Using Libya and Sudan as examples, an interesting question was put to me. How come even at the tail end of dictatorships when all is done and dusted and there is no hope, there are still people who are willing to die and kill for a fleeing autocrat?
The most powerful autocrats who stay on the stage for many years have one simple trick. When they get into office, the priority is to embark on building a critical mass of powerful people who are dependent on the dictator for their own survival.
The work plan is to enrich and empower this group beyond their wild dreams, many times turning a blind eye as they go outside the law to achieve their desired goals. Usually they are in the army, police and in public administration where they exert a lot of influence. Many times they are given so much power to abuse, which eventually acts as a rope to hang themselves.
So one may forcefully grab land in full view of the public. When they are sued, the case stalls for years because the judges are cognisant of the implication of going against ‘orders from the above.’
The owners of the land then give up as they have nowhere to turn to for help. The one who benefits from such a scenario knows that a change of government will be the end of his ownership of the said land. So even if he does not like or agree with the autocrat in power, he will do everything to ensure that he stays in power.
It happens to the one with a health problem only treatable at exorbitant rates overseas, which bill can only be footed by the magnanimity of the one in power. Rooting for him/her becomes a matter of life and death.
The same applies to the one who holds an office that they know they are not qualified for. The case in mind is of a Resident District Commissioner (RDC), who formerly was a strong Opposition supporter. He was picked off the streets and is now holding this powerful office.
It is a privileged place where he decides on security and land matters, many time receiving kickbacks for granting favours for those with money and power such as land grabbers in their area of jurisdiction.
The former near no-hoper is now riding a government maintained four-wheel drive fuel guzzler. He is building his apartments and has brought his children from the village UPE school to taste the life and education provided by private schools in Kampala.
The women who hitherto laughed him off and did not give him a second let alone first look because he was a smelly local village boy who could not afford a cheap deodorant, now accept his lunch dates and are willing to give him much more.
It gets worse when he is involved say in a murder or a human rights abuse as he overzealously fights to protect the government or pursue his own selfish needs. His only security is the regime remaining in power.
That is why many people are befuddled that even when it is abundantly clear under the autocrat that the hospitals have become hospices without drugs and doctors, schools are collapsing because underpaid teachers have decided to ride their boda bodas most of their time instead of teaching, etc, there are still people who will seek to have the regime remain in power.
It is not necessarily out of love. They are trapped in a maze from which they cannot extricate themselves without risking their lives and properties.
So not everyone you see endorsing a tyrant to rule ‘until they get tired,’ is batting for the dictator. Many times they are doing it for themselves and will be willing to kill and die for the cause.
Many times the support a handful of such people provide is more valuable and consequential than that of the masses.
For instance, using security agents under their charge, it is possible to chase away Opposition party agents from a polling station and imprison them. Then with the stroke of a pen, alter election declaration forms. That act of a small powerful group thereby overturns the will of thousands of people who registered to vote, attended rallies and woke up early to line up in the blazing sun or morning downpour to vote for their preferred candidate.
So the challenge for those opposed to strongmen who are “going nowhere” is, how to appeal to this critical mass of powerful people. How do the concerns regarding the safety of their lives and mostly ill-gotten properties, be attended to (even with the blood dripping from their hands) after the dictator falls?
The case of Kenya after the fall of Daniel Arap Moi, who had been in power for more than 24 years, teaches that the paying such a high price to push out a tyrant is a bitter pill that may have to be swallowed. Moi himself and many of his acolytes kept a lot of their ill-gotten wealth and were not prosecuted, but he faded away quietly.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. email@example.com. Twitter:@nsengoba