African Dictators: Paranoid Much?

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Will North Africa’s tide of revolution sweep across the Sahara into southern Africa? It’s a question much on the mind of African analysts and, possibly, not a few African dictators. Consistent reports, and videos and photographs, have shown unidentified well-disciplined African soldiers patrolling the Libyan capital Tripoli. Other videos show the bodies of African soldiers being paraded through crowds of protestors, and captured African fighters being interrogated by demonstrators. There are also reports of planes landing across Libya and disgorging loads of French-speaking armed Africans, while the dissident Libyan deputy ambassador to the UN has decried his own regime’s use of “African mercenaries.” Which raises some interesting questions. Which African countries or rebel movements would send fighters to Muammar Gaddafi’s aid — or at least allow well-trained mercenaries from within their borders to go? And why?

Self-protection and strategic alliances might be one answer. Gaddafi has a history of supporting and hosting rebel movements across Africa, in Chad, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia – and when it was fighting apartheid, the armed wing of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. Gaddafi has also been outspoken in his support of fellow autocrats, such as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. The Libyan leader could be calling in the favor. Or it could be that other African dictators see their interests best served in trying to keep Gaddafi in power, and discouraging similar uprisings at home.

Because nerves are certainly jangling in some African presidential palaces. Events across Sudan’s northern border with Egypt have inspired a series of small protests in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, which were immediately crushed. And this week, with timing his spokesman insisted was entirely coincidental, Sudan’s ruler of 22 years, President Omar al-Bashir, announced he would not stand for another term.

Further south, Zimbabwe’s poverty and poor internal communications, and an education system on its knees mitigate against a Facebook rebellion led by young, middle class students. But that hasn’t stopped a revealing display of paranoia from the regime of President Robert Mugabe – a longtime friend and ally to Gaddafi. With Mugabe outside the country, reportedly in Singapore for medical treatment, Harare is awash with rumors about the health of the former revolutionary leader who has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist since 1980. In what Mugabe has declared is the run-up to a new general election this year, tension is also high after a new round of arrests and violent harassment by Mugabe’s supporters of their opponents in the Movement for Democratic Change.

Then on Saturday, two days before Mugabe’s 87th birthday, Zimbabwe’s police arrested 46 people at an International Socialist Organization discussion meeting in the capital Harare at which recordings of news footage from Egypt and Tunisia was played. Police spokesman James Salau said the group was “trying to subvert a constitutionally-elected government.” “It has been said before by our commanders and I will say it again: Egyptian-style protests have no place in Zimbabwe.” So he hopes.