Tales of horror tumble the dictatorships


The conference halls of Central and West Africa are challenging the political ethic of the region, writes Mark Huband in Abidjan

The Guardian, 15 August 1991

FEW people imagined that the old dictators in West and Central Africa would ever be brought to trial. They held their power with private armies and the encouragement of Western governments keen to hold on to allies. But now the armies are unpaid and the West is losing patience with dictatorships.

Those areas of the continent where the dictators are losing their grip have seen the birth pains of a much-flawed system, which is being called democracy, centred on the holding of national conferences.

Comparisons have been made between the conferences, held in most of the francophone countries, and the tradition of palaver, where chiefs and elders talk through problems facing the community. Corruption and nepotism have done much to undermine the effectiveness of this tradition, and military dictatorships have alienated the leaders from the led.

Even so, the national conferences – the first having been in Benin in early 1990, the latest having just got off to a faltering start in Zaire – have become the most reliable reflection of the state of the continent.

A sign of how discredited the military have become in most countries has been the way blame for atrocities has been laid with them, without the armies being provoked into halting the debates. Soldiers are reluctant to explain themselves because they know the accusations are largely true.

In Togo three weeks ago, victims of electric shock torture, starvation during imprisonment, detention without trial and other mistreatment stood up in the conference hall and recounted their experiences.

And nobody stopped them. Togo’s President, General Gnassingbe Eyadema, has not been to hear about the alleged crimes of his regime, and the government delegation initially walked out. But the immunity from prosecution granted to delegates for the duration of all the conferences has held firm.

The readiness of delegates to humiliate their oppressors indicates a need for a wholly new political ethic. Respect for the dignity of allies and opponents is one of the strongest factors in the political life of West and Central Africa and the deliberate embarrassment of an opponent is rarely forgiven.

But the standard is being overturned. The three-month conference in Congo, during which the corruption and violence of the old regime were laid bare without restraint, ended in June with President Denis Sassou Nguesso being stripped of all but ceremonial powers and of the freedom to leave the country.

The Congo development is being cited by other presidents as destabilising and irresponsible. Despite an eight-week general strike and the deaths of scores of opposition activists, President Paul Biya of Cameroon has fiercely opposed the holding of a conference.

In Zaire, where the national conference opened this week, President Mobutu Sese Seko pointed to the developments in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville, just across the river from Kinshasa, as a reason why things should be done differently when his time of arraignment arrives. But his attempts to split the opposition having at last failed after 26 years in power, he has largely lost the power to influence events.

What has a year of talking achieved? In Benin, the new government of President Nicephore Soglo has seen a peaceful transition from the dictatorship of Mathieu Kerekou. The torture chamber in Cotonou has been closed and the former President has retired to a comfortable house outside the capital, where motorists hoot their horns to disturb his peace.

Elsewhere, public expectations are far from being met. In Mali, where a national conference ended this week, pluralism has been promised while the Tuaregs wage an increasingly intense war of secession.

Congo’s new government is stricken by financial problems as it tries to repatriate funds salted away to Europe. In Cameroon, violent clashes are still provoked to impose the government’s supremacy, and in Zaire President Mobutu still appears unprepared to retire to his villa at Cap Martin in France.

The national conferences have succeeded in at last exposing the true scale of corruption, the horror of political violence and the massive financial waste. But unless the process produces results it will have done little to find a way out of the quagmire. With most African countries now worse off economically than at any time since independence, the opportunity for rebuilding in a democratic climate appears all the more remote.


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