Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
28 Dec. 2000 - 3 Jan. 2001
Issue No.514
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Overturning the idols of inertia

By Gamal Nkrumah

Gamal Nkrumah It has become something of a cliché to hear of strongmen and strongly entrenched ruling parties being turned out of office and out of power. The idea of changing guards through the ballot box began to gain ground in unlikely places around the world in 2000. In Mexico, the unthinkable happened. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) relinquished power after elections that loosened its political stranglehold over the country, uninterrupted for 71 years. Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola manager, led the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) to victory at the polls and upstaged outgoing PRI president, Ernesto Zedillo, who in a cruel twist of fate had painstakingly instituted the very reforms that speeded up his political demise.

In Yugoslavia, too, strongman Slobodan Milosevic was unceremoniously evicted from office after being humiliated at presidential polls preceded by nationwide demonstrations calling for his ouster. Vojislav Kostunica led his country with faltering steps back into the international fold. With several east European countries, including the tiny former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, poised to enter the European Union after the EU summit in Nice last month, Kostunica pledged to lead Yugoslavia down the well-trodden path of democracy, liberalisation and economic deregulation. The economies of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as a whole grew by an unprecedented five per cent this year, the best economic performance in a decade. For them, 2000 proved to be an economic turning point.

Vladimir Putin convincingly won presidential elections in March, but the Communists remain a force to be reckoned with. Russia, with the region's largest economy, is estimated to be growing at a walloping rate of 6.5 per cent. Yugoslavia in 2000 took its first steps down the Russian road.

In West Africa, too, democracy made remarkable inroads. FM radios and cell phone networks revolutionised Senegal's 2000 presidential election. The March polls were by all accounts a landmark in Senegalese, and African, political history. Sophisticated telecommunications and information technology made it impossible for governments to rig results. The myth that incumbent presidents in Africa are unassailable was shattered once and for all. Surprisingly, the Senegalese example was repeated in Ghana in December, when the ruling National Democratic Congress lost parliamentary elections to the opposition New Patriotic Party. Outgoing Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings served the maximum two four-year terms permitted under the Ghanaian Constitution, and was obliged to relinquish power and retire.

It is tempting, but wrong, to think that such groundbreaking changes herald the cure to all ills in a fast changing world. Yes, these triumphs of democracy are to be applauded. But we must not be deluded into thinking that the lot of the masses will systematically improve overnight. The question is whether such changes will result in a marked improvement in living standards for the vast majority of humanity. Man cannot live by democracy alone.

Having made a great show of their eagerness to open their checkbooks and underwrite debt relief, leaders of the Group of Eight (G-8) have made one thing clear: they are not very good at delivering on promises. In the new world order, the rich work the rules so as to amass more wealth; the powerful flex their muscles to secure their interests; and the United States calls the tune.

Democracy has replaced dictatorship, but life for most of the world's poor has become far more perilous. Presidents Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria flew to the southernmost Japanese island of Okinawa to plead with G-8 leaders to uphold their promises of debt relief. Bouteflika, representing the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Mbeki representing the Non-aligned Movement (NAM), and Obasanjo, on behalf of the Group of 77 (a grouping of Third World nations) were in Okinawa to choose their ground and fight on it. The African leaders were joined by Thailand's premier, Chuan Leekpai, who was representing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

THE ILLS OF THE SOUTH: Endemic poverty and stalled development were fertile ground for the devastating spread of AIDS in Africa and Asia

In the Czech capital Prague, where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank held their annual meeting, anti-capitalist protests overwhelmed and overshadowed proceedings. The protests were reminiscent of those that ruined the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle. The five-day UN General Assembly special session convened in Geneva in June to assess national governments' commitment to eradicate poverty five years after the 1995 Copenhagen Social Summit only served to underline growing frustration at the pace of change and impatience with pious pontificating by the leaders of the world's richest nations.

The message is clear: actions speak louder than words. The world's poorest countries spend $60 million a day on debt repayment and, if anyone thought the forces of globalisation were attempting to bridge the widening chasm between rich and poor, this year's United Nations Millennium celebrations provided compelling evidence to the contrary. Leader after leader took to the podium and spoke of the dangerous divide. Yet none wanted to commit to radical change. According to this year's United Nations Development Programme report, some 1.2 billion people, mostly in Africa, subsist on less than a dollar a day. Meanwhile, the world's 200 richest people have a combined wealth of over $1,000 billion.

Abject poverty condemns millions to degrading and unnecessary death, explained South African President Thabo Mbeki, speaking out eloquently against the evil "gods of inertia," as well as market and globalisation forces. Little wonder Mbeki's insistence that poverty and HIV/AIDS are inextricably intertwined has fallen on deaf ears in Western capitals.

Then there was the Group of 77 summit in Havana, which brought together a bewildering number of leaders from the Third World -- both rogues and Western darlings: Pakistan's military ruler Pervez Musharraf, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The Group of 77, the Third World's answer to the G7 group of the world's wealthiest nations, was founded in 1964 with 77 members, but the group now boasts 133 member states.

It was something of a meeting of minds in Havana -- even though the leaders gathered there displayed a vast range of ideological persuasions, ranging from Islamist (as in the case of Musharraf) to Marxist-Leninist, as espoused by the host nation's leader, Fidel Castro.

The Lancaster House Agreement ended Zimbabwe's war for liberation in 1979, apartheid and the white-minority state of 1965-80. Two decades later, it is clear that the conditions were nonetheless unjust. The agreement was a dangerous compromise and today Zimbabwe reaps the bitter harvest of Lancaster House. One million African peasants own 16 million hectares of the most desolate and drought-prone land. Some 4,500 white farmers, many absentee landowners, retain 11 million hectares of the best-watered and most fertile soil. Matters came to a head in 2000, with Mugabe spearheading a campaign by the war veterans, the landless and the rural poor to occupy white-owned land. Violent clashes between his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) ensued, with ZANU-PF accusing Britain and white settlers of bankrolling the MDC. Mugabe narrowly won parliamentary elections and the MDC cried foul. In the meantime, the Zimbabwean economy teetered on the verge of collapse amid a dangerous downward spiral in living standards and foreign direct investment inflows.

The last week of October was yet another climacteric week in a momentous year for Korea. A few days after the inauguration of the third Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM 3) in the South Korean capital Seoul amid much pomp and ceremony, South Korea was in a euphoric mood when President Kim Dae Jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2000. Lauded for upholding democracy and championing human rights, Kim Dae Jung won the prize specifically for bringing about the historic signing of a five-point Joint Declaration. In the North Korean capital Pyongyang on 14 June, the South Korean president and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il marked the symbolic ending of 55 years of hostilities, mutual suspicion and ideological rivalry. The epoch-making meeting of the leaders of the two Koreas was followed a month later by an unprecedented exchange visit of separated family members and relatives who had not seen each other in 55 years. Family and friends, most ageing and a few dying, who for years were barred for political reasons from even exchanging correspondence, were warmly embracing. It was a long overdue acknowledgement of the need to respect certain moral imperatives regardless of ideological orientation or political persuasion.

Another heart-touching story that cuts across the ideological divide, this time uniquely individual, was the case of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez, the lone survivor of a tiny boat that set sail from Cuba to Florida last November and was lost at sea, killing his mother and 10 others. After surviving for two days in shark-infested waters, Elian was rescued off the coast of Florida and instantly became a political pawn in a cruel tug-of-war between Cuban Americans backed by Washington, on the one hand, and Havana on the other. As the world watched, a Florida state court assigned temporary custody of Elian to his great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, while the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) dealt with the case. After months of agonising suspense, and in a twist that was perhaps a fitting conclusion to 2000, Elian was triumphantly returned to his father in Cuba amid nationwide celebrations.

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