Monday, February 07, 2005

Monarchical republics

Overt military coups are so 1970s. The image of thugs in camouflage and dark glasses just doesn't play well anymore in a world where pretenses of 'democracy' and 'liberty' are mouthed ad nauseum. They bring sanctions and condemnation. Absolute monarchies are the same way. Even the worst dictatorships at least pretend some popular legitimacy: 'I want to retire to my farm, but the people want me to remain Leader' is a popular lie. So what's an armed force to do when a de facto military leader dies? The military occupies a privileged position in such regimes. Those in privileged positions don't like to lose such privileges. However, exigencies require at least the facade of constitutional order. Overt military coups are denounced by international institutions and, more importantly, this typically results in the suspension of international aid. Corrupt generals aren't in it for the stripes on their shoulder.

A solution has been found: monarchical republics. Monarchical republics respect the facade of constitutionalism but are de facto monarchies. From Syria to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dead dictators have been replaced by their sons. This succession has inevitably been ratified by the supposedly independent national assemblies. Togo, in West Africa, is the latest country to become a monarchical republic.

This weekend, the country's dictator, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, died after 38 years in power; he ascended to the throne after a 1967 military coup. Eyadéma was the world's second longest serving leader, behind only Cuba's Fidel Castro. The constitutional successor, the National Assembly speaker, was out of the country. So the military suspended the constitution and appointed Eyadéma's son as the new head of state.

"The Togolese armed forces swear allegiance to Faure Gnassingbé as President of the Republic of Togo," said Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Zachari Nandja. That the military would swear allegiance to a man, rather than to the constitution or to the republic, is telling of the mentality of an institution which has dominated the country for almost the entire independence period.

This seemed like a traditional military coup and was quickly denounced by the African Union, the West African regional grouping ECOWAS, other African leaders and pretty much everyone else. So the miltiary quickly backtracked. They ordered the parliament to change the constitution (which apparently was re-instated after the required manipulation).

Previously, the interim president would rule only for 60 days while new elections were organized. This was changed to allow the new president to complete the previous president's mandate: in this case, until 2008.

After this happened, deputies voted to oust the old National Assembly speaker and replace him with Eyadéma's son: Faure Gnassingbé. As new speaker, Gnassingbé was duly appointed as president to fill the vacancy.

So voilà, the military has the facade of constitutionalism.

The military claimed this was necessary because the National Assembly speaker was out of the country on a diplomatic mission and the armed forces wanted to quickly fill the power vacuum.

Nice try, guys.

Following Eyadéma's death, the speaker quickly flew back to West Africa. Except the military had closed Togo's borders, so the speaker had to land in neighboring Benin. If the military had really wanted to fill the power vacuum in a constitutional way (snicker), it would've allowed the speaker's plane to land or at least sent a military jet to Benin to pick him up.

In reality, this 'power vacuum' bemoaned by the military as created in no small part by the military itself. As a pretext, one can safely assume, to appoint to the throne Eyadéma's son, a man who would surely know which side his bread was buttered on.

Fortunately, no one was fooled by this charade. The continental body, the African Union, has denounced the ruse for what it was: a military coup. The AU has already showed more spine in its two years of existence than its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (based on its infamous 'non-inteference principle'), did in four decades. The coup was also trashed by the West African regional grouping ECOWAS.

The AU has a principle of suspending countries which allow extra-constitutional transfers of power and imposing sanctions on such governments. An AU communique also encouraged foreign donors to withhold aid from the new regime in Togo.

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