When liberators turn into despots

What you need to know:

The tragic death of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi puts on the spot the iron-fist rule of a number of African leaders

The world watched in disbelief last week as the self-declared “African Kings of Kings” was flushed out of a culvert in his hometown of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and dragged through the streets by National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters before being shot dead.

The reaction among many Libyans, both within and beyond Libya, was hysterical, with celebratory gunfire renting the air.

But, despite the new-found sense of hope and a new beginning for the North African state, history warns that it is still too early for citizens to pop the champagne.

The NTC might be putting on a saintly face, but the taste of power is likely to go it’s leaders’ heads. You do not have to go far to see how power corrupts hitherto noble men.

Africa is littered with messiahs who, either by the bullet or the ballot, came to power quoting the biblical Moses and vowing to take their nations to the Promised Land, only to turn into tyrannical Pharaohs along the way.

Robert Mugabe and Yoweri Museveni were once celebrated icons of the struggle against oppression and dictatorship.

But today they preside over some of the most repressive regimes in the continent. And the duo is not short of company in this infamous club of liberators-turned-tyrants.

To his cronies, Isaias Afewerki is a freedom fighter who deserves a place of honour in history. But to observers and the thousands of Eritreans who have fled the country to seek refuge in foreign lands, he is a ruthless despot who spares nobody or nothing in his quest to retain power.

His biography points more to the latter than the former. After abandoning academia to join the Eritrean Liberation Front in 1969 in the fight against Ethiopian occupation, it took Afewerki a few years to rise through the ranks and command enough following to break away and form his own Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).

Three decades down the line, the man became the chief architect in a pact where Ethiopia granted the region the privilege to decide whether to secede through a referendum.

Many Ethiopians have never forgiven their government for “amputating” a region they consider to be part of their country’s history.

Upon independence in 1993, Afewerki became the president and promised democratic elections. The country is yet to hold the promised polls, 18 years later.

Besides being the only African country without independent media, human rights reports claim that the Eritrean regime has established soviet-style labour camps in the desert region of Wia near the Red Sea port of Massawa, where dissidents are worked to death.

Hundreds of students from the Asmara University, including their union leader Semere Kasete, were deported to this notorious camp in July 2001 after protesting against the mandatory summer work sessions.

Many are believed to have died of sunstroke in this region where temperatures often hit 38 Celsius.

Tens of thousands of Eritreans have fled the country to seek refuge in Sudan, North Africa, and Europe and Human Rights Watch has termed the country the most paranoid in Africa.

Last year, the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute termed food shortages in this country of five million “extremely alarming” since few aid agencies are allowed in.

Afewerki invaded Ethiopia in 1998, sparking off a bloody war in which estimates claim 100,000 lives were lost on both sides and millions displaced.

Tensions still remain high between the two neighbours, especially with Eritrea holding on to the Red Sea port of Assab and making Ethiopia landlocked.

After ordering the arrest of 11 high ranking members of his government and former comrades in the liberation war for demanding democratic reforms, the reclusive leader postponed elections for “three or four decades” because they “polarise society”.

In his self-praising Facebook page where he says “a constitution is just a piece of paper”, Afewerki explains his philosophy on democracy as “allowing the majority to participate in the politics of every country… but it should not be allowed to polarise the country”.

The Eritrean leader has also been accused of destabilising the Horn of Africa region by supporting terror groups like al Shabaab and the pirates of the Red Sea.

The UN has placed an arms embargo on the country as well as a travel ban and an asset freeze on Eritrean political and military top brass.

After rejoining IGAD in July, four years after walking away in protest against Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia to oust an Islamist administration, President Afewerki recently embarked on a three-day state visit to Uganda in what many political commentators have termed as a tactical move to win back former allies.

His eastern neighbour and comrade-turned-enemy Meles Zenawi was equally hailed as a messiah during his fight against the murderous Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime in the 1980s.

But during his 20-year reign, many Ethiopians claim the highly learned and eloquent leader has done their country more harm than good.

Sporadic jailing of opposition leaders, clamping down on protesters after the controversial 2005 elections that left more than 190 people dead, and the closure of 15 independent newspapers are examples of high-handed tactics with which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has sustained its grip on power for the past two decades.

The premier has been accused by fellow countrymen of dragging his feet in mobilising the national army during the war with Eritrea until the tiny neighbour’s air force massacred dozens of school children and teachers in an elementary school in Northern Ethiopia.

Having been comrades-in-arms for decades, critics, including members of his ruling EPRDF, have claimed that Dr Zenawi, whose mother is Eritrean, is being too soft on the that country’s regime.

A 2003 BBC monitoring report alleges that he blocked $4 million of support being transferred from Yemen and Sudan to the Eritrean National Alliance group, which was trying to overthrow Afewerki.

Political scientists have predicted that the Horn of Africa will never know peace as long as the two long-time friends-turned-foes, who unconfirmed reports claim are blood relations, are in power.

The same scene is replayed in the Great Lakes Region, albeit with different players. Just like Afewerki and Zenawi, Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame are both former guerilla kingpins and long-time comrades, with the latter being mentored by the former.

Although the duo have never declared war on each other, they are no longer the bosom buddies they once were.

After clinching power through protracted bush wars against murderous despots, these “saviours” have now turned into big thorns in the flesh of their fellow countrymen in recent years.

Many Ugandans who lived before the Museveni era celebrated joyously when the National Resistance Army marched into Kampala in January 1986.

Before that time, many residents of the Pearl of Africa had lost their lives in the hands of dictators like Idi Amin and Milton Obote.

But over the years, the Ugandan leader has consolidated immense power around himself through personality cults and ruthless reaction to opposition.

This was particularly evident early this year when security personnel violently smashed an opposition campaign dubbed “Walk to Work”.

The demonstrators and their leaders, who were protesting against rising food and fuel prices, were beaten and arrested in a crackdown that left opposition leader Kizza Besigye seriously injured.

Apart from the merciless annihilation of dissidents, President Museveni has also been accused of nepotism and cronyism, with rumours doing the rounds that he is grooming his son Kainerugaba Muhoozi, who commands an elite division of the army, to succeed him.

While First Lady Janet serves both as a minister and a member of Parliament, there are other relatives holding powerful positions in the civil service.

In Rwanda, although voices in some quarters claim that he has gagged the media and left little room for opposition, many observers concur that Museveni’s former protégé and comrade Paul Kagame has, to a great extent, fulfilled a great deal of his peoples’ expectations since leading the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) into Kigali and cutting short the 1993 genocide.

Besides political stability and having one of the only two parliaments in the world with a women’s majority, the Kagame administration has also introduced a culture of entrepreneurship and individual self-reliance, which has seen the country’s economy grow tremendously in the past few years.

“In the old Rwanda, everyone looked for a job in government because of the benefits and the security. But nowadays they are thinking that the private sector holds the promise of a better life for their families and themselves,” Kagame notes in the River They Swim, a book he co-authored with several other African luminaries.

“This, in turn, will create the basis for further innovation, creative thinking, and a host of progressive human values: interpersonal trust, tolerance, and civic-mindedness.”

But despite gaining many supporters for lifting Rwanda from the precipice of destruction in 1993 to the shining example that is the Land of a Thousand Hills today, the rate and manner in which those opposed to his rule meet their doom have made even the most ardent of his admirers queasy.

Jean-Leonard Rugambage, the editor of Umuvugizi, a paper that was banned for being critical of the government, was shot dead outside his house in Kigali a few months before last year’s elections.

Around the same time, the beheaded head of the opposition Green Party’s leader Andre Kagwa Rwisereka was found in the country’s south.

The president’s long-time comrade and former chief of Rwandan intelligence, Lt-Gen Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, was shot and critically wounded in South Africa in what his family termed an attempted assassination.

Although the government of Rwanda vehemently denied any involvement, several of the people arrested in connection with the case were Rwandese.

“People want to taint this regime,” Kagame told the press. “They want it to be seen as tightening up, repressive, killing people… Rwanda was not involved in the shooting. We want to know what happened, but South Africa has not been forthcoming.”

Hutu opposition politician Victoire Ingabire, who had hoped to stand against Kagame in the elections last year, was hauled to jail, where she is facing, among other charges, the crime of “denying the genocide” while in exile.

Pro-government newspapers have been labelling the opposition “cockroaches” and “traitors”, terms used by the genocidaires before the 1993 bloodshed.

Even the president seems to have realised the servility of Rwandan newspapers towards him because he is said to have invited a regional media magnate to set up a feistier alternative in Kigali.

Many leaders of the liberation struggles in the south of the continent also turned into despots upon ascending to power.

Although Kenneth Kaunda and Fredrick Chiluba betrayed the trust that Zambians placed in them, the best example of a political Moses-turned-Pharaoh in southern Africa is Robert Daniel Mugabe.

After being hailed as a hero by fellow countrymen and many Africans across the continent for his role in the Zimbabwean war of independence in which he spent 10 years in prison, Mugabe took over power in 1980 to preside over an era of political unrest, murder, intimidation, corruption, and terminal economic decline.

From the infamous Gukurahundi in the early 1980s, where the North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade liquidated an estimated 20,000 dissidents in Matabeleland to subjecting opposition luminaries to detention and humiliation at the hands of police, Mugabe has over the years morphed into what the global media has often termed “a colossal political monster”.

During his bush war and the controversial seizure of white farms, the combatant leader claimed to be championing the rights of poor Zimbabweans, but the actions of his administration seemed hell bent on achieving the opposite.

The Mugabe government turned its wrath on slum dwellers across the country in 2005 during the infamous Operation Murambastivina (clear the mess) in which thousands of slum houses were burnt, families uprooted, and lives shattered.

According to United Nations estimates, at least 700,000 people lost their homes while millions more were affected through loss of their livelihoods.

Although the government claimed the operation was an “urban renewal campaign”, Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri put things straight when he said Murambastivina was meant to “clean the country of the crawling mass of maggots bent on destroying the economy”.

Political activists and non-governmental organisations claimed this was punishment to the country’s poor for voting overwhelmingly against Mugabe’s Zanu-PF during the disputed 2005 elections.