the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2005 January 23


The Asian tsunami disaster may have been the elements at their worst, but it was humans at their best. No one was at fault, largely because disasters of this sort do not happen in the Indian Ocean ― they happen in the Pacific. The individuals living in the path of the destruction had no reason to expect it, unlike those who live in floodplains or on fault lines. The wealthy, sophisticated institutions (notably the United States) that monitor these events could not be blamed for not monitoring in the right places. There was every effort on all sides to warn and evacuate the residents. And in the aftermath, the human response was great and good. Only the nationalist imperialism of the Sri Lankan and Indonesian governments, blocking access to rebel-held areas, marred the effort. By far the dominant response was compassion and a desire to overcome differences to provide assistance as quickly and efficiently as possible. From the beginning it has been nearly impossible to escape appeals, and the appeals have been met generously. That natural disasters are indifferent and can be massively destructive is hardly news; so the news here was largely good, and it was worth noting.

I have been more interested in a minor story that would have been minor even without the tsunami. The most publicized aspect of this minor story was a celebrity piece, essentially: Mark Thatcher, a businessman whose mother you may have heard of, has just pled guilty in South Africa to negligently providing money to a band of mercenaries. These mercenaries, it is alleged, were intending to overthrow Obiang Nguema, who has ruled Equatorial Guinea since 1979, after himself overthrowing and then executing his uncle, the state’s only other ruler. Thatcher paid a sizable fine to avoid several years in prison for violating South African laws which prohibit action against other governments. His associates, who included the shady outfit Executive Outcomes, had reportedly intended to replace Nguema with one of his exiled opponents. Several supposed conspirators were tried in Equatorial Guinea, with one being tortured to death before trial. Another group was captured in Zimbabwe, the domain of Robert Mugabe.

Stories of Anglo-Saxon expatriates using their money to overthrow African governments naturally bring to mind the most disturbing elements of colonialism. The knighted son of a former prime minister would make the watchlist of any independence movement, to be sure. But Mugabe, who helped expose the affair by arresting most of the mercenaries (if such they were) en route to Equatorial Guinea (if such they were), has been the most disingenuous abuser of the independence ideal in recent years. He means, with all of his railing against white folk in general and Tony Blair in particular, that Africans should support maximum independence for Robert Mugabe. In the past, this has meant mass murder of ethnic and political opponents. Now he is mostly appropriating their land to give to his cronies.

Recently Nguema has been trying to look like a democrat, which has been quite in vogue for dictators. His show is not particularly convincing, though: in the last election, he claimed to win 99% of the vote. The election was held under military supervision, without a secret ballot, and with the opposition leader, Placido Mico, imprisoned on a forced confession. His other opponents boycotted the vote, it is true, but I know of no democracy where less than one person in a hundred would think to vote for an opposition candidate anyway. But perhaps things in Equatorial Guinea are just really, really good.

The official line in Equatorial Guinea, promoted by the government and its media, is that Nguema is, if not the God, then at least a god. He is entitled to kill without accountability. On the one hand, it must be the bliss of paradise to bask in His grace. On the other hand, a person might sensibly fear His wrath. Deities move on a different plane from the rest of us. They are held to different standards, they are beyond our faculties of understanding, yada, yada, yada.

Executive Outcomes is a suspicious firm of adventurists. Heavily-armed and well-equipped European expatriates, as were implicated in the plot, might reasonably be presumed to be up to no good in an Africa that remembers colonialism all too well. The Rhodesians were overthrown by Mugabe only in 1980; he certainly counts on the collective memory of that. (His “war veteran” thugs, though, are mostly far too young to have fought a quarter century ago.) South Africa doesn’t have to remind people of apartheid; historically speaking, it just ended, and it was a matter of wide public awareness by the end. The African National Congress that runs South Africa could cast a wary eye on Mark Thatcher and his doings, and few would be unsympathetic.

But South Africa is, after Botswana, the most enlightened government in all of Africa. It is a place that has known tyranny recently and directly, and claims to be staunchly opposed. Obiang Nguema is a vicious dictator. South Africa is a liberal democracy. Why is it doing his dirty work?

I would think that the first thing that would come to the mind of Thabo Mbeki, on hearing of a conspiracy to depose Nguema, would be: “That sounds good. How can I help?” The composition of the conspiracy might have aroused questions about its good intentions. But that would have been a good reason to get to the bottom of it, giving the benefit of the doubt. How much worse could any of Nguema’s opponents be? South Africa’s actions and South Africa’s laws clearly do not distinguish between well-intentioned and ill-intentioned action against another state. The shameful silence of the ANC government, and Mbeki specifically, on the question of Zimbabwe has shown that the new liberated South Africa is not interested in further liberation of Africa. It could dethrone Swaziland’s tyrannical, profligate, rapist boy-king in an afternoon, and the Swazi population would exult. But not even words of disapproval are forthcoming.

Governments, sadly, behave like a club. They protect each other’s interests; they do each other’s dirty work. Serbia wants to rule Kosovo, where nine residents in ten are Albanian. The Albanian Kosovars do not want to be ruled by Serbia, and they have shown their unwillingness in elections and guerrilla warfare. At the moment, they are not ruled by Serbia. They have a semi-autonomous elected administration under ultimate UN control. Serbia’s demand for a restoration of its sovereignty is a demand that it be allowed to send in tanks and subjugate a demonstrably-unwilling population. That, clearly, is conquest; it is imperialism. The other option is to send in the tanks to force out the unwilling population. That, of course, is ethnic cleansing. But the western powers, who have rhetorically abjured imperialism and are occupying Kosovo to prevent Serbia’s ethnic cleansing, are still officially on the side of Serbia. They are thwarting self-determination and adhering to the line that eventually Kosovo will be handed back to Serbia. They may even bring in Christo to tie it with a bright red bow.

There are worse examples of injustice in the world than Equatorial Guinea. But in considering the principles of charity and philanthropy, there are no better comparisons than the worldwide support for tsunami victims and the criminalization of support for tyranny victims. If someone is looking for money to buy arms and transport to get rid of a megalomaniacal dictator, I consider that a worthy cause, and I would like to see the world’s people and the world’s governments at least say something supportive, rather than closing ranks. I would hate to think that all the world’s governments think of themselves as governments first, regardless of how they came to power; I would hate to think that they actually identify with Obiang Nguema. I would hate to think that the people of the world think that it is more important to save the victims of tsunamis than of tyrants. I am not saying that all caring persons need to hop on a plane for Equatorial Guinea to participate directly in the end of tyranny there. But, rather like with the tsunami, they could certainly write a check. And if they cannot afford to write a check, they could at least refrain from taking the persons who do write checks and tossing them into prison.


Original version


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