human rights organizations speak of relentless atrocities aimed particularly at members of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Government forces have stepped up their repression as the 2008 national elections draw near. Despite all this, African leaders, many of them openly or closet dictators, threatened to boycott the recent European-African summit in Portugal unless Mugabe was allowed to participate.
The Eritrean President for life reigns over a brutal authoritarian military regime camouflaged in civilian attire. Afeworki has given the military a free hand to imprison indefinitely without charge or trial, or to torture or murder any dissidents that challenge his authority. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, suffer in the harshest prison environments including filthy dungeons and metal containers on account of their political views or faith.

In 2001, the Eritrean leader locked up his entire cabinet of ministers, among them, the vice president and the foreign and defense ministers under false accusations of conspiring against the country. They are held in secret prisons and only the authorities know if they are still alive or not. Prior to their arrest, the officials had tried in vain to meet with Afeworki about the need for democratization. The request for a meeting is the only “crime” they are believed to have committed. 

Political and press freedoms are outlawed. While four journalists are known to have been tortured to death, 15 others still remain in prison. Eritrea is now considered number one, behind North Korea, as the worst country for press freedom. 

On the economic front, Afeworki has nothing to offer. He uses mass starvation as a political weapon and he exaggerates about crop harvest in order to justify refusal of food aid. UN reports suggest two thirds of the country’s 4.5 million people have to receive external food aid or perish. When he told the Los Angeles Times in October that his people did not need food aid, thousands of Asmara city dwellers were standing in line - many of them near one of his lavish, affluent presidential palaces - to get their meager food ration. 

The messed up economy is in a shambles and corruption is widespread. The ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) party members and supporters have absolute monopoly over the country’s resources. Many of the top military officers and party members have accumulated immeasurable wealth.  

The Eritrean government shuns Western criticisms as “hypocritical, misguided or misinformed.” Although the human rights situation in Eritrea is far worse than in Zimbabwe or anywhere else in Africa, the European Union has never threatened the Asmara regime with any sanctions. On the contrary, European development aid continues to flow to Eritrea.

Mugabe is unwelcome in Europe for rigging elections in 2002. On the other hand, for 17 years, Afeworki has never allowed elections, meaning the opportunity to rig or not to rig has not even presented itself.  

There is a clear case of European double standard, which may soon change once two things happen:. One: the Eritrean opposition parties need to take concrete steps as a united democratic force and demonstrate to the world that they are ready and capable to mobilize the people for government change. Two: the European Union will have to go along with the United States and impose sanctions if Washington goes ahead as planned and designate Eritrea a state sponsor of terrorism.

America and Europe do not have solutions to all problems. Their guiding principle of “enlightened self-interest” is inadequate to deal with domestic or international problems. 

Africa, which has suffered so much in the past under colonial and racist rules, has a great deal to offer to the rest of the world by creating saner social and economic systems that really work. 

This won’t happen unless African leaders choose to make the firmest commitment to the principles of human rights, rule of law, transparency and participatory democracy. Zimbabwe and Eritrea, among many other troubled African states, do not have problems that these values cannot solve.

Dictatorships breed poverty, diseases, civil unrest, wars, and terrorism. 


Woldu Mikael is a veteran African Journalist and has in the past interviewed Presidents Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe.




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