Democracy’s nooks and crannies

I’ve been as riveted as the rest of the world as the Arab Spring continues, spilling out in north Africa before hitting the first storm breaks in Tripoli and now Bahrain.  I’ve written earlier about the nearly-neglected democratic crises in Haiti and the Ivory Coast, but today I was caught totally unaware by the recent presidential election in Niger, a country geographically centered between Libya and the Ivory Coast.

Just over a year ago, Niger’s president attempted to amend the constitution in his favor resulting in an eviction notice from the military.  Now, the military is holding to its promise to hand power back to civilian control, specifically to the winner of what looks like a mostly free run-off election.  General Djibo is quoted as being thrilled to return to his post as a humble soldier.  Importantly he has also “appeal[ed] to the two candidates that they respect the outcome…and the loser accepts his defeat.”  No Ivory Coast shenanigans here.

So here we see yet another example of my earlier stated thesis that a focus on divorcing the military from civilian leaders allows for successful evolutions into democratic governance.  To add more support one only need to look at Yemen where the top general, Ali Mohsen, has declared his support for the protesters despite personal and tribal ties to President Saleh, prompting the prognosticators to move his retirement date up.  Saleh is by no means out, he and his family still directly command various elite, well trained Republican Guards and his role in the War on Terror guarantees some awkward shuffling by western leaders.  Still, it seems his tenure is nearly up with tanks ringing the protesters in his capital pointing out rather than in.

When the top leader does not have personal control over the dogs of war, they are less likely to slip the leash.  Countries like Bahrain, Syria and Iran (as well as China, North Korea, Myanmar, and even it seems Gaza) are unlikely to truly see change due to mass uprisings so long as their generals do not feel independent.  It is in democracy-loving peoples interest to focus less on pushing top-down government reform and instead urge independent military control.  While an independent military may not be a sign of stability, such as in Thailand’s numerous coups or Turkey’s tumultuous past, they are able to respond as a counter-weight to any great accumulation of power.

Media type: Online news
From: al-Jazeera
Title: Niger votes in presidential run-off
Read it at:  http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/03/201131216474436974.html

What a difference a desert makes

I mentioned yesterday that only those who live in a state with near-absolute media control are unaware of scenes from the Arab street, specifically the outright rebellion in Libya.  How interesting that a few hundred miles southwest is another African country suffering a leadership transition, but unless you are checking the BBC or Al Jazeera you’ll have barely heard of it.

I’m talking of the disputed election and its aftermath in the Ivory Coast.  Since late last year, incumbent-president Laurent Gbagbo has refused to recognize the election results placing him in second (that is, losing) to Outtara.  During the initial counting and announcement, Gbagbo tried numerous tricks including having an ally rip up the election results on television before they could be officially announced by the election commission!  Can you imagine if on election eve Karl Rove had stormed onto CNN’s set and smashed the colored electoral map?  Ok, maybe it’s not quite as absurd as I initially envisioned.  Regardless, Gbagbo holed himself up in official facilities refusing to leave like a spoiled toddler.

After a UN-certification of the results, Gbagbo did the usual thing: he called for demonstrations in the street of his supporters, brought the military to bear, accused his opponent of being a foreign-backed puppet, and refused to meet with the carousel of African leaders who requested a visit.  Currently rebel forces (that is, militias in support of the recognized winner, Outtara) are pressing around the capital.  Outtara has called for an embargo on his own country, denying the Gbagbo-controlled ports and banks the ability to collect dues from the immense cocoa trade.

It all makes for quite high-drama.  All the more so considering the fragile democracies that emerged in west Africa after so many bloody ethnic civil wars that frequently spilled over borders. And yes, there’s even oil involved as Nigeria prepares for its first election with no automatic winner.  And yet, news from the region fails to make it near the top of the hour or the front page.

My first theory was that the Arab world has upstaged this region, being larger and more immediate to western commercial interests.  This cannot be the sole reason, the Ivorian election was in November.  Perhaps crowded out by our mid-terms, few news organizations feel they can now bring in their audience mid-crisis?  Perhaps the constant conflict of the 90s has acclimatized us to the region, whereas the ossified Arab leaders’ downfall is grander.  Or perhaps after painting Muslims as our enemy (but shhhh, not officially) for the past decade, their news catches our eye more easily.

Personally, I believe this last point.  Look how little we care about Russia and its perversion of democracy and capitalism after they ceased being the frightening USSR, or how much the media seem to comment on China’s machinations now as opposed to when they reclaimed Hong Kong or attacked one of our spy planes at the turn of the century.  If this truly is the reason why one revolt is covered while another ignored -one region thrust to the spotlight while the other resigned to the shadows- then we can look forward to a drop off in the denigration of Muslims as we simply ignore them in favor of some new bogeyman.

Media type: Online news
From: Reuters
Title: Ivorian rebels take western town as violence mounts
Read it at: http://tinyurl.com/4oc97vt

People Power vs Actual Power

Unless you live in China, you can’t escape the near constant reporting on the upheaval in the Middle East and north Africa over the past two months.  The jasmine revolution continues to inspire demonstrations, riots and outright rebellion from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic.  We may be witnessing a world-changing event on par with the various color revolutions in eastern Europe of barely a generation ago.  It is easy for the media and the casual observer to get swept up in the belief that when the people truly want change, change is inevitable.  Numerous articles in such high-thinking publications as the Economist, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times tell us that regardless of short-term stability we should always be pro-democracy, or else we end up on the wrong side of such history!

No one can deny the power of an outraged populous, and current events serve only to remind us of that.  The theory that greater access to communication and information help break authoritarian rule suggest that as xerox and personal computers were to the Soviets, so twitter and facebook are to the Arab autocrats.  But that is hardly the end of the story.

People have continually risen up against oppressive regimes.  Prague Spring, Tienamen Square, and the Green Revolution in Tehran are all examples of people power trying to burst the dam but ultimately falling short.  All three of these examples were quashed by a no-nonsense military crackdown.  As with all things political, one only has to look back to the Roman Republic crisis to see that a disrupted population can be brought to heel with the use of a disciplined military and its unflinching commander.  For all his craziness, Qaddafi seems to have understood this fact and despite near-universal disgust may yet cling to power.  Even civilized Bahrain toys with more forceful tactics as it inches closer to instability.

So while the west’s role in propping up dictators may be outdated, instead of backing various pro-democracy groups we should instead put our focus on creating tighter bonds with nations’ armies .  In the chaos of a new order, revolutionaries can get shut out of the very government they helped make possible in favor of stronger figures; but those with the biggest guns always seem to find a seat at the table.  Such influence may be enough to convince leaders not to let loose the dogs of war.  Slow, steady influence may even help convince them that their fate is tied with the citizens-at-large.  While some demonstrations have overcome armed response (Kyrgyzstan, the Bolsheviks, even the American Revolution), few regimes have stayed in power when the army takes itself out of the equation.

Media type: Online news
From: Al-Jazeera
Title: Thousands protest in Bahrain
Read it at: Thousands protest in Bahrain – Middle East – Al Jazeera English