The Risky Temptation of a Benevolent Dictatorship

Beware of the “Kagame mivadika Mugabe” syndrome.

It is a classic topic of conversation whenever a group of Malagasy gets together for dinner or for a drink. Over the last couple of weeks, I have heard the argument at least four times. It usually starts with someone complaining about the dismal performance of our current political system and arguing that “What Madagascar needs is a leader who can decisively fix this mess. Someone who is not afraid to take difficult decisions, and who has the guts to implement even the most unpopular policy reforms.”

Another person then adds: “Madagascar urgently needs someone who is respected, listened to, and feared. Nobody respects, or is afraid of, anything anymore: impunity, anti-social behavior and indiscipline are everywhere. We need a leader with a lot of authority to restore discipline, and with a lot of power to re-impose the rule of law.” I am paraphrasing, of course, but you know what I mean.

At that point, someone delivers the punch line: “We have tried democracy. It does not seem to work for us. What Madagascar needs is a dictator!” After a brief silence, someone else responds: “Yes, but a good dictator, …, we need a benevolent dictator.

From there, the conversation often moves on to a discussion of how Lee Kuan Yew eradicated government corruption and transformed Singapore into one of the world’s richest nations — the Switzerland of Asia; how Paul Kagame is rebuilding a remarkably efficient and clean post-genocide Rwanda — the Singapore of Africa; or how Deng Xiaoping, Josip Broz Tito, Park Chung-Hee or even Franklin D. Roosevelt led their respective countries with iron fists to quickly produce positive results — such as the delivery of basic services, the completion of economic reforms, and the construction of physical infrastructure. Sometimes, the names of Radama Rainy or Marc Ravalomanana is thrown into the mix for some local flavor.

The case for a “benevolent dictatorship” can be quite compelling. When a country has been stuck, for decades, in an endless cycle of political crises, having a leader with unfettered power who knows what to do, and who is willing to rapidly do what it takes, can be tempting. When a country is quickly and steadily falling into chaos and fragility, a democratic system — even with all the civil liberties it entails — appears like a luxury that does not really address the country’s urgent needs. When everything is urgent, the notions of marimaritra iraisana (consensus), fifampidinihana sy fifanakalozan-kevitra (consultation) and teny ierana (mutual consent), so dear to the Malagasy, seem to be just niceties that we cannot afford.

Wouldn’t it be nice, after 55 years of independence, to finally have a visionary leader who knows exactly how to restore law and order, and to rescue Madagascar from its never-ending troubles, and who has the unchallenged authority to make all of that happen? It would indeed be nice. In fact, it sounds a bit too nice to be truly realistic. Even if everyone agrees on the merits of having a benevolent dictator, it would take a miracle to reach a consensus on who should be the dicator, or how should he be chosen. Just imagine the curent cast of Malagasy politicians trying to come up with an agreement on those questions. I frankly do no see that happening.

There are just no ways to ascertain which particular leader would be, and would remain, benevolent if given the opportunity to rule with unchecked power. In order to pursue his policy agenda, a dictator (benevolent or not) needs room to maneuver. He will need to consolidate his authority by mobilizing his supporters, immobilizing his foes, and muzzling his most virulent critics. This type of repression may start moderately but often has a tendency to spiral violently out of control. For every one Lee Kuan Yew or Park Chung-Hee, there are at least ten Fidel Castros, or Robert Mugabes — charismatic leaders who rose to power with significant popular support, rebuilt their nations from some kind of trauma; but then started embracing a culture of corruption, cronyism, personality cult, excess, and violent repression. The truth is that most dictators start benevolent and popular, before they gradually turn into corrupt and repressive tyrants. There is an easily crossed fine line between a benevolent dictator and a malevolent tyrant. Let us be careful what we wish for — beware of the “Kagame mivadika Mugabe” (a Kagame turned into a Mugabe) syndrome.

Dissatisfaction with the presumed sluggishness or inefficiency of the current political system may be an opportunity to do some serious soul searching and try to strike a better balance between “manjaka tokana” (rule of one), “manjaka vahoaka” (rule of all) or “tsy misy manjaka” (rule of none). Whether it is democracy, dictatorship, or even anarchy, we should seek a system more in line with our culture and our Soa Toavina (our values), not one plagiarized from some other country. This could be another interesting (and more useful) conversation topic next time you gather for dinner or for a drink.

Ny Fanjakana toy ny salaka enti-mihosy: Refarefaina, azon’ny fotaka; Henjanina mafy manapaka andilana …
One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.