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Dr. Swikani Ncube: The Sudan Revolution: Africa’s Dictators and the lesson never learnt

By Dr. Swikani Ncube 

When state media in Sudan reported on the morning of 11 April that the military was going to make an important announcement, there was no price in guessing what was to follow.

Dr. Swikani Ncube 
Dr. Swikani Ncube

After four months of protests against the government, often punctuated by violence and murder, the military had seen enough. When Awad Mohammed Ibn Ouf, the country’s minister of defence, finally made the announcement that the military had decided to overthrow their boss, there was palpable relief and disbelief amongst the protestors, the people to whom this victory belonged.

In the aftermath of Al Bashir’s ouster, various aspects of what is now being referred to as ‘The Sudan Revolution’ have been analysed, debated and questioned. The protestors’ continued rejection of a military replacement has been reported by the media at length, often with praise.

In this discussion, parallels are drawn between Zimbabwe’s false dawn after the removal of Robert Mugabe in November 2017, and what the Sudanese can achieve for their country if they resist the trick that Zimbabweans fell for. Of interest too, is the prominent role played by women. ‘Sudan Protests: Female Force in Action’ was a headline by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, in a story which lauded the display of courage and selflessness by one woman, Alaa Salah.

While these observations and lessons are indeed pertinent and worthy of discussion, one would think that the obvious lesson is not for civilians and protest leaders, but for Africa’s political leaders, particularly the numerous dictators across the continent. For dictators read Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Equitorial Guinea’ s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, amongst others.

What the events in Sudan have shown, is that with little exception, anyone who chooses dictatorship as a style of governance risks a humiliating exit. Indeed, an argument can even be made that the Revolution in Sudan does not constitute a lesson, but a mere reminder, for history is replete with records of tyrants who tried and failed to rule forever.

In the last 18 months, the world has watched in disbelief as former strongman lost their grip on power. First was Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in November 2017.

A liberator now turned villain, Mugabe cowed in fear as his protégé now turned foe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, teamed up with the country’s army chief to mastermind a coup. In Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s attempt to run for the highest office from a hospital bed was met with widespread resistance and on 2 April, pressured by the military, he tendered his resignation.

Watching Mugabe, Al Bashir and Bouteflika’s downfalls somewhere in their countries were Yoweri Museveni, Paul Biya, Obiang Nguema and Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Why and how they choose to disregard these free lessons and warnings on the painful end that awaits them if they persist on this path of governance is a mystery.

One would think, and indeed expect, that events of the last 18 months would trigger self-introspection, and a recommitment to values of democracy and good governance. More so, considering most of these tyrants came to power on the backdrop of coups. Astonishingly, unmoved by everything happening to their peers, Egypt’s El-Sisi and Yoweri Museveni have seen it fit to mutilate their national constitutions to prolong their hold on power.

As the standoff between the protestors and the military council continued in Sudan, it was reported on 17 April that Al Bashir had been transferred to Kobar maximum-security prison, a facility that countless of his political foes have called home for merely dissenting. Although Robert Mugabe was lucky not to see the inside of a prison, he was not spared the humiliation of a forced exit.

The same can be said of Bouteflika. Again, one would think that the risk of imprisonment or being murdered upon leaving office would deter dictators.

To this day, the internet preserves one of the most disturbing reminders of consequences of violent political contestation, a video of the capture and torture of Liberia’s Samuel Doe in the capital Monrovia in 1991. Doe was later executed. Although there are variables, the end of a reign of dictatorship has two constants, insecurity and humiliation.  

If this lesson was not clear in 1979 when Uganda’s Idi Amin was forced to flee to Libya , or in 1997 when Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko narrowly evaded Kabila’s forces to settle in Morocco, it ought to be clearer now for two reasons. First, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which presided over the most coup-infested period in the history of the continent is no more.

During its time, the OAU aided tyrants through its non-intervention policy as well as its ‘absolutist’ approach to the principle of sovereignty. Although ‘meddling’ into another state’s affairs was proscribed, this proscription did not extend to positive support, a situation which enabled tyrants to ‘watch each other’s back’. It was after all, for this reason, amongst others, that the OAU attracted the nickname ‘an old boys club’.

Secondly, and more importantly, although the OAU’s successor, the African Union (AU), has a sound anti-coup normative framework, popular uprisings make the imposition of punitive measures difficult to implement.

While the AU can protect regimes from other forms of unconstitutional changes of government as contemplated in the Protocol on the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council as well as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, its hands are tied where a dictator is overthrown pursuant to mass protests. Events in Zimbabwe, Algeria and now Sudan prove this.

When the AU Peace and Security Council deliberated on Sudan, it called on the military council to restore leadership of the country to a civilian government. One will note that the continent’s so-called ‘premier organ’ on peace and security matters did not demand the reinstatement of Al Bashir, but merely a civilian government. Clearly, the AU is powerless when dictators are forced out through popular uprisings, and yet, tyrants expect some form of protection.

In his first televised briefing after his ouster, Robert Mugabe set the record straight that he had not resigned voluntarily. It was a coup. However, despite his anger towards his erstwhile comrades in ZANU-PF, he also expressed disappointment with the manner in which African leaders had failed to protect him.

Addressing journalists at his residence, he said, “I feel betrayed‚ but you also have to look at their conditions. Besides South Africa‚ most of them did not have the capacity to intervene…South Africa could have done more‚ but it didn’t”.

Clearly, South Africa did not do anything for the same reasons that the AU did not do anything. The continental and subregional normative frameworks on peace and security cannot protect tyrants from popular uprisings. They are not designed for this purpose, and neither should they be.

From the events in Zimbabwe, Algeria and Sudan, Yoweri Museveni, Paul Biya and other tyrants on the continent must draw a very sobering lesson, namely: in the absence of dying in office, their exit will be humiliating and painful. 

Dr Swikani Ncube is an academic at the University of Johannesburg. He specialises in public international law. You can find him on twitter at @six_ncube