A Dictator’s Guide to Staying in Power

March 11th, 2011

There are many kinds of political legitimacy.  In a democracy, legitimacy is earned through democratic process.  In a theocracy, legitimacy it is ordained by a spiritual authority.  It can even be won by the might of a revolution that installs a totalitarian leader. Legitimacy is often defined in terms of John Locke’s notion of implicit and explicit consent of the governed.  Political philosopher Dolf Sternberger explained it this way: “Legitimacy is the foundation of such governmental power as is exercised, both with a consciousness on the government’s part that it has a right to govern, and with some recognition by the governed of that right.” Political legitimacy is elemental to the well-being of a society.  And unlike power it cannot be bought.

In two massive power struggles, we are now seeing two African leaders who have lost their political legitimacy, but are struggling to hold power.  In full recognition of the fact they have lost legitimacy, both understand there is only one way to hold control: force.  And the only way for a completely illegitimate leader to command force is with money.

It is for that reason that we see such striking similarities between the way Muammar al-Quaddafi of Libya and Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast have grasped to power in recent weeks.  Both men have all but completely lost domestic and international legitimacy.  Both are using a not-quite loyal military to hold control.  And both are running out of options.The Ivory Coast was once a magnet for immigrants as people spoke of an Ivorian “miracle,” but has now disintegrated as investors have pulled out and unemployment has soared.  A former French colony, the nation is the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans, it is quite rich in coffee, and is also producing some gold. It. Laurent Gbagbo has held the office of the President since 2000, but was defeated by President-elect Alassane Ouattara in a vote in November. The UN has declared Ouattara the winner, but Gbagbo refuses to cede power and Ouattara remains locked in a hotel, protected by UN peacekeepers.

To force Gbagbo out of office, the international community has imposed sanctions, freezing Gbagbo’s assets and banning him and his associates from traveling. Meanwhile, Ouattara issued a month-long embargo on cocoa.  Both domestically and internationally, opponents believe Gbagbo will only be able to hold power for as long as he can pay the salaries of the military.  So Gbagbo has upped the ante by “nationalizing” banks which closed their doors in response to the conflict.  When those started running out of money, Gbagbo looked to retain power by nationalizing cocoa purchases and exports.  But even then, his reserves are dwindling and a French diplomat has said “his days as a leader who can pay for those who support him are numbered.  All of this is slowly starting to look like the end of the game for Gbagbo.”

In Libya, this tactic sounds all too familiar. Unfortunately, it has been much more successful for Qaddafi and so the momentum is headed in the other direction. Qaddafi’s army made key advances on rebels today, retaking the port town of Ras Lanuf, a strategic refinery town on the Mediterranean Sea.  The victory signals a decisive shit in momentum against the uprising in Libya.  In fact, the U.S. director of national intelligence today told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “over the long term… [Qaddafi’s] regime will prevail.”

Qaddafi’s ability to prolong and perhaps win this fight, despite an international freeze on Libyan government assets, is in large part attributed to his “tens of billions” in cash, which have been hidden in Tripoli. For decades, Qaddafi has been paranoid of losing control and so has amassed reserves of secret cash in case “the world caves in on him.”  This money remains critical to his ability to hold Libya; the army is smaller and weaker than Qaddafi’s own private force composed of African mercenaries, many of whom are foreign, and work only for cold, hard cash.

To some extent, there is little the international community can do if a corrupt leader like Qaddafi stashes cash in a domestic bank inside his own country.  There is even less the world can do if a leader, like Gbagbo, “nationalizes” (and by that I mean “seizes”) the assets of foreign banks in his own country.

On the other hand, the international banking sector cannot be absolved of guilt.  The reason Qaddafi has been able to store so much cash—and now cling to power so effectively—is in part a result of his foreign bank accounts.  According to Kenneth Barden, a lawyer who specializes in Middle East financing, just weeks before the outbreak of violence in Tripoli, Qaddafi moved billions of dollars in assets from international banks back onto Libyan soil.   Moreover, Justice Department documents show “Libya worked with Swiss banks to launder international banking transactions for years, with ‘hundreds’ of senior Libyan officials allowed to surreptitiously move money.”

Both of these men have lost political legitimacy.  It is very clear in both cases, these men no longer rule with the consent of the governed and have used illegitimate cash to finance their cling to power.  Unfortunately, it seems that this tactic will work in Libya, just as it will almost inevitably fail in the Ivory Coast.  And the difference, in large part, is attributed to the amount of cash each leader has at his disposal.  Gabgbo’s reserves are running out.  Qaddafi’s are not.

As I said before, a leader cannot buy legitimacy.  But he can buy power.  At least with the help of a national trove of natural resources and a few opaque foreign banks.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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