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All too often, a leader’s lust for power is fed by his acolytes

2011 April 7
by Paul Vallely

It is not unduly cynical to suppose that Laurent Gbagbo – the former president of Ivory Coast, who was last night clinging to power in the face of a final onslaught on his presidential palace by rebel forces –  has a few bob tucked away in some foreign bank accounts in faraway places. He would not be the first African leader to do so.

The same is probably true of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and a goodly number of other Arab leaders currently maintaining a finger-tip hold on power.

That being so, a rational person might wonder why they don’t just do a deal, take the money and run off to a comfortable retirement in the congenial backyard of some other unsavoury dictator.

But we are not dealing with reason here; we are talking about power. And power is not just, as Lord Acton so memorably observed, corrupting. It is also addictive.

Muammar Gaddafi, like so many other charismatic despots, almost certainly has come to believe in his own indispensability. He is, after all, as he so often suggests, not a man with any official office. But he is the father of the nation. Without him the centre cannot hold. Things will fall apart.

Such fantasies are fed by the acolytes who surround powerful men. You find them in democracies too – which is why nations like the United States limit their top office to two terms – but they are to be found in their most quintessential form around dictators.  They are flatterers who refused to taint their hagiographical obeisance with anything so unpalatable as the truth – especially when they know the truth is not what the Big Man wants to hear.

They have too much to lose. Nowhere is that more so than in Ivory Coast – a land where the leader’s sycophants have pumped up unnecessary ethnic conflicts in an attempt to find personal and sectional advantage.

In the days when that country was rich and stable it opened its arms to neighbouring foreigners from the countries to the north – Burkina Faso and Mali – to work its vast cocoa, coffee and sugar plantations. But when drought struck, commodity prices plunged and global recession hit there was no work for these immigrants.

Ivorian politicians, like knavish politicians everywhere, began to talk of “foreigners” who were stealing the jobs of “true Ivorians”.  They divided the nation between northerner and southerner, Muslim and Christian, immigrants and those of “la vrai Ivoritié”. Where previous generations of politicians had done their best to de-emphasise ethnic difference Gbagbo and his followers played them up.

Imagine their horror when the northerners’ candidate Alassane Ouattara, whose parents were originally from Burkina, won the election – and then, after months of trying to find a negotiated solution, sent his forces sweeping down from the north in a terrible onslaught on Abidjan in which massacres were committed on both sides.

It is not just Laurent Gbabgbo who clings desperately to power to the end. It is his inner circle who, if their boss were to flee, would be left staring into the naked possibility of losing everything.

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