Global dictatorships set to return in new post-Cold War era

Anti-coup protesters stand at a barricade as they clash with security forces on Bayint Naung Bridge in Mayangone, Yangon, Myanmar March 16, 2021. [Reuters]

Myanmar is slowly but steadily becoming the new killing field of Asia. It is a sign of a return to the global dictatorial order of a gone age. Then, the world looked on as dictators wreaked havoc upon citizens, as a factor of self-interested superpower competitions.

The rise of China and the resurgence of Russia are two developments set to return the global community to the toxic order of competitions for global dominance akin to the post-World War II period of 1945-1990.

In that dreadful season, a local dictator did anything he pleased, provided that he was politically and ideologically correct in the eyes of one of the two superpowers of the day.

The Soviet Union and the United States danced with the devil everywhere in the world, provided that he wore the right tunic. At the worst, the two powers fought proxy wars on other people’s territories, bringing in their wake wanton wastage of limb, life and property.

Is the world going back to those times, courtesy of new superpower games? An official United States report may, for instance, show that the Saudi crown prince, Salman Bin Mohamed, ordered the killing in October 2018, of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and an American resident. The Joe Biden administration may take a very grave view of this. It may impose sanctions against scores of persons implicated in the murder. Yet, it leaves the prince untouched “because of strategic interests in Saudi Arabia.”

An ill wind of global superpower political competitions could be about to bring tyranny right into your own courtyard, wherever you may be in the world today. Autocratic goings-on in faraway places like Armenia, Georgia, Hong Kong and Myanmar are teeming with foreboding for humanity everywhere. They may not remain isolated and distant things for too long. Behind the scenes in these dramas is the sometimes not so hidden hand of either China or Russia. If the competitions have so far been subterranean, they will not live in disguise for too long.

The US is certainly making a clear return to the centre of global affairs, in the post-Trump age. Meanwhile, the leaderships of China and Russia are openly rising to the occasion in disparate places, with echoes of a gone age, asking the world to remain silent, amidst slaughters in diverse countries. They read from the old script of “internal affairs of sovereign states.” It was this kind of script that saw the Khmer Rouge kill over a million people under the Pol Pot dictatorship in Cambodia in 1975-1979. Overall death in the Southeast Asian nation due to war-related causes is sometimes estimated at 2.5 million. It was not until Vietnam invaded Cambodia to stop the Khmer Rouge that the killings stopped in January 1979. The world had otherwise looked on, with an especial knowing nod and military support to Khmer Rouge from Leonid Brezhnev’s Kremlin.

Is the world headed for similar callous times with Russian revanchism and with the rise of China’s global neo-capitalism? What messages should we read from the ongoing disruption of democracy in distant parts of the world, with the approval of the great powers of the day?

Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar remained behind in the democratisation activities that swept across the world in the 1980s and the 1990s. Myanmar is an old civilisation that dates as far back as the European Middle Ages, believed to have been first founded as a unified state in 1057, or thereabouts. In more recent times, parts of Burma were annexed by the British in the 1920s to 1940s and made part of India. Later, during World War II, Japan invaded and occupied Burma, with the aid of Burmese soldiers. The country would seem to have fallen into the curse of the military.

Years of freedom after the defeat of Japan in 1945 and independence from the British in 1947 have been a season of iron-fisted military adventurism. Aung Sun Su Kyi, the official president now under military arrest, has been the symbolic representation of hope in recent decades. She spent most of the 1990s and early 2000s under house arrest by a succession of military adventurers for fighting for democracy. On the eve of independence, her father Bogyoke Aung Sun, died at the hands of the military in July 1947. Military gamesmanship became the order of the day ever since, even as the rest of the world democratized.

Democratic elections

In 2010, however, the country caught up with the rest of the world, when the military eventually organised democratic elections for the first time in several generations. All has not been well, however, as the military has virtually remained in control. In February, this year, they annulled an election and staged a military takeover on the day that the new Parliament was set to have its first sitting. Mass protests against the coup have attracted heavy military action in which hundreds of unarmed civilians have been shot dead. Both Russia and China have asked the rest of the world to hold its tongue, as the goings on in Myanmar “are internal affairs of a sovereign state.” It rings like a nightmare from the past.

But there are troubling signs from other parts of the world, too. Georgia is a boiling pot. Already, as a harbinger of things to come, the southern part of South Ossetia broke away in 2017 with Russia’s abetment. It is set to become part of an expansionist Russian Federation, which  is an official Kremlin visionary dream of a return of the defunct Soviet Union. The state of government in Georgia is in limbo. There are contestations over who should and who should not form government, among rival groups – once again with Russia in the mix.

In Armenia, President Nocol Pahinyan is in trouble, having lost the territory of Nagorno-Karabach to Azerbaijani in war last year. The military has put him under pressure to resign. It is unhappy with a Russian-brokered peace deal that he entered with Azerbaijani. He says he will not resign.

Elsewhere, Hong Kong is increasingly coming into the firm grip of offshore influence and control from China. Pro-democracy advocates have been outlawed. Many are in jail while others have had to flee into exile. Besides, China a few days ago voted for a new election law that gives Beijing the last word on who can contest for an election in Hong Kong.

Here in Africa, democratic institutions are once again in free fall. In Senegal, President Mark Salie dreams of an unconstitutional third term in office. As part of the drive towards it, he arbitrarily detains opposition leaders. Others, like his chief competitor Osman Sonko, are regularly in and out of court and prison on what appear to be trumped up charges, on things like rape and a cocktail of mumbo jumbo.

Perennial strongman

In Uganda, the political messiah who rescued the country from the jaws of anarchy in the 1990s has mellowed into a perennial strongman. The frontiers of the law in Uganda have become a mirage that must keep moving, to accommodate the big man’s whims. He holds the country and his competitors in contempt. This is especially so at election time. Then the electorate is treated to a sarcastic comedy of errors. They involve anarchic treatment of opposition leaders and their supporters – complete with teargas, water cannons, live bullets in the streets, shows of military might and sundry heavy-handedness.

In Tanzania, the president can go missing for weeks on end amidst frightful gossips. Yet the citizens can only speak about their missing president in muffled tones and whispers. Not even highly placed officials in government can broach this hot subject, lest they should fall on the wrong side of the man whose breathing is the law.

Across another border, the Nobel Prize for Peace Committee must rue the day it decided to award the 2019 prize to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The dragon within was waiting to be born. The tailor-made peacemaker of yesteryear has veritably driven his country to civil war with dictatorial management of conflict in the Tigrinya region of Ethiopia. Beyond that, he has invited neighbouring Eritrea to settle old scores with Tigrinya, military style. Despite discordant noises from the UN Secretary General António Guterres, the world looks on, impotently. 

Burundi is a forgotten political pariah. Mozambique has adverted to its good old anarchy with Al Shabab’s anarchic beheadings of children in the mix. Sudan is, likewise, back to its old form. After the North to South conflict that wasted close to 2 million lives in 1973-2005, Darfur is now the eye of the needle. Close to 3 million people have been displaced from their homes, many killed.

In Cameroon’s Ambazonia, they are fighting a forgotten war of secession. It is mayhem in the Central African Republic, in Mali, Togo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, everywhere.

Even in seemingly democratic spaces like Kenya, there is every effort to defeat democratic governance through seemingly constitutional methods and tinkering with the law. The global scenario reminds you of developments of gone times. On January 11, 1980, the iconic editor of the Weekly Review, Hilary Ng’weno, wrote a lead that compared the global events of the day to the world just before the outbreak of World War II. Echoing the American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, he observed that the world in 1980 was beginning to resemble the scenario just before the outbreak of the war. The powerful Soviet Union had a few weeks earlier moved troops to Afghanistan, as part of the Super Power proxy wars between the United States and the USSR. They would last there to the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

Both the editor and the Secretary of State were concerned that a nuclear war might just break out and destroy humankind for good. As had been the case on the eve of World War II, “countries were invading others with impunity.” Ng’weno recalled how in the 1930s revolutionary din was fashionable. It came mostly from “self-styled radical students.” There was also the rumble of tanks and troop carriers across sovereign nations. Adolf Hitler and young fascists styled themselves as saviors of the world. They rolled into other people’s countries seeking to dominate them and to proclaim the assumed supremacy of the Aryan race.

The world, led by Britain, responded by appeasing Hitler. The more they gave in to his demands, the more he asked for. They got a terrible war in return. Ng’weno and Kissinger were concerned that continued appeasement of the Soviet Union in the proxy wars that she took to other people’s sovereign states all over the world could lead to the same kind of disaster that appeasing Hitler led to.

Mercifully, this did not exactly happen. Nor did a nuclear war break out. Instead President Ronald Reagan and UK premier Margret Thatcher led NATO in subjecting the Soviet Union to burnout through an unprecedented arms race. Unable to sustain the pace, the Soviet Union crumbled under the economic burden of the race and the rot of corruption at home. It collapsed. It disintegrated to give birth to the 14 new states Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine.

Even more significantly, a new democratic spirit was born. Its reformist wind of change began blowing across the oceans. It skirted around the mountains to reach every corner of the globe. Good governance, openness and accountability became the global political refrain. From Asia to South America and from Eastern Europe to Africa, the clarion call was good governance. It was rendered in the local idioms equivalent of Mikhail Goberchev’s call of Glasnost and Perestroika. Dictatorial regimes collapsed like tornados. Barring the isolated cases of the Arab Middle East and the Gulf, as well as Burma and China in Asia, the Age of Freedom had arrived. The rest became history, despite the terrible birth pangs experienced by some of the new nation states in Europe.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, is the world again on the cusp of yet another era of autocracy? Are we sitting on the ledge of the return of dictators of the 1945-1990 definition?

We are reminded of Ng’weno’s editorial of January 1980 on account of the happenings in the world today mirroring not the pre-World War II events that worried Kissinger, but rather the pre-Cold War scenario that set the arena for the global dictatorship of the Cold War years. Does the world seem to be regressing to those years? History reminds us that after six terrible years in which 70 million lives were lost in World War II (1939-1945), the mayhem came to an end in July/August 1945. Unfortunately there was little time to celebrate. For new suspicions and toxic ideology-based competitions broke out among the victors. They created an astute environment for the rise of dictatorial regimes all over the world. 

Similar suspicions have overtaken the present global civilisation, with the American unipolar superpower hegemony in the post-Cold War era tottering on the brink of collapse. The rise of China is no longer in doubt, as is the troublesome resurgence of Russia. The spin off for the rest of the global community is the return of the blind eye that the Cold War superpowers turned to autocracy in countries that were aligned to them.

Chinese capitalist expansionism is the foremost prime mover in the emerging global tolerance for local autocracy and indifference to home-grown anarchies. China is very far on the horizon. The Red Dragon is certainly looking as far ahead as where it expects to be, another 200 years from now, perhaps even more.

The giant that remained asleep for much of the Cold War period (1945 -1990) has woken up. In the Cold War season, the Middle Kingdom, as China has also been called, kept mostly to herself. Only occasionally did she send out limited external political influence, to frolic with assignments in a few and isolated overseas places like Tanzania, here in East Africa. In doing so at a time of cutthroat ideological competition for global influence between the capitalist West and communist East, China actualised the perception that Napoleon Bonaparte had of her in the 19th century, as “the Sleeping Asian Giant.”

China has woken up. She rocks the world. She shakes it like Russia shook it in the aftermath of WWII, sending everybody back to the drawing rooms of foreign policy. Following the end of the war, Russia refused to vacate the countries she had occupied after rescuing them from Adolf Hitler’s Germany. She instead incorporated them into a new giant nation state, called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Her agenda was simple – to continue with the business World War II had disrupted – the spread of communism.

Suspicions simmered

Interestingly, the world of capitalism and the world of communism had earlier had a ceasefire in their competition to dominate the world, when they had teamed together to fight the Nazis and Fascists in WWII. The ideological competitors thought that the two forces were by far worse than their own ideological divisions. Hence, in the spirit of fighting a common enemy, they came together to defeat Germany, Japan, Spain and Italy in WWII. The war ended, former friends became enemies. Conversely,  former enemies became friends, regardless that some suspicions simmered beneath the veneer. 

Under the global watch of the USSR and the US, dictators thrived everywhere. The US meddled with such bad eggs as Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, Idi Amin in Uganda, Marcias Ngwema in Equatorial Guinea, to say nothing of terrible dispensations in Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Honduras, besides dozens of military regimes all over the world. The Soviets had their own bad boys everywhere, too, where they masqueraded as supporters of liberation movements.

The new Cold War is here. Like in the past, the UN Security Council is neutered by the power of veto that the permanent members held by the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China. As in the past they will use it conveniently, to veto each other where their influence is under threat.

Prepare for reversal of the gains that came with the end of the Cold War when Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost became the rallying call across the world, in their various local dialects. The bad old order is knocking at every door, once again. Global dictatorships, including military takeovers and civilian overthrow of constitutional orders are set to return.

[Dr Muluka is a strategic public communications advisor]  

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