Protest, Arab Spring and Zimbabwe - Ravi Perera

Protest, Arab Spring and Zimbabwe - Ravi Perera

1 October 2018 07:30 am

“Cricket civilizes people and create good gentlemen”
- Robert Mugabe

On 5 September, the city of Colombo awoke to an unusually quiet morning and an uneasy air. Something big was going to happen. The sitting Government may even fall, blood could be spilt.

There were fewer vehicles on the roads and the buses had less than half the loads.

The schoolchildren, usually early morning commuters, were conspicuously absent.

Anticipating chaos, the housewives conscious of keeping the home fires burning, dipped into their meagre savings to stock up on the essentials; rice, dhal and coconuts. Their meagre savings, the reward for months of hard scrimping, had been put aside for a real emergency.

For a number of days, the main opposition, the Joint Opposition (JO) was threatening a decisive move, an overwhelming protest in the capital city that could even topple an ill-defined Government. The intended victory was to be achieved not by an election or a coup. In the calculations of the organisers, the sheer pressure of the protesters on the streets would unbalance and eventually bring down the Government. Questions as to who would replace it and on what basis were left unanswered.

Recent history provides several instances of long entrenched regimes being brought down by popular people’s movements, particularly in the troubled Middle East. Early years of this decade saw the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ challenging and eventually toppling governments in several countries like Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Long ruled by entrenched families, these countries were despotic and corrupt.

Many of the rulers had begun their careers as rebels. However, years of untrammelled power had turned them into to unscrupulous cynics. For example, close family members, particularly the sons of Libya’s Mahmoud Gaddafi, fire-breathing decrier of all things Western, were shown to have been voracious investors in Western countries; large accounts in Swiss banks, real estate, fancy yachts, European-made cars, so on.

In these Arab countries, the ruling families had such a stranglehold that nothing moved unless one of them blessed the venture. There is acceptance in the culture for commissions and kick-backs as legitimate rewards, in this case, for being fortuitously born into the family. But, outside of the rarefied atmosphere of this all-powerful cabal, things did not stay still; the societies evolved.

Gradually, with education, travel and exposure, expectations had widened. As the masses searched for a better life and greater freedom, realisation dawned that the ‘liberators’ of the past had become the oppressors of the present. Although the oil flowed generously, the insularity of a tiny self-serving clique did not work towards economic efficiency. They called the shots and pocketed all the money.

Something had to give.

Around 2011, people took to the streets and the old order changed. The entrenched families did not go away without resistance. There was bloodshed and violence. However, the people were not to be denied. Regimes which had been in power for decades vanished like snow in the spring sun. For these long oppressed societies, there was hope for a new beginning. Unfortunately, the much awaited spring proved to be ephemeral. The Arab world, intellectually, culturally and even spiritually, is perhaps not ready to break the mould yet. Soon the ‘spring’ receded, new ‘strong’ men emerged, and these countries appear to be drifting towards another long winter of discontent.

To equal the Arab Spring with what was planned for 5 September is to defy reason, it is to compare incompatibles.

The protest was organised by a group led by none other than Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is a former President of this country and served for two terms. Most of the organisers were Members of Parliament drawing Government-paid salaries, enjoying a host of other benefits with public money. They live in lavish Government-provided bungalows, travelling even to the site of the protest in the plushest of vehicles, again gifted by the taxpayer.

To protect them, the organisers had drivers and bodyguards with the compliments of the people. These minions also double as personal attendants, seeing to every need of the MP, including carrying his mobile phone and the bottle of water. It is considered unseemly for the important person to carry such personal stuff himself.

Mahinda Rajapaksa does not hail from a wealthy background and has spent his entire life in public service. However, his children reportedly lead lives far removed from the common beat, even proposing marriage to their partners at the top of the highest mountain on the African Continent. Now, we have no issue with young folk taking to high adventure. In fact, conquering such physical challenges is good for both body as well as mind. Yet, these are costly exercises. Ours is a country where the Tax Department routinely queries those who purchase air tickets for the source of funding. Paying only lip service to plain living and high thinking, some obviously have embraced Mammon; their life styles showing high living, but not so high thinking.

It is not to say that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s family members are the only offenders or that such behaviour is limited to the Joint Opposition. Perhaps there are worse culprits in other governments and other political parties. In fact, the great divide today is not between the Government and the Opposition. They are one, united in self-interests. The real battle in this country is between these so-called people’s representatives on one side and the voter on the other. This is the great moral battle of our era. As to the winner, thus far, no investigation is required.

For seventy years now our people have dutifully trudged to the polling centres with great expectations. In turn, every Government so elected has proved incapable or unwilling, only leaving the country in poverty and debt. However, they miss no opportunity to leave behind ugly legacies; ethnic tensions, civil wars, unworkable laws, inefficient systems – all made worse by a stagnating economy.

In contrast, when Singapore (in 1965) broke away from its union with Malaysia, it was difficult to envisage a future for the tiny island state. The country had no natural resources, unemployment was high, and it had lost the large markets of Malaysia. But within five years, the direction was clear. Singapore will rise proudly. They had leaders who could deliver.

In the early 1950s, South Korea was devastated by war. But by the beginning of the 1970s, in little more than 10 years, the country was well on the way to gaining a rich country status. In the 1970s, China was an abjectly poor country. In just two decades, the world had begun to speak of a global economy, with China as a dominant player.

Obviously, the complex problems we face cannot be solved by merely electing a Parliament periodically. For seventy years, we have been doing this. After every election, a set of white-clad persons, many of them children of former MPs, take their oath as our representatives. At the end of their term, self-generated sound and fury notwithstanding, the country remains at the bottom of the index of mediocre nations.

It is a fact that people live racially and culturally, confronting different realities, thinking and acting, by and large, in a predetermined way. Countries that have succeeded need not explain their success; it is the failed nations who must explain their failure.

By any account, Zimbabwe is a country where anything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Robert Mugabe (born 1924) ruled the country as Prime Minister from 1980 to 1987 and then, as President from 1987 to 2017, 37 years in all. In those four decades, the country, from reasonable prosperity has descended to a hopeless situation. GDP per capita has dropped by more than half, industrial as well as agricultural productivity has fallen drastically, unemployment spiralled and with hyperinflation, their currency has become worthless. For the average citizen, living standards have deteriorated, life expectancy declined and their wages in terms of purchasing power has plummeted. Most workers have left for employment in neighbouring countries, also poor, but where they are at least assured a living wage.

Whatever his failings, obviously there are many, be it economic mismanagement, widespread corruption, human rights abuses and even crimes against humanity, Mugabe cannot be accused of having no ‘family values’. It was widely expected that the cricket-loving leader was going to appoint Grace, his young second wife, as his successor. In Zimbabwe, she was commonly referred to as ‘Gucci Grace’, in reference to her greed for European luxury items.

Finally, in 2017, there was a military coup which removed the megalomaniacal clown from office. But it was done in a Zimbabwe way, or you may say, in a manner consistent with ‘Mugabeism’.

As a reward for stepping down peaceably, it is said that the plunderer and his family were assured immunity from prosecution, a $ 10 million bonus, official residences, vehicles, staff and bodyguards, and a host of other benefits. The present rulers, who with the passing of time will also become ‘former’ rulers one day, perhaps ensured a good deal for themselves by legitimising this retirement package for Mugabe.

All this unbelievable nonsense seems acceptable to the Zimbabwe way of looking at things, their reality, and their values. This is high politics of Zimbabwe, to be decided in the corridors of power by black leaders in three-piece Western suits, those whose ancestor were perhaps the tribal chiefs who led the great hunts. It is yet another way of looking at the world.

The protests on 5 September were led by people who also have a particular way of looking at the world. They see our unhappiness as a result of the failings of this Government of four years. But, it is a tragedy 70 years long.

There is a reason to protest, no, something to rage about. But that is not this or that Government. We must rage against the whole system; the utter failure of our leadership, their mindset, culture, values and above all, our own incapacity. At independence, we were considered a likely success story, a promise that has gradually withered away. It is comforting to blame somebody else. Undoubtedly, our leaders have failed. But is the failure theirs alone?

- Daily FT