Stevie, Dictator of Togo

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I was a student at the Université du Bénin in Togo in 1983. With typical and, I think, admirable American disrespect for authority, my fellow exchange students and I enjoyed calling the president of Togo “Stevie,” because he had changed his name from Etienne (French for “Steven”) to Gnassingbé, to sound more African. Our Togolese friends did not find it funny. It wasn’t that they were offended. They were afraid when they heard us talking like that and told us of ditches where the tortured corpses of the president’s critics appeared overnight.

According to my sources, the legends about Eyadéma Gnassingbé were officially encouraged. One, the story of the plane crash, was the subject of an entire comic book that I read when I was in Togo. In the comic, the president of Togo figured as a superhero with metaphysical powers. It was meant to be taken literally.

It’s true that Eyadéma survived a plane crash in 1974. It’s also true that he credited his survival to his own mystical powers. In the comic book, the plane was sabotaged, and his survival was definitely the miraculous result of his personal magic. In a national monument built to commemorate the incident, Eyadéma’s statue towers over images of the heroic officials who apparently didn’t have enough magic of their own and died in the crash.

A vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and they usually ended up dead.

It’s also true that Eyadéma was a leader of the coup that unseated Sylvanus Olympio, the first president of Togo. At the time of the coup, Eyadéma was called Etienne Eyadéma, and the legend is that he personally machine-gunned Olympio at the gates of the American embassy in Lomé, where the then-president was seeking asylum. By the way, that coup followed a common pattern in sub-Saharan, post-colonial Africa: colonial powers establish trading relations with coastal tribe (in Togo’s case, the Ewe). Colonial powers assert administrative control over a large inland area, making the coastal elite a minority within the colonial borders. At the time of independence, the coastal elite takes over. (Sylvanus Olympio was Ewe.) The army is dominated, numerically, by inland tribes. (In Togo’s case, they included the Kabye.) The soldiers get fed up and stage a coup. (Eyadéma was Kabye.)

One day, I was walking through the market with a Togolese friend when he told me another story about Stevie. I had pointed out to him a very pretty girl selling chocolate bars. The girl was about 13. She balanced an enameled tin platter on her head. The platter bore a perfect pyramid of scores of identical chocolate bars in white and red paper wrappers. And the grace note was the girl’s matching white and red dress. She had made herself into a lovely advertisement for dark chocolate. Clever and pretty. But it only reminded my friend of the legends about Eyadéma’s sexual powers. He said that a vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and that they usually ended up dead, not because of any abuse beyond presidential rape, but as a mere side effect of the great girth of his manhood.

Stevie died in office. At the time of his death in 2005, he was the longest serving head of state in all of Africa. His son, Faure Gnassingbé, took over and is still president.




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Executive's Orders

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The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

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It is with a great deal of sadness that I report that recently Bangladesh, a small nation in southeast Asia which is the country of origin of my father and his side of the family, collapsed from a 40-year-old democracy into a dictatorship. How this happened is interesting, both in absolute terms and also relative to politics in America.

You see, Bangladesh did not collapse by means of military coup or dictatorial takeover. Instead, it became a dictatorship by means of a democratic election. For the past 40 years, ever since Bangladesh won its War of Independence against Pakistan, every time the government called for an election, the heads of the two major Bangladeshi political parties, which are (1) the Awami League and (2) the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), handed over the election process to a “caretaker government,” a neutral group of aged respected lawmakers and leaders, who administered a fair and neutral election. Corruption and bribery have always been widespread in Bangladesh, but, in spite of this, the national elections were always kept clean and honest by the caretaker government.

But in the last election, the Awami League, which had been in power for several years and was widely hated and destined to lose at the polls, simply called an election, refused to let the caretaker government in, and held rigged, phony elections. The BNP boycotted the elections and called for general strikes and opposition rallies, but ultimately the BNP’s efforts were for nothing, as the Awami League put down the opposition movement by means of the police, and maintained control.

Sheik Hasina, the leader of the Awami League, is now the de facto dictator of Bangladesh. Interestingly, Hasina is a woman, and she is one of the world’s first and few female dictators. As a case study in the psychology of a tyrant, it is worth noting that Bangladeshi people generally believe that Hasina was enraged when Bangladesh’s microcredit banking pioneer Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize, which she felt should have gone to her instead, for brokering a minor peace treaty with the northern tribes. This may have inflamed her anger and her ambitions. The Awami dictatorship is real, despite the fact that Awami propaganda says that the League was democratically elected and that Bangladesh remains a democracy. Something similar exists in Russia with Putin, who is essentially a democratically-elected dictator. A number of other countries also put forward a face of democracy to seek support from the West, while actually being run by a ruling class.

History may classify every president from Wilson forward as an “emperor,” and it is mere semantics to ask whether the term is correct.

The decline and fall of the Bangladeshi democracy reads like a dire prophecy of what is going to happen in America if libertarians do not start winning big at the polls, and soon, in many different elections across states and nationally too. I will return to that idea later in this article, but here, having discussed Bangladesh, I would also like to mention Rome. In Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it is shown that Rome deteriorated slowly, insidiously, with the very greatness and majesty of the Empire ultimately leading to the bloated corruption that consumed Rome and became Rome’s undoing. The book argues that Rome outsourced its military to the barbarians, and eventually those same barbarians turned on Rome and destroyed it. It is worth noting that, at the time when history regards Rome as having transformed itself from a Republic into an Empire, in the era of Julius Caesar and Augustus, the Romans themselves had no such idea. As shown by the writings of that era, the early Roman Empire was regarded as the continuation of the Roman Republic, and the early emperors were considered leaders of the Republic, not dictators.

What does all this mean for us here in the United States? I want to make two points. First, I think that if America ever descends into dictatorship, it will probably happen through the Bangladesh method of rigged elections followed by a strict police control of the opposition, instead of an armed revolt or military coup. The Republicans essentially rigged the vote in Florida for Bush in 2000 (or, at the very least, they refused to do a recount to establish what the accurate result of the vote really was), and once the Supreme Court gave the stamp of approval, they got away with it. If the same thing happened but on a bigger scale, if the Democrats rigged the votes in Michigan and Illinois and Missouri and won the White House, or if the Republicans rigged the votes in New Jersey and Wisconsin, and such things started to happen frequently, then what could be done about it? Nothing. And so, slowly and as by means of a spreading illness, American democracy could collapse into a sham democracy, a dictatorship.

If democracy in the US collapses, then the libertarians and the Tea Party may rebel (unless it is the GOP that becomes the ruling party), but the American military and police forces could probably put down any armed rebellion. The only thing that prevents this from happening is that elections in the US tend to be run at the local level by ordinary patriotic Americans who are too naive to understand the dangerous power that they possess as the stewards of our democracy.

Second: people see this era as the time of the Great Recession. But history may look back upon our time as that of the decline and fall of the American Empire. In the post-World War II era, and especially in the post-Cold War era and the War on Terror era, the United States of America has been the one and only true world power. We flex our military muscle around the globe, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and military bases in Europe and Japan, and drone strike assassinations in Pakistan and Yemen. This by itself is enough to justify calling us an empire. History may classify every president from Wilson forward as an “emperor,” and it is mere semantics to ask whether the term is correct. Certainly, if we are an empire, then our leader is an emperor, and Bush acted like one, and Obama sure acts like one too.

If we are an empire, it may also be appropriate to say that the Great Recession is our decline, and will end with our fall. If the Great Recession never ends, then America is destined for widespread poverty, which could end in discontent, riots, and crime that will provoke a government crackdown and the rise of a police state. Many economists project that the recession won’t end until 2020, for another six long years. Millions of people remain unemployed, and if the jobs aren’t there to support them, and these people need food to eat, then chaos is coming.

People like to think that the Great Recession will end and good times are just around the corner. I certainly hope they are. Nothing would make me happier. But the structural defects in the US economy act to prevent growth and maintain stagnation, and only liberty could fix this. So unless libertarians start getting elected all over the place, America may be doomed. The structural defects are the various details of the manner in which the statist government’s taxes and regulations are stopping a growth-fueled economic recovery. Welfare motivates people not to work, and millions of poor people invest their thought in figuring out how to milk the welfare system, instead of figuring out how to become productive assets to the economy. These people vote for statists and against libertarians. This is not to say that we should let the poor die, but it does explain a lot about why the system is broken and can’t be fixed.

The minimum wage prevents employers from hiring Americans for low-skilled, low-paying manufacturing jobs, and these jobs are sent to China or Mexico. Meanwhile, regulations make doing business very difficult in the United States, and taxes make it expensive to live and work here. So higher-skilled, middle class jobs get outsourced to India. Just as with outsourcing the army to barbarians by the Roman Empire — something that destroyed Rome when the barbarians turned against the Empire — outsourcing of jobs may be the final source of the economic decline of the American Empire. The fact that government policy motivates employers to send American jobs overseas, with millions of jobs sent out already and more to come, explains a lot about why the American economy suffers while China’s economy and India’s economy grow.

I once heard someone say that America “outsources its labor standards,” meaning that our workers are paid and treated much better than the workers in third-world countries who produce much of what we consume. That is true, and it leads naturally to the outsourcing of our entire low-skill low-wage manufacturing industry, which, if those jobs had been kept in the USA, could have provided a foundation of growth with which to revive the sluggish economy.

President Obama, in the 2014 State of the Union speech, advocated raising the minimum wage. The general public met this proposal with indifference or support, not with the shock and outrage it deserved.

The minimum wage for American workers stands at over $7 an hour, plus legally mandated employer-provided health insurance, membership benefits from labor unions, Social Security for retiring workers, Medicare and Medicaid for poor workers, a social safety net of food stamps and SSI disability and unemployment benefits, and the tax-funded services given ”free” to workers but really paid for by the taxpayers — such benefits as public transportation and public education. The real cost to society of paying an American manufacturing worker may be $35 an hour. Factory workers in China are getting paid under $2 an hour, with negligible benefits, to make our computers, and our smartphones, and our tablets, and our other electronic devices, and our washing machines, and our televisions, and our children’s toys, and our flashlights, and our furniture, and our clothes.

It is basic economics, which most Americans seem not to understand, that a business must include the cost of making a product, including the salary and benefits paid to workers, in the retail price at which the product is sold, otherwise the product will be sold at a loss. Unless we want to pay $300 for a simple low-quality white cotton shirt, or $10,000 for a new cellphone, these things must be made in China, and businesses could not profitably employ Americans to make them. Do you wonder why the US economy has not recovered yet?

The liberals want us to solve the problem by imposing our artificially high labor standards on foreign workers. The AFL-CIO, for instance, has been active recently in organizing labor unions in Bangladesh. The libertarian solution, in contrast, is to deregulate working conditions here in the US so that we can bring manufacturing jobs back here. And boy, do we ever need those jobs! If the outsourcing trend is not stopped, then soon we won’t have enough jobs left in the USA for our income to support our first-world lifestyle. As libertarians, we know that lunches aren’t free, and we must pay for our standard of living by working for it. But President Obama, in the 2014 State of the Union speech, actually advocated raising the minimum wage. The general public met this proposal with indifference or support, not with the shock and outrage it deserved. It is political suicide to suggest that we should abolish the minimum wage and end welfare for workers and let the free market set wages and working conditions. But this political suicide may result in economic suicide and national suicide and real suicides, when people can’t find jobs and they and their families are literally starving, with no escape in sight.

Every libertarian knows that freedom leads to prosperity and government control leads to poverty, as well as to dictatorship. We all know that when the baby boom people clamor to protect their Social Security, when politically connected businesses cry for bailouts, when Wall Street asks the Federal Reserve to spend more money, when the lower middle class seeks to tax the rich for money to spend on mushy, wasteful programs that claim to help the poor while merely destroying the nation’s wealth, what we see is the destruction of free market capitalism — the system that safeguarded our freedom. We know that we are seeing the march down the road to serfdom. But the American people refuse to learn that lesson, and we libertarians don’t appear to be winning either the war of ideas, or of political campaigns. Pessimism, which I have always opposed, now seems more and more justified. Apparently it is a question of when, not if, we will witness the decline and fall of the American Empire; and our sole consolation must be that later historians will find our behavior as fascinating as Edward Gibbon found the Romans’.

Please, hope that I am wrong, but do what you can to make this an inaccurate prophecy.




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Democracy: A Western Religion

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On November 21, a Mumbai political goon, Bal Thackeray, died. His party, or gang, is so formidable that the state has, for decades, bent its rule to accommodate its members. If they want the city closed, the police take the lead in closing it, to avoid violence. If you challenge the gang, the police put you under “protective custody.” For decades his gang has extracted protection money. You cannot speak his name without showing the highest possible respect, unless you want to get beaten up, sometimes very ruthlessly.

When Thackeray died, his gang instructed the city to be closed. Everyone who was someone in Mumbai — actors, sportsmen, businessmen, politicians (even of the opposing parties) — had to go to his funeral to pay his condolences. If any had not, he would have had to explain to the gang or leave Mumbai and see his career destroyed.

One girl posted this message on her Facebook page and another “liked” it:

With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. Just due to one politician died a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. They should know, we are resilient by force, not by choice. When was the last time, did anyone showed some respect or even a two-minute silence for Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev or any of the people because of whom we are free-living Indians? Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.

The two Facebook girls were arrested, their faces covered by the police, and the court asked them to be imprisoned. Unless they want to be raped and then beaten up, they are unlikely to return to Mumbai. Even their extended families might have to leave Mumbai now. Not easily given to tears, I had some. These girls deserved the respect of society. For me they are heroes despite the fact that they erroneously believed they were “free-living Indians.”

These were two cute, educated, middle-class girls, so their case came out in public. In rural India, however, events like these are non-events. There the normal guy lives in utter fear of the police and the local strongman and must grovel. He talks with folded hands and bent head. He has no sense of his rights. He accepts what he can get away with. He concedes what the local strongman wants.

Those Westerners who visit only Mumbai and who can never stop comparing India’s democracy (with some mystical favorable connotations) to Chinese dictatorship (with only evil connotations) should have seen that India is not a country of the rule of law, unless you employ million-dollar lawyers.

Really we see what we want to see, what fits in with our pre-conceived notions. Given that Western people fanatically believe in their religion of democracy, they will rationalize the Mumbai incident as a case of India’s “aggressive” democracy. There are hundreds of recorded protests in China every year. The same people who have very romantic opinions about India call protests in China a sign of the fragile nature of its “dictatorship.” Then they proceed to contradict themselves by saying that there is no freedom of speech in China. They find reasons why China’s economic progress is not real or why China is not a free country, as it would be, were it a democracy.

Recently in China, a very well-known, successful businessman, who was taking me around rural places, told me why he did not want his country to become a democracy. He said that if local democracy were encouraged in China, it would very rapidly make China a place run by strongmen. He described how this would void whatever “rule of law,” predictability, and stability now exists. China is not a perfect country, and I do recognize that my guide wants dictatorship to continue for his personal interests, but I couldn’t agree with him more.

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