Jammin until the break of dawn

Posted in army, books, democracy, economics, history, political economy, politics, uprisings by jrahman on December 2, 2017

What do you do during the evenings, after the day’s tasks are done, of work trips?  You might be tired of being up in the air, or just simply tired.  But depending on the jet lag, you might not find much sleep.  I certainly don’t, even when there is no jet lag — I hate hotel beds.  If you find yourself in a hotel that used to be one of Idi Amin’s torture chambers palaces, and your colleagues are fellow political junkies, you will likely talk about politics over a nightcap.  So did we that rain-soaked Kampala evening.  We talked about, among other things, Zimbabwe.

Why didn’t they get rid of him the old fashioned way, you know, APCs on the streets, tanks in front of the presidential palace, radio or TV broadcast by some unknown major…..

An old Africa hand explained why Robert Mugabe wasn’t toppled in a coup.  No, it wasn’t because of his liberation cred.  Kwame Nkrumah or Milton Obote were no less of independence heroes to their respective countries.  Both were ingloriously booted out, not just of their presidential palaces, but also the countries they led to existence.  At least they lived, unlike say Patrice Lumumba.  Clearly being a national liberator figure didn’t make one coup-proof, particularly if one had turned his (can’t think of a mother of the nation top of my head!) country into a basket case, and had faced concerted political pressure from home and abroad.  According to my colleague with years of experience in the continent, the key to Mugabe’s survival was in relative ‘latecomer’ status.

Mugabe came to power much later than was the case for other African founding fathers.  And the disastrous denouement of his rule happened during a period when the great powers saw little strategic importance in regime change in an obscure corner of the world.  The second factor meant there was no foreign sponsor to any coup.  The former meant that any would be coupmaker, and their domestic supporters, knew from the experiences elsewhere in the continent about what could happen when a game of coups went wrong.

Mugabe gave them hyperinflation.  Getting rid of him could lead to inter-ethnic war.  Easier to do currency reform than deal with refugees fleeing genocide….. 

There was something oddly familiar to what my colleague said.  I didn’t quite make the connection then, but there is an echo in the Dhaka consensus:

…. it seems to me that the establishment consensus in the 1990s was to support two large political parties cycling in and out of power through regular elections as the best mean of attaining stability. This is perhaps why various attempts at the so-called minus-2 — with Kamal Hossain, Muhammad Yunus or various generals — had been half-hearted at best.

Of course, the two-party no re-election regime has given away to a one party rule more recently, but arguably that too has happened with, if not because of, the establishment’s consent.

Now that Mugabe has actually been toppled in a coup that is softer than a nakshi katha, what implications, if anything, might there be for Bangladesh?

Rumi Ahmed, one of the most astute observers of Bangladeshi politics, recently quipped in an adda:

He ruled 37 years, inflicted horrors to the rich white minority, angered / snubbed the western powers, yet he remained in power. Nothing could remove him. His end happened not because of public revolt.  His end happened because at 93 he ran out of gas, became very demented and physically incapable.  His replacement is his long term vice president and partner of same policies. The signal is that you can do whatever you want — 37 yeas or longer — public /army/ west cannot touch you. Only thing to remember is to step down when you are 93 and can’t hold your bathroom anymore.

Caustic, and gloomy.  And needless to say, heard to disagree with.  However, was the coup really about Mugabe himself, or was it about his successors?  Did the ‘no coup consensus’ break down, or did it never apply to Mrs Mugabe?  Patently it doesn’t apply to the man-with-hero-fantasies, but does the Dhaka consensus apply to whoever might succeed the current prime minister?

Instead of pondering the future, let me talk about the past.  It’s well recorded that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman dismissed various warnings about the threat posed by elements in the army to his life and regime.  MR Akhtar Mukul writes in Mujibur-er Rakta Lal that Bangladesh’s founding president believed that he would eventually be removed by the army.  Eventually.  When he would be old and decrepit, and sharp dressed generals would salute him and say onek din Bangabandhu giri korlen, ebar cholen retirement ey.

In a series of articles in  the wonder years era weekly Jai Jai Din, Abdul Ghaffar Chowdhury and Badruddin Umar both hailed Mugabe’s turn to curb political freedom as acts of revolutionary nationalism, but debated whether Bangladesh’s founding president was a liberator or a fascist.  Past, dear reader, is truly a strange country.

My decision to resign is voluntary on my part and arises from my concern for the welfare of the people…  Mugabe said on his way out.  A radical intellectual friend whose views I respect a lot more than those of Chowdhury and Umar observed in Facebook:

A liar even on his last day. You, Robert Mugabe, are one of the many people who destroyed the hope and trajectory of third world liberation. And you poisoned the well so effectively that your successor is your groomed enabler and the military’s man.

Someday, we will deliver the world from failed liberators. Today is not yet that day.

May be.  Or may be the choice is as Harvey Dent puts it:


Shaun Larcom (Cambridge), Mare Sarr (Cape Town), and Tim Willems (OxCarre) explore the evolution of strong(wo)men into tyrant or democratising reformer.*  Warning: this is a relatively maths-heavy paper, and not an easy read for the uninitiated.  Which is a pity because the ideas are novel, and have great real world relevance.  The authors should try better to express their ideas in plain English!

Their key insight is to link a strong(wo)man’s stock of wrongdoing with flow of repression.  There are two kinds of wrongdoings: rent seeking — personal corruption or cronyism or monopoly over patronage network; and repression — of opposition to stay in power, or revenge for past historical events.  Even if the strong(wo)man doesn’t start out with any repression, it’s pretty straightforward to argue that an authoritarian regime is going to engage in rent seeking.  Over time, this rent seeking adds up, and there is a threshold of the stock of wrongdoing beyond which an opposition to the regime mobilises.  There is a crucial element to the opposition in the authors’ set up — the opposition would like to bring the regime to justice for its past wrongdoing, and the graver the wrongdoing the stronger / more likely the future punishment.  The regime doesn’t know exactly when the opposition will mobilise.  But at some critical threshold, it will conclude that giving up power is no longer an option because of the threat of severe punishment for its past sins.  From that point on, the regime will commit further wrongdoing by repressing the opposition.

It’s the interaction between the two threshold points of past sins that determine whether a given regime will degenerate into tyranny or reform itself.  Suppose the opposition mobilises relatively early, before the regime has reached its point of no return.  In that scenario, the regime is likely to limit its future wrongdoings — rent-seeking or repression — and in some cases can be persuaded to give up power.  This result will hold even if the regime starts out with some repression.  In Bangladeshi history, we can think of the Ershad regime as an example of such a regime — a military dictatorship led by a notoriously corrupt man, it never became truly tyrannical as it faced opposition from very early on.

Conversely, if the opposition fails to mobilise before the regime commits too many wrongs, it becomes trapped in a bad dynamic, where the regime doubles down and each repressive act makes it ever more tyrannical — the country now becomes a prisoner of its past.  Losing has always been hard in our winner-takes-all politics.  If Larcom and colleagues are right, Bangladesh may well be in that sad state now.

And yet, even a tyranny can end if the threat of punishment is credibly removed.  This is precisely what happened to Mugabe.  Perhaps that’s the way it might have to be in Bangladesh.  More generally, Shafiqur Rahman writes in a personal correspondence:

It’s exciting because even party-personalistic dictatorships end someday. Regimes are vulnerable. It doesn’t matter whether the next regime is bad or worse. At least people have hope for a change. Without any hope there is only decay.

Here is to hoping for that master blasting day.


*Larcom S, Sarr M, Willems T (2016), Dictators Walking the Mogadishu Line: How Men Become Monsters and Monsters Become Men, World Bank Economic Review.

History offers many examples of dictators who worsened their behavior significantly over time (like Zimbabwe’s Mugabe) as well as dictators who displayed remarkable improvements (like Rawlings of Ghana). We show that such mutations can result from rational behavior when the dictator’s flow use of repression is complementary to his stock of wrongdoings: past wrongdoings then perpetuate further wrongdoings and the dictator can unintentionally get trapped in a repressive steady state where he himself suffers from ex-post regret. This then begs the question why such a dictator would ever choose to do wrong in the first place. We show that this can be explained from the dictator’s uncertainty over his degree of impunity in relation to wrongdoing, which induces him to experiment along this dimension. This produces a setting where any individual rising to power can end up as either a moderate leader, or as a dreaded tyrant. Since derailment is accidental and accompanied by ex-post regret, increasing accountability can be in the interest of both the public and the dictator.

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