Milestones on the road to an emerging dictatorship

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By Lamino Lang Comma

From Africa to the far East, Europe to Latin America, the road to dictatorship has similar characteristics of how dictators are created and nurtured. Unfortunately, it is the mind of the masses that has been the instrument of their creation. 

In a very simplified format, the milestones along this road can be summarized as; suppression and elimination of the opposition (individuals or groups), intimidation, control and taking over the media, weaponizing institutions of governance, using divisive rhetoric and labels on opponents, changing existing laws and regulations and introducing new ones, threatening and suppression of civil rights and electoral fraud.

There is no blueprint for the order or sequence of these milestones. However, in most cases than not, they are implemented surreptitiously and sometimes under the cloak of legality and justification of security requirements and even under the claims of propping up good governance.

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Dictators are not born but usually of an unknown or unimpressive political background who spring to power due to a reaction by society to existing unsatisfactory conditions of their time.

Whether during the economic hardships, social unrest or political uncertainty, they win the hearts and minds of the masses at those critical periods of the society. Their programs are limited to common slogans with no clarity of a vision. 

The masses cling on to their endearments, not so much for their content, but only in their desperation for change. They are the catalyst used to germinate the ambitions of the emerging dictator within a developing class of sycophants and direct beneficiaries.

Once in power, the reality of governance dawns on the would-be dictator and the challenges of keeping their empty promises that lacked any initial aforethought or vision become overbearing. The deteriorating conditions of their temperament and disposition have a direct correlation to their desperate and unsuccessful efforts to find solutions to existing socio-economic problems. That disposition can develop into paranoia of extreme proportions. 

This developing process is gradual but it can be observed in their rhetoric of vilification, body language of intolerance and expression of anger and disappointment towards the lack of appreciation of their “sacrifice” to lead.

Where such germination emerges within a democratic dispensation, it is comparatively easier to abate a full-blown dictatorship.  In such a case, the democratic framework with strong institutions keeps a safeguard on civil rights.

But where conditions allow the emerging dictator to mature into a full-grown autocrat, then the efforts by society to revert to democratic governance becomes a steeper uphill of struggle that could last for decades.  Just as the nurturing characteristics are similar, so are the end results.  Hence, governance under a dictator may also be summarized as; a climate of insecurity and intimidation, abuse of legal processes, high frequency of imprisonments, torture and disappearances, kangaroo courts and commissions, instilling deep seated culture of silence and mistrust, systemic corruption, highly weaponised and retooled security forces. How is the rising tide of dictatorship tranquilised?

The possible mode of defending the guardrails of democracy is varied.  There is no guaranteed approach especially when the institutions are weak and usurped and the masses are totally docile amidst an opposition that is in disarray and disunited.  The presence of all these factors is a sure guarantee of heading in the direction of authoritarian rule by an adamant and opportunistic leader – a dictator in the making.

The key players in the defense of democracy are mainly – the institutions of governance and the opposition.  In nascent democracies, the institutions may be easily compromised and corrupted in addition to the selection of favorite representatives in key positions of decision making and implementation.  On their part, the opposition is weakened by a lack of a common strategy of defense of democracy (not a coalition for leadership).

The third element or line of defense comprises the civil society and development partners (especially for developing countries). For these, losing democratic governance goes against the values of good governance.  They may have subtler forms of defense for such a dispensation – from the use of the tools of funding to diplomatic démarches and even outright condemnation.

Walking on the road of democracy requires being deliberately aware of these milestones along the alternative route – the backsliding of democracy to an autocratic rule.

Just thinking aloud