Feb 15



The Ghanaian Times 15 February 2011

I had just returned home last week from hospital (sorry: the logistics made me unable to warn my readers that I would be away from these pages for a while!) when ex-President Hosni Mubarak began his last broadcast to the Egyptian people.
The people had massed up for a solid 18 days at Tahrir Square in Cairo, baying for his blood

“Leave! Leave!” they cried. But there he was behind a microphone, uttering inanities about the “constitutional reforms” he would undertake before leaving the scene in September!

I said: “This chap is quite stupid. He doesn’t read history. At certain stages in a nation’s life, you cannot fool the people with words any longer. If he knew his history, he would realise that words didn’t work for President Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, when his people turned on him on 25 December 1989. And he would run with his life, instead of annoying the people some more with legalistic verbiage.”
Truly, on 11 February, the newly-appointed Vice-President, Omar Suleiman, came on the air and in two sentences as stark and cold as the eyes with which he has overseen the torture and brutalisation that have cowed the spirit of the Egyptian people for decades, announced that Hosni Mubarak was stepping down immediately and that he, Suleiman, and a military council, were to rule for the time being.
An erupting Cairo now boiled over. It must have been humiliating for Mubarak to watch the pictures – on whichever world television channel he tuned to, but especially on Al-Jazeera, the BBC and CNN – that told him that his three decades of rule had turned him from a respected air force commander who steered Egypt out of trouble after the assassination of Anwar Sadat on 6 October 1981, into a heap of sandy rubbish by his own people.

Well, pity does not easily go to him:  he is said to have stashed away at least $70 billion: think of it – seventy thousand million dollars. Now, of course, we cannot believe everything we hear when a dictator in sole charge of a nation’s finances, is finally overthrown. But there really is no smoke without fire, in many such instances.
For example: when the late President Sani Abacha died in Nigeria in 1998, it was widely reported that he had amassed a fortune estimated to be worth over $4 billion.
And despite the murky and intricate routes through which such funds escape to hide in cosy, sacred corners in very respectable bankers’ vaults overseas, at least a third of that sum has been traced, and staggering sums have in fact been retrieved. At one stage, the Swiss, masters of the art of hiding dictators’ loot, turned on the banks of Great Britain and accused them of being unwilling to help trace Abacha’s loot!”
When I read that, I said, “This is rich rich rich! The Swiss, whom the British deride as “the gnomes of Zurich”, now accusing the Brits?”

The Egyptians will probably be finding out soon that if they want to trace Mubarak family assets, they had better spend more time in London than Zurich. The Swiss have promptly announced that they have frozen Mubarak’s assets. But in the City of London, a loud silence reigns. If asked, the bankers will answer: “Mubarak assets? What Mubarak assets?” I don’t think one needs to be a seer of great perspicacity to foretell that bankers’ bonuses worldwide will be pretty hefty next year.

Tunisia’s dictatorship, was, of course, the first to bite the dust in North Africa. Then followed Egypt. At the weekend, the Algerian government, which can teach a thing or two to anyone who advocates democracy, managed to stave off planned demonstrations. But for how long can a few people, who have inherited power and wealth, fought for at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, heroically given up by the people, withstand the people’s wish to determine how power and wealth should be distributed in their country?
Power does belong to the people. “Leaders” often believe that the people are “with” them just because they happen, at certain moments in history, to say a few things which the people ardently want to hear. But words cannot remain magically meaningful to all people all of the time.
In our own country, the word, “Freedom!””, which sent our hearts racing when uttered against British rule, changed, after the Preventive Detention Act was passed – and used – in 1958, and came to mean, “Freedom for some and Nsawam for others”.
Other sweet-sounding slogans have since passed the lips of our succeeding leaders, and have been similarly savaged to rob them of their original intent. Words have been seen to be the means to achieve a radical transformation in the living standards of some people, and the rest of the people, who are largely left behind, have been watching and taking note.

In the modern world, where information is now easily within the reach of many millions of people, at the mere click of a mouse on a computer, ideas get exchanged at a very fast rate and those who have benefited from words in the past, can equally well perish by misapplying words in the wrong situation.
Indeed, if I ran an educational course for world leaders, the juxtaposition of what was happening in Tahrir Square on one side of the television screen, with what Mubarak was saying in his last speech on the other side of the same screen, would be my number one project of intense study. It was a classic example of the disconnect between reality and fantasy in relations of power.

Ruling countries has never been easy. Again and again, we see humble people rise on the shoulders of the people to become great – sometimes winning gigantic battles with the people and going on to write their names indelibly into the pages of history. But for every Alexander The Great, you get an “Ozymandias”; for every Gaius Julius Caesar, you get a Nero Claudius Caesar. And so on.

What matters is this: leaders must always remember that they came from the people, and must serve the people SINCERELY or they are lost.
I put the word “sincerely” in capitals because that is what matters. A leader may think that because it is sometimes possible to hide information about his private life and dealings, he can go on for ever pretending to the people that he is still their servant. But it doesn’t work like that.

I discovered the meaning of true disconnexion when I visited the Soviet Union for the first time in 1958. I travelled by TU-104 – the world’s first successful jet airliner – very very impressive, compared to the turbo-props flown by Western airlines that had taken me to Prague to catch the Aeroflot flight.
But in my hotel room in Moscow, I found the soap provided to be inferior and the toilet paper much worse than what I used in Accra. And my mind told me, “There is a disconnect here. Nothing in Accra should be superior to anything in the mighty USSR”.

I had hit on the Achilles’ heel of Soviet power – symmetry in big things, and asymmetry in small things; small things that concerned consumers. Hence, Ghanaian students, utilising their foreign exchange allowances from home, could travel to West Berlin and load themselves with Western nylons and cosmetics, and come back to their hostels in Kiev and show off their purchases — adding immensely to their desirability to Soviet girls as potential dates. In Tashkent, young men told me they went into the “bush” to dance to smuggled rock and roll music.

Those small asymmetries led all the way to the climatic moments in Berlin in 1989, when the attraction of the consumer goods that lay beyond The Wall proved mightier than the concrete and bricks that held The Wall together, and even the deadly razor wire and machine guns that guarded it. And The Wall had to fall.
Even so, the triumphant Cold War ‘Iron Lady’ of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, lost power when she too ignored the needs of her people and imposed a “poll tax” that caused some of the most furious riots seen in London in generations.

So the message of the people all over the world is this: “Serve our interests or quit. If we tell you to quit and you won’t go, wait and see. Your guards are people, too, you should know!”

Nothing is settled yet in Egypt, of course. Or even Tunisia. But as the people stumble, rise and steady themselves, seeking a better way out of their misery, it is quite clear that they think that whatever lies ahead of them in future, is preferable to the inane stupidities they have had to endure in the past.

History will say that at least, they tried. Just as the Poles tried in Poznan in 1956; the  Hungarians reinforced in 1956 also, and the Czechs tried in 1968. Nothing was settled in either of those years. The settlement, however, was not lost. It was only postponed.

So it will be with every regime that denies its people the power to lift themselves out of the pain of poverty and oppression by their own means.


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