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Tales in the Absence of Institutions

Tales in the Absence of Institutions

Monday, 22 April, 2019 - 07:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
The United Nations had once upon a time tasked a team to hold a census in Central Africa, which was then ruled by Emperor Bokassa. Bokassa received the team when it completed its work. The Tunisian head of the mission informed the ruler that some 4.5 million people lived in the country, drawing the ire of Bokassa, who did not want to be emperor of a small country. He replied that 10 million people lived in Central Africa. The Tunisian expert objected and soon found himself in jail. He could only be released after African and UN intervention.

Numbers do not have the right to defy rulers. Bokassa had previously spent a quarter of the country’s budget for his coronation. When asked if it he was being over-the-top, he replied that he simply followed Napoleon’s example.

A French businessman spoke of a trip on board the yacht of Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko. He recalled how the president became upset with the service of one of the waiters and how he ordered that he promptly be tossed into the river to be fed to the crocodiles. The president chose his name, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, which means “the rooster that watches over all the hens.”

One day, a bootlicker from the Ivory Coast visited Moammar al-Gaddafi and convinced him that he was too powerful to be simply the ruler of Libya. He instead told him that he should be the “King of Kings of Africa.” And so it was. Gaddafi ordered that a lavish ceremony be thrown. Africa did not have kings, but sultans of groups and tribes. Gaddafi’s aides had to scramble to find a crown. They bought one and celebrated. Prior to this, Gaddafi had informed the world that he refuses to be called president, but should instead be addressed as “Leader of the Revolution.” He then changed the name again to the “international revolutionary,” before settling on “Leader of the Revolution and the King of Kings of Africa.” The Foreign Ministry had no choice but to inform the world of the new name.

One day, Gaddafi summoned his foreign minister and African affairs expert Ali Abdussalam Treki. He tasked him with the simple mission of “delivering a message to King Hussein II that clearly informs him that he was a traitor and a spy.” He also used to ring up Treki to order him “to contact Amr Moussa and curse him.”

One day, Gaddafi addressed the UN General Assembly and made a deliberate point to deliver a speech that was longer than Barack Obama’s. He stood before the cameras and tried to tear up the UN Charter. When he failed, he threw it on the ground. He also requested that the Libyan ambassador to the UN demand that the investigation into John Kennedy’s assassination be reopened. He also did not forget to demand his foreign minister to work on expelling the Swiss ambassador to the UN and on dividing Saudi Arabia.

During one summer, the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. Hours later the Defense Minister and chief of staff were summoned to be informed by an officer of the invasion. Days later, Saddam Hussein would inform the two men that for the sake of secrecy, he chose to give the command to units that directly receive orders from.

The above are not anecdotes that can be found on the internet, but they are some of several tales that I have heard from people concerned with these developments. Among them is Libyan former Foreign Minister Treki and Nizar al-Khazraji, who was chief of staff when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

These stories are examples of what happens when men, who have nothing to do with the state, the economy, rights and national treaties and managing people’s lives, come to power. These tales are a reminder of the tragedy that is created in the absence of institutions. Would Iraq’s catastrophic invasion of Kuwait have happened had there been an institution whose members would have had the right to speak their minds and warn of the dangers of such a move? Could Gaddafi have ordered the kidnapping of OPEC ministers and the murder of the Saudi and Iranian ministers in 1975 had Tripoli enjoyed institutions that could have thwarted such mad and reckless decisions?

Several Arab countries have paid a heavy price for the sudden absence of the “savior”, who governed for a long period and engineered his “state” on a single rule: his continuation in power with his entourage. Such rulers rejected the idea of institutions and separation of authorities. The only characteristic needed was loyalty, not competency. This is how a parliament becomes the parliament of the commander. The same goes to the army and judiciary.

When disaster strikes and the “savior” is no more, the major collapse takes place and the country becomes exposed to deadly chaos, militias or foreign meddling. We have seen this in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam’s regime and we are still witnessing the tragedies sparked by the demise of Gaddafi and his regime.

In recent days, we have seen how the Sudanese people have regained their ability to dream of better days. We have seen millions of peaceful Algerians voice their ambitions for a state that does not fall prey to corruption and monopolies. We have heard pressing demands in Sudan and Algeria to put on trial officials who have squandered the people’s rights and funds. These demands are legitimate and understandable. Opening the doors to the future, however, remains more important than holding the past accountable. By this we mean establishing political agreements and stressing the need to build a modern state and institutions.

It is time to quit playing old and costly games. A normal president for a normal state, which is governed by institutions and the rule of law, are needed.

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