Prof. Saine Reviews: Defeating Dictators: Fighting Tyranny in Africa and Around the World

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Defeating Dictators: Fighting Tyranny in Africa and Around the World. BY GEORGE B. N. AYITTEY. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. $ 28, hardcover (978-0-23010859-2).

George Ayittey remains an important intellectual force of our time, in part, because of his criticism of Africa’s political and intellectual elite. He has for several decades exposed both economic and political excesses of Africa’s most notorious- Mobutu in Zaire, Abacha in Nigeria, Rawlings in Ghana, and Jammeh in The Gambia, to name a few. Identifying Africa’s numerous leadership failures would not be remarkable if Ayittey had stopped at that. Instead, he offers thoughtful policy options to overcome Africa’s myriad challenges. He is as critical of Africans as he is of the West, Western financial institutions and platitudes. His penchant for speaking “truth to power,” easily makes him one of the most sought after intellectual voices of his generation.
In Defeating Dictators, Ayittey extends his gaze beyond Africa to provide sweeping anecdotal comparative analyses of dictators in Asia, the Middle East, Russia and emerging states of the former Soviet Union. The book is at once a breathtaking journey into different lands and dictatorships strung together by his vast understanding of events unfolding in these countries. The book is unapologetic in its stance, avowedly subversive, and yet a refreshing tactical handbook to vanquish dictators.
Divided into ten chapters, the first carefully lays out the basic arguments of the book, as well as its structure, while the second is an insightful expose on government, shared-power, checks and balances, as well as decision-making styles in traditional societies. Ayittey argues that despotism, a prevalent feature of many “developing” societies, is fundamentally at odds with traditional governance structures. In chapter three, he spells out the institutional limits to stem the abuse of power. He warns that the West must not tolerate despotism nor should despots use their traditional systems to justify tyrannical rule.
Chapter four articulates a strategy to bring an end to dictatorial rule. Predicated on an analogy of a weak four-legged table, dictatorships, Ayittey argues, are most vulnerable, not when you climb on top of their backs, but when you sever their legs (p.3). Chapter five details specific strategies needed to speed a successful demise of dictatorial regimes. Chapter six highlights successful cases of prodemocracy revolutions- the Philippines, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ghana, among others. Ayittey gleans important lessons from these successful revolutions, as well as failed ones, to guide prodemocracy opposition groups in their quest for sustainable political and economic systems.
Ayittey is at his best when in chapters seven, and eight, he implores political opposition groups to understand regime weaknesses and avoid political reversals. Chapter nine is a critical look at international interventions, their ad hoc quality and mixed objectives using Darfur as an example. He singles out Omar al-Bashir’s continued evasion of justice despite his indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Chapter ten succinctly summarizes, from previous chapters, important lessons necessary for a successful change of government, governance and the economy. He calls these “Ayittey’s Law.” In sum, he urges political opposition groups in power to begin with intellectual reforms so as to engender political, constitutional, and institutional changes to culminate in economic liberalization.
Some scholars have had issue with aspects of Ayittey’s work and accuse him of pandering to a “Washington Consensus” audience- this book is clearly not one that does. Defeating Dictators is characteristically uncharitable to African intellectuals of his generation or younger, as it is sometimes of the West. His audience is not necessarily African and Third World scholars trapped in outdated modes of analyses but rather to what he calls the “Cheetah” or post-independence generation of non-doctrinaire Africans and others who hold keys to change in their respective countries.
In singling out scholars of his generation and younger for sharp criticism, Ayittey is guilty of totalizing. Granted, many African scholars have fallen short or failed the continent by sitting on the sidelines of history in the face of brazen human rights violations. Yet many routinely speak out in protest and remain in exile, sometimes self-imposed. Failing to acknowledge these acts of courage leaves him the sole exempt African intellectual fighting for change.
Notwithstanding, Defeating Dictators is an important manual to ending dictatorships in Africa and elsewhere. It is a welcome addition to a democratization/ transitions academic literature that is big on theory and thin on action. And, because the book is not seeped in economic and political jargon or explanations makes it all the more accessible to students of comparative revolutions, democratization, and development, as well as a good read for practitioners and laypersons alike.
Miami University, Oxford, OH


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“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.”~ Abraham Lincoln
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