Mobutu's death watch the evil that men do

March 21, 1997|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- ''The evil that men do lives after them,'' said Mark Anthony as he buried Julius Caesar; ''the good is oft interred with their bones.'' When the grand dictator of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, dies, we, too, will no doubt forget that he bound the factionalist, disintegrating, post-colonial Congo back together,

changed its name and made its destiny so important that the Cold War powers, the Soviet Union, France and the U.S., competed for his favors.

Instead we will remember that it was Mr. Mobutu who robbed his country blind, who pilfered and wasted the enormous potential wealth of a country that, properly managed, might be as prosperous today as Malaysia or Thailand or, at least, the Philippines.

For every dictator in the world who did economic good for his country -- Pinochet in Chile, Park in South Korea -- there are a dozen who did harm, living out their fantasies, indulging their own greed and brooking no dissent. Thus the memories of evil do live on, and so they should.

About 10 years ago, Samuel Huntington, now famous for his controversial new work ''The Clash of Civilizations,'' wrote an interesting article in Harvard University's International Security. He studied 22 dictators who died naturally, not as a result of revolution or coup d'etat, and what followed their deaths.

Within four years of the leader's death there were coups or attempted coups in 10 cases: Bhutan, Haiti, Kenya, Panama, China, Egypt (after Gamal Nasser), the Dominican Republic, Guinea, South Korea and Portugal. There was severe turbulence in nine countries: Kenya, Kuwait, Nepal, Egypt (after Anwar Sadat), Yugoslavia, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Portugal and Spain. There was guerrilla terrorism in eight cases: Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Panama, China, Egypt, Yugoslavia, the Dominican Republic and Spain. And there was revolution in Portugal.

What, then, influences the degree of upheaval? The following stand out:

Where there was major instability after a leader's death, there usually had been serious unrest before. Conversely, a quiet pre-death situation usually meant a quiet transition afterward.

The longer a leader had been in power, the more post-death instability there was -- as in Portugal, Spain and the Dominican Republic.

Political turbulence was more likely after a dictator's death if social organizations had been allowed some autonomy. In South Korea, Spain, Portugal, Egypt and the Dominican Republic, labor unions, political parties, churches, cooperatives and universities were given some freedom.

By these standards, Zaire has all of the portents of upheaval. So do Indonesia, Burma, Morocco and Syria.

Tunisia's example

But, despite the obvious good sense of much of Mr. Huntington's analysis, extrapolating from present to future is never foolproof. He predicted upheaval in Tunisia after the death of the then enfeebled 82-year-old President Habib Bourguiba, who once replied to a reporter's question about the Tunisian political system: ''What system? I am the system.'' Mr. Huntington observed that Tunisia was the Arab country with the most moderate stance toward Israel. He feared that a new revolutionary government would work with neighboring radical Libya to undermine Western interests by provoking Egypt and other nearby pro-Western states.

Instead, Bourguiba in his dotage was gently elbowed aside with barely a murmur. Tunisia remains totalitarian and, in its alignments, pretty much as it was.

Still, it seems that the longer dictators stay in power (and hence the more ''stable'' their regimes appear to be) the more likely is instability after the leader's death. Sometimes the unrest begins even earlier and so shakes the regime that the leader is driven from office, as happened with Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia or the Shah of Iran.

Mr. Huntington drew four conclusions: U.S. interests are more likely to be hurt if pro-American leaders are overthrown. They are less likely to be hurt if the leader dies naturally in office. They are least likely to be hurt if the leader dies before overstaying his welcome. American interests will therefore be best served if long- time dictators die a natural death, soon.

And this seems to be the Mobutu policy of Washington -- and Paris. They don't want to see the successful rebellion in the eastern provinces spread to the capital, Kinshasa. They don't want persons unknown to stage a coup in the capital. They just want Mr. Mobutu to hurry up and die in his hospital bed or his villa in the south of France and for someone known, safe and predictable to put the country back together and unlock its fabulous potential.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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