‘Why Bad Guys Matter’

Foreign Policy recently published a great feature on the factors behind a failed state, with an emphasis on how the presence of a corrupt, tyrannical leader can make the difference between a failed state and a weak state.

Using an index of 12 indicators–including a country’s economic decline, loss of intellectuals due to immigration and persecution, and human rights record–Foreign Policy ranked the countries it considers failed states, from Somalia at number 1 to Bosnia-Herzegovina at number 60.

Paul Collier, a British author and economist who is the Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, introduces the feature in an article reflecting on his first-hand interactions with some of these leaders. The selfish, cold reasoning behind some of their policies that had wide ranging and negative effects on the citizens of their countries caught him off guard.

When I asked Kenya’s autocratic president, Daniel arap Moi, why he had banned food imports from neighboring Uganda, his answer so tortured common sense that one of his aides had to take me aside and tell me the real story: Some of the president’s businessman friends had stocks of food warehoused and wanted prices to rise. In Angola, I once asked a finance minister why, in defiance of economic logic, his country operated multiple exchange rates. The president used the dual system to siphon off money, he whispered. Until last year, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe did the same.

What’s scariest about the presence of these “Worst of the Worst” leaders, as laid out in the piece, is that the ability of these leaders to continually take power and even pass it down due to the basic infrastructure of a country and its lack of checks and balances or, at the very least, basic mechanisms to prevent people like these men from rising up the ranks.

Another disturbing fact pointed out in the feature is that many of these dictators gained power supposedly fighting to liberate their country, only to morph into a just as insidious a leader as the one that came before. Without a system of internal mechanisms to prevent the rise of a powerful dictator, countries seem doomed to get caught in a vicious cycle of oppression and weakening of their state.

So … what do we do with this information? Do we as a sovereign power embrace our adopted status as the bastion of democracy worldwide? Do we use sanctions and other international pressures to force them out or weaken their power?

It’s difficult to say, really. Some of these dictatorships are so ensconced in their countries that the people they rule over might find it hard to imagine it any other way. But it’s clear that the way things are now, the status quo, can’t last forever. These failed states aren’t sustainable, and, if history tells us anything, it’s that nothing–however sturdy it may seem–can last forever.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments.

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