Surging Autocrats, Wavering Democrats

Arch Puddington
Surging Autocrats, Wavering Democrats
The Atlantic Council

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with U.S President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with U.S President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque.

In his brief time in the White House, US President Donald J. Trump has made a point of bestowing praise on the world’s leading autocrats. He repeatedly called Vladimir Putin a “strong leader,” described Xi Jinping as “a very good man,” said Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was doing a “fantastic job,” and lauded Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for his triumph in a referendum that greatly expanded his presidential powers.

Arch Puddington
Arch Puddington

Trump’s new friends represent a rogues’ gallery of modern authoritarians. These 21st-century strongmen are responsible for introducing an arsenal of new tactics to use against their domestic opponents, and have gone on the offensive in an effort to subvert and replace the liberal international order.

But modern authoritarian systems are not simply adversaries of free societies. They also represent an alternative model—a nuanced system anchored in regime control of government policy, the political message, the economy, and the organs of repression and a steadfast hostility to free expression, honest government, and pluralism.

Until recently, the spread of modern authoritarianism has largely been greeted with complacency and indifference in the democratic world, and it has become more obvious that democracies are poorly equipped to contend with resurgent repression. Meanwhile, the major autocracies are experimenting with more frightening methods of ensuring domestic political control.


China, in particular, seemed to take an Orwellian turn with the planned introduction of a social credit system. This form of digital totalitarianism will allow the state to gather information on Chinese citizens from a variety of sources and use it to maintain scores or rankings based on an individual’s perceived trustworthiness, including on political matters. Chinese officials have claimed that by 2020, the system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”


As for Russia, the Kremlin complemented its covert interference overseas with open and ugly acts of repression at home. In one brief period earlier this year, Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was blocked from competing in the 2018 presidential contest through a trumped-up criminal conviction, dissident journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza nearly died from his second suspected poisoning, and the Russian parliament passed a law to decriminalize domestic violence that results in “minor harm” such as small lacerations and bruising. Proponents of the domestic abuse law hailed it as a win for traditional family values. Navalny, meanwhile, was jailed on June 12 following an anti-corruption rally in Moscow.

At the same time, the Kremlin has also kept up its pressure on Ukraine through support of the rebels in the eastern breakaway regions while intensifying repression in Crimea.

The confluence of authoritarian gains and setbacks for democracy suggest a number of conclusions:

Modern authoritarianism is a permanent and increasingly powerful rival to liberal democracy as the dominant governing system of the 21st century. Variations on the systems that have proved effective in suppressing political dissent and pluralism in Russia and China are less likely to collapse than traditional authoritarian states, given their relative flexibility and pragmatism.
The most serious threat to authoritarian systems lies in economic breakdown. However, Russia, China, and other major autocracies have shown themselves capable of surviving economic setbacks that did not push citizens to the limits of endurance. Only in Venezuela did the leadership attempt to impose a socialist economic system and wage war on the private sector.
Illiberalism in democratic environments is more than a temporary problem that can be fixed through an inevitable rotation of power. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has instituted policies that make it difficult for opposition parties to raise funds or present their political message.

Authoritarian states are likely to intensify efforts to influence the political choices and government polices of democracies. The pressure will vary from country to country, but it will become increasingly difficult to control due to global economic integration, new developments in the delivery of propaganda, and sympathetic leaders and political movements within the democracies.
Authoritarian leaders can count on an increasingly vocal group of admirers in democratic states. The 2016 US presidential election revealed a new constituency, albeit small, that harbors respect for Putin despite his hostility to American interests and his interference in the country’s democratic process.
Modern authoritarians can be expected to double down on their drive to neuter civil society as an incubator of reformist ideas and political initiatives. After the Kremlin effectively defanged the collection of human rights organizations, conservation projects, election monitors, and anticorruption committees in Russia, other autocrats and illiberal leaders began to act in similar fashion.
Authoritarian or illiberal forces are more likely to gain supremacy in countries where the parties that represent liberal democracy do not simply lose elections, but experience a full-blown meltdown. In the end, elections do matter, and real change still requires victory at the polls. This is why robust, self-confident, and uncorrupted opposition parties are the ultimate key to democracy’s survival.

Arch Puddington is a distinguished Scholar for Democracy Studies at Freedom House, and the author of “Breaking Down Democracy: The Strategies, Goals, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians.”

Breaking Down Democracy

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Arch Puddington
Breaking Down Democracy:
The Strategies, Goals, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians
Freedom House, Democracy Studies. June 2017


Executive Summary
Introduction: Modern Authoritarians: Origins, Anatomy, Outlook
Chapter 1. Validating Autocracy through the Ballot
Chapter 2. Propaganda at Home and Abroad
Chapter 3. The Enemy Within: Civil Society at Bay
Chapter 4. The Ministry of Truth in Peace and War
Chapter 5. The Rise of ‘Illiberal Democracy’
Chapter 6. Flacks and Friends
Chapter 7. Bullying the Neighbors: Frozen Conflicts, the Near Abroad, and Other Innovations
Chapter 8. Back to the Future
Conclusion: Authoritarianism Comes Calling

Executive Summary

The 21st century has been marked by a resurgence of authoritarian rule that has proved resilient despite economic fragility and occasional popular resistance. Modern authoritarianism has succeeded, where previous totalitarian systems failed, due to refined and nuanced strategies of repression, the exploitation of open societies, and the spread of illiberal policies in democratic countries themselves. The leaders of today’s authoritarian systems devote fulltime attention to the challenge of crippling the opposition without annihilating it, and flouting the rule of law while maintaining a plausible veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity.

Central to the modern authoritarian strategy is the capture of institutions that undergird political pluralism. The goal is to dominate not only the executive and legislative branches, but also the media, the judiciary, civil society, the commanding heights of the economy, and the security forces. With these institutions under the effective if not absolute control of an incumbent leader, changes in government through fair and honest elections become all but impossible. Unlike Soviet-style communism, modern authoritarianism is not animated by an overarching ideology or the messianic notion of an ideal future society. Nor do today’s autocrats seek totalitarian control over people’s everyday lives, movements, or thoughts. The media are more diverse and entertaining under modern authoritarianism, civil society can enjoy an independent existence (as long as it does not pursue political change), citizens can travel around the country or abroad with only occasional interference, and private enterprise can flourish (albeit with rampant corruption and cronyism).

This study explains how modern authoritarianism defends and propagates itself, as regimes from different regions and with diverse socioeconomic foundations copy and borrow techniques of political control. Among its major findings:

  • Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, has played an outsized role in the development of modern authoritarian systems. This is particularly true in the areas of media control, propaganda, the smothering of civil society, and the weakening of political pluralism. Russia has also moved aggressively against neighboring states where democratic institutions have emerged or where democratic movements have succeeded in ousting corrupt authoritarian leaders.
  • The rewriting of history for political purposes is common among modern authoritarians. Again, Russia has taken the lead, with the state’s assertion of authority over history textbooks and the process, encouraged by Putin, of reassessing the historical role of Joseph Stalin.
  • The hiring of political consultants and lobbyists from democratic countries to represent the interests of autocracies is a growing phenomenon. China is clearly in the vanguard, with multiple representatives working for the state and for large economic entities closely tied to the state. But there are also K Street representatives for Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Ethiopia, and practically all of the authoritarian states in the Middle East.
  • The toxic combination of unfair elections and crude majoritarianism is spreading from modern authoritarian regimes to illiberal leaders in what are still partly democratic countries. Increasingly, populist politicians—once in office—claim the right to suppress the media, civil society, and other democratic institutions by citing support from a majority of voters. The resulting changes make it more difficult for the opposition to compete in future elections and can pave the way for a new authoritarian regime.
  • An expanding cadre of politicians in democracies are eager to emulate or cooperate with authoritarian rulers. European parties of the nationalistic right and anticapitalist left have expressed admiration for Putin and aligned their policy goals with his. Others have praised illiberal governments in countries like Hungary for their rejection of international democratic standards in favor of perceived national interests. Even when there is no direct collaboration, such behavior benefits authoritarian powers by breaking down the unity and solidarity of the democratic world.
  • There has been a rise in authoritarian internationalism. Authoritarian powers form loose but effective alliances to block criticism at the United Nations and regional organizations like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Organization of American States, and to defend embattled allies like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. There is also growing replication of what might be called authoritarian best practices, vividly on display in the new Chinese law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and efforts by Russia and others to learn from China’s experience in internet censorship.
  • Modern authoritarians are working to revalidate the concept of the leader-for-life. One of the seeming gains of the postcommunist era was the understanding that some form of term limits should be imposed to prevent incumbents from consolidating power into a dictatorship. In recent years, however, a number of countries have adjusted their constitutions to ease, eliminate, or circumvent executive term limits. The result has been a resurgence of potential leaders-forlife from Latin America to Eurasia.
  • While more subtle and calibrated methods of repression are the defining feature of modern authoritarianism, the past few years have featured a reemergence of older tactics that undermine the illusions of pluralism and openness as well as integration with the global economy. Thus Moscow has pursued its military intervention in Ukraine despite economic sanctions and overseen the assassination of opposition figures; Beijing has revived the practice of coerced public “confessions” and escalated its surveillance of the Tibetan and Uighur minorities to totalitarian levels; and Azerbaijan has made the Aliyev family’s monopoly on political power painfully obvious with the appointment of the president’s wife as “first vice president.”
  • Modern authoritarian systems are employing these blunter methods in a context of increased economic fragility. Venezuela is already in the process of political and economic disintegration. Other states that rely on energy exports have also experienced setbacks due to low oil and gas prices, and China faces rising debt and slower growth after years of misallocated investment and other structural problems. But these regimes also face less international pressure to observe democratic norms, raising their chances of either surviving the current crises or—if they break down—giving way to something even worse.

In subsequent sections, this report will examine the methods employed by authoritarian powers to neutralize precisely those institutions that were thought to be the most potent weapons against a revitalized authoritarianism. The success of the Russian and Chinese regimes in bringing to heel and even harnessing the forces produced by globalization—digital media, civil society, free markets—may be their most impressive and troubling achievement.

Modern authoritarianism is particularly insidious in its exploitation of open societies. Russia and China have both taken advantage of democracies’ commitment to freedom of expression and delivered infusions of propaganda and disinformation. Moscow has effectively prevented foreign broadcasting stations from reaching Russian audiences even as it steadily expands the reach of its own mouthpieces, the television channel RT and the news service Sputnik. China blocks the websites of mainstream foreign media while encouraging its corporations to purchase influence in popular culture abroad through control of Hollywood studios. Similar combinations of obstruction at home and interference abroad can be seen in sectors including civil society, academia, and party politics.

The report draws on examples from a broad group of authoritarian states and illiberal democracies, but the focus remains on the two leading authoritarian powers, China and Russia. Much of the report, in fact, deals with Russia, since that country, more than any other, has incubated and refined the ideas and institutions at the foundation of 21st-century authoritarianism.

Finally, a basic assumption behind the report is that modern authoritarianism will be a lasting feature of geopolitics. Since 2012, both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have doubled down on existing efforts to stamp out internal dissent, and both have grown more aggressive on the world stage. All despotic regimes have inherent weaknesses that leave them vulnerable to sudden shocks and individually prone to collapse. However, the past quarter-century has shown that dictatorship in general will not disappear on its own. Authoritarian systems will seek not just to survive, but to weaken and defeat democracy around the world.

Les USA, l’Europe et l’Afrique coloniale

Président Dwight Eisenhower reçoit Président Sékou Touré à la Maison Blanche, Washington, DC, le 26 october 1959 (Source: John H. Morrow. First American Ambassador to Guinea, 1959-1961)
Président Dwight Eisenhower (1953 -1961) reçoit Président Sékou Touré (1958-1984) à la Maison Blanche, Washington, DC, le 26 october 1959 (Source: John H. Morrow. First American Ambassador to Guinea, 1959-1961)

Professeur alors à l’Université de Boulder, Colorado, Ebere Nwaubani est l’auteur dans Cahiers d’études africaines (2003) un article intitulé “Les États-Unis et la liquidation de l’autorité coloniale européenne en Afrique tropicale, 1941-1963”. Le titre et le texte sont en anglais “The United States and the Liquidation of European Colonial Rule in Tropical Africa, 1941-1963.” Long de 46 pages, le papier est résumé en ces termes :

« Les États-Unis occupent une place de choix dans la littérature consacrée à la fin du colonialisme en Afrique. Ce pays, dit-on, a facilité le processus en poussant les Européens à de rapides concessions politiques avec les Africains. Ce point de vue a encore du poids aujourd’hui, et il est fréquemment exprimé dans les livres et les cours consacrés à l’histoire de l’Afrique. Peu importe que les prétentions d’un anticolonialisme américain soient fondées non pas sur une étude de sources de première main mais sur des suppositions. Le nombre croissant de documents officiels désormais accessibles à tous plaide en faveur d’une étude empirique d’un sujet intimement lié au discours africaniste sur la décolonisation. C’est exactement l’objectif de cet article qui montre que la perception courante du rôle des États-Unis dans le processus de décolonisation est trompeuse. Les États-Unis, de manière tout à fait évidente, souhaitaient et s’efforçaient de conserver une forte présence européenne en Afrique, même après les indépendances. Cet article explique les raisons de cette attitude et attire l’attention sur certains aspects saillants de la politique américaine envers l’Afrique entre 1941 et 1963 : un parti pris excessif en faveur de l’Europe, le souhait d’exploiter les ressources africaines pour reconstruire l’Europe, et le peu d’importance accordée à l’Afrique dans les calculs stratégiques des États-Unis. »

Ma version de l’article inclut des photos et hyperliens sur Semantic Africa. Je voudaris partager ici quelques unes de mes notes et remarques de lecture..

USA, URSS, Europe :  coopération et contradictions de trois formes d’impérialisme

Entre la Conférence du Partage de l’Afrique à Berlin (1885), le triomphe du bolchévisme sur le tsarisme (1922)  et  la chute du Mur de Berlin (1889), trois formations hégémoniques se disputèrent et dirigèrent le monde :

  • les Etats-Unis
  • l’Europe occidentale (France, Grande Bretage, Portugal, Espagne, Allemagne, Italie)
  • l’Union soviétique

Leurs rapports, tour à tour, furent marqués tantôt par la coopération, tantôt par leurs contradictions. Bâties sur des projets impérialistes, la politique des trois blocs ci-dessus plongèrent la planète dans deux guerres mondiales : 1914-1918, et 1939-1945.
C’est durant et à l’issue de cette dernière que l’ex-Union des Républiques Socialistes et Soviétiques ou URSS  (1922-1991) émergea comme une nouvelle puissance, non moins dominatrice que ses adversaires capitalistes. Elle fut le bastion du Bloc de l’Est. Et elle se comporta comme l’archrival du monde capitaliste. Dirigée par Vladimir Poutine, l’actuelle Fédération de Russie est l’héritière historique du régime bâti par Vladimir Lénine et Joseph Staline, l’URSS, qui s’effondra en 1991 sous le poids de sa propre inertie.

L’article de Nwaubani porte d’abord sur la période 1941-1947, qui couva la Guerre froide. Il se penche ensuite sur la partie suivante et chaude de celle-ci (1947-1963). L’Afrique était présente tout au long, mais ce fut généralement à son détriment. Car elle fut traitée soit comme un pion d’échiquier —et non pas une interlocutrice—, soit comme participante involontaire et sacrifiée, soit simplement en filigrane dans les desseins et plans des grandes puissances. Ainsi,  par exemple, le continent fut un pion de l’Europe durant sa Ruée sur les terres africaines. Sans oublier la saignée pluri-centenaire de l’esclavage translatlantique ! Ensuite, l’Afrique participa, malgré elle, aux deux conflits mondiaux, durant lesquels elle servit de fantassins et de chair à canon aux armées belligérantes. Enfin, comme l’indique Nwaubani, l’Afrique fut traitée en filigrane durant la guerre froide, et non pas comme un parternaire …


En intitulant cette étude de 2003 “Les États-Unis et la liquidation de l’autorité coloniale européenne en Afrique tropicale”, Nwaubani donne un peu dans l’exaggération. Car le régime colonial ne fut pas liquidé durant les fameuses décennies des indépendances. Celles-ci  s’échelonnent de la proclamation de la Gold Coast en Ghana  (1957), précédée par la visite en 1956 de Satchmo Louis Armstrong & All Stars, à la transformation de la Rhodésie du Sud en Zimbabwe (1980), célébrée par  Bob Marley.

Entre ces deux dates Ahmadou Kourouma  trouva ample matière  pour son constat satirique et véridique des  Soleils des indépendances. Félix Houphouët-Boigny lui fit payer un prix lourd à travers l’exil forcé.…
Non, il n’y eut assurément pas liquidation, mais plutôt des arrangements, des permutations et la substitution de colonialistes étrangers par des colonialistes autochtones.
Et contrairement à ce que laisserait penser le libellé du titre mettant en exergue l’Afrique tropicale, c’est tout le continent qui continue de subir l’interminable crise post-coloniale. Ainsi, au Maghreb, la Tunisie, l’Algérie ont fait les frais des gérontocrates Bourguiba et Bouteflika. La Libye ne finit pas de se disloquer entre la Cyrénaïque et la Tripolitaine. Depuis 1956 l’Egypte oscille entre deux extrêmes : les Frères musulmans et les officiers de l’armée. L’Afrique du Sud se débat entre la xénophobie et l’horrible souvenir du massacre des mineurs grévistes de Marikana
Mais la lutte continue. Blaise Compaoré a été chassé de la présidence à vie au Burkina Faso. Avant et après lui, Charles Taylor et Hissène Habré purgent des peines de prison à vie, etc.


Un trou béant existe dans l’article de Nwaubani. Il consiste en l’absence de toute mention de la résistance des populations et de la lutte des leaders africains de l’anti-colonialisme. Nonobstant les déviations des dirigeants post-coloniaux une fois arrivés au pouvoir, l’omission des mouvements et individualités de l’Afrique colonilale est frappante et regrettable. Ainsi nulle allusion n’est faite à :

Et pourtant le colonialisme ne fut pas liquidé par les seules négociations et tractations entre les USA et l’Europe. Il perdit aussi du terrain sur place et dans la diaspora, sous la pression quotidienne des colonisés et les revendicatios de leurs leaders. Y inclus les intellectuels qui formulèrent les aspirations des peuples dominés, au sein du mouvement de la Négritude et ailleurs.
Enfin la bibliographie de l’article ne mentionne qu’un seul Africain, le Sierra Leonais Davidson Nicol. Nwaubani aurait dû lui adjoindre par exemple, Nnamdi AzikiweIgbo comme l’auteur—, Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, etc.

Des unités de parade des Forces Armées des Etats-Unis escortent la délégation guinéenne conduite par Président Sékou Touré à la Maison Blanche, Washington, DC. 26 octobre 1959. La banderole lit “Bienvenue au Président Sékou Touré”. L'absence du prénom Ahmed s'explique par le fait qu'il ne fut ajouté qu'en 1962 (Photo: J.H. Morrow, First American Ambassador to Guinea)
Des unités de parade des Forces Armées des Etats-Unis escortent la délégation guinéenne conduite par Président Sékou Touré à la Maison Blanche, Washington, DC. 26 octobre 1959. La banderole lit “Bienvenue au Président Sékou Touré”. L’absence du prénom Ahmed s’explique par le fait qu’il ne fut ajouté qu’en 1962 (Photo: J.H. Morrow, First American Ambassador to Guinea)

A suivre.

Tierno S. Bah

Slavery: Carson, Trump, and the Misuse of American History

Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development
Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development

I am re-posting here Jelani Cobb’s article (The New Yorker) written around the blunder of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, whereby he compared African slaves to immigrants. This is the same person who, out of the blue, claimed in 2013 that: “Obamacare is really … the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” The +20 million people who got insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) would beg to differ.
Anyhow, Dr. Carson will, most likely, not become president of the United States. The world will thus be probably a better place. Because despite his  acknowledged skills as a neurosurgeon, Carson is a mediocre student of history. Should he want to remedy that self-inflicted intellectual handicap, he would have to rethink slavery. And first of all, he must admit that the Slave Trade is “America’s Original Sin.” Consequently, it was not some migratory itch or urge that uprooted millions of Africans and dumped them on the shores of the “New World.” On the contrary, they were taken out and across the Atlantic Ocean in chains. Upon landing, and as Edward E. Baptist put it best, they toiled, from dawn to dusk and in sweat, tears and blood, for the “Making of American Capitalism.”

Tierno S. Bah

In referring to slaves as “immigrants,” Ben Carson followed a long-standing American tradition of eliding the ugliness that is part of the country’s history.

Earlier this week, Ben Carson, the somnolent surgeon dispatched to oversee the Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of the Trump Administration, created a stir when he referred to enslaved black people—stolen, trafficked, and sold into that status—as “immigrants” and spoke of their dreams for their children and grandchildren. In the ensuing hail of criticism, Carson doubled down, saying that it was possible for someone to be an involuntary immigrant. Carson’s defenses centered upon strict adherence to the definition of the word “immigrant” as a person who leaves one country to take up residence in another. This is roughly akin to arguing that it is technically possible to refer to a kidnapping victim as a “house guest,” presuming the latter term refers to a temporary visitor to one’s home. Carson had already displayed a propensity for gaffes during his maladroit Presidential candidacy, and it might be easy to dismiss his latest one as the least concerning element of having a neurosurgeon with no relevant experience in charge of housing policy were it not a stand-in for a broader set of concerns about the Trump Administration.

A week earlier, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, had described historically black colleges and universities as pioneers in school choice—a view that can only co-exist with reality if we airbrush segregation into a kind of level playing field in which ex-slaves opted to attend all-black institutions rather than being driven to them as a result of efforts to preserve the supposed sanctity of white ones. The Trump Administration is not alone in proffering this rosy view of American racial history. Last week, in a story about changes being made at Thomas Jefferson‘s estate, Monticello, the Washington Post referred to Sally Hemings, the enslaved black woman who bore several of Jefferson’s children, as his “mistress”—a term that implies far more autonomy and consent than is possible when a woman is a man’s legal property. Last fall, the textbook publisher McGraw-Hill faced criticism for a section of a history book that stated, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The word “worker” typically carries the connotation of remuneration rather than lifelong forced labor and chattel slavery.

One part of the issue here is the eliding of the ugliness of the slave past in this country. This phenomenon is neither novel nor particularly surprising. The unwillingness to confront this narrative is tied not simply to the miasma of race but to something more subtle and, in the current atmosphere, more potentially treacherous: the reluctance to countenance anything that runs contrary to the habitual optimism and self-anointed sense of the exceptionalism of American life. It is this state-sanctioned sunniness from which the view of the present as a middle ground between an admirable past and a halcyon future springs. But the only way to sustain that sort of optimism is by not looking too closely at the past. And thus the past can serve only as an imperfect guide to the troubles of the present.

In his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow wrote about the mid-century efforts to pressure studios to stop producing their profitable gangster movies. The concerns focussed partly upon the violence of the films but more directly upon the fear that these films offered a fundamentally pessimistic view of life and were therefore un-American. There is a neat through-line from those critics to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” idealism to the shopworn rhetoric of nearly every aspirant to even local public office that the nation’s “best days are ahead of us.” We are largely adherents of the state religion of optimism—and not of a particularly mature version of it, either. This was part of the reason Donald Trump’s sermons of doom were seen as so discordant throughout last year’s campaign. He offered followers a diet of catastrophe, all of it looming immediately if not already under way. He told an entire nation, in the most transparently demagogic of his statements, that he was the only one who could save it from imminent peril. And he was nonetheless elected President of the United States.

Strangely enough, many of us opted to respond to Trump’s weapons-grade pessimism in the most optimistic way possible, conjuring best-case scenarios in which he would simply be a modern version of Richard Nixon, or perhaps of Andrew Jackson. But he is neither of these. Last summer, as his rallies tipped toward violence and the rhetoric seemed increasingly jarring, it was common to hear alarmed commentators speak of us all being in “uncharted waters.” This was naïve, and, often enough, self-serving. For many of us, particularly those who reckon with the history of race, the true fear was not that we were on some unmapped terrain but that we were passing landmarks that were disconcertingly familiar. In response to the increasingly authoritarian tones of the executive branch, we plumbed the history of Europe in the twentieth century for clues and turned to the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and George Orwell. We might well have turned to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin for the more direct, domestic version of this question but looked abroad, at least in part, as a result of our tacit consensus that tragedy is a foreign locale. It has been selectively forgotten that traits of authoritarianism neatly overlap with traits of racism visible in the recent American past.

The habitual tendency to excise the most tragic elements of history creates a void in our collective understanding of what has happened in the past and, therefore, our understanding of the potential for tragedy in the present. In 1935, when Sinclair Lewis wrote “It Can’t Happen Here,” it already was happening here, and had been since the end of Reconstruction. In 1942, the N.A.A.C.P. declared a “Double V” campaign—an attempt to defeat Fascism abroad and its domestic corollary of American racism.

Similarly, it was common in the days immediately following September 11th to hear it referred to as the nation’s first large-scale experience with terrorism—or at least the worst since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, staged by Timothy McVeigh. But the nation’s first anti-terrorism law was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, designed to stall the attempts to terrorize emancipated slaves out of political participation. McVeigh’s bombing, which claimed the lives of a hundred and sixty-eight people, was not the worst act of terrorism in the United States at that point—it was not even the worst act of terrorism in the history of Oklahoma. Seventy-four years earlier, in what became known as the Tulsa Race Riot, the city’s black population was attacked and aerially bombed; at least three hundred people were killed. Such myopia thrives in the present and confounds the reasoning of the director of the FBI, James Comey, who refused to declare Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black congregants in a South Carolina church, done in hopes of sparking a race war, as an act of terrorism—a designation he did not withhold from Omar Mateen’s murderous actions in the Pulse night club, in Orlando.

The American capacity for tragedy is much broader and far more robust than Americans—most of us, anyway—recognize. Our sense of ourselves as exceptional, of our country as a place where we habitually avert the worst-case scenario, is therefore a profound liability in times like the present. The result is a failure to recognize the parameters of human behavior and, consequently, the signs of danger as they become apparent to others who are not crippled by such optimism. A belief that we are exempt from the true horrors of human behavior and the accompanying false sense of security have led to nearly risible responses to Trumpism.

It has become a cliché of each February to present the argument that “black history is American history,” yet that shopworn ideal has new relevance. A society with a fuller sense of history and its own capacity for tragedy would have spotted Trump’s zero-sum hustle from many miles in the distance. Without it, though, it’s easy to mistake the overblown tribulations he sold his followers for candor, not a con. The sense of history as a chart of increasing bounties enabled tremendous progress but has left Americans—most of us, anyway—uniquely unsuited to look at ourselves as we truly are and at history for what it is. Our failure to reckon with this past and the centrality of race within it has led us to broadly mistake the clichés of history for novelties of current events.

Jelani Cobb
The New Yorker

Jeanne-Martin Cissé (1926-2017)

Jeanne Martin Cissé et Sékou Touré, circa 1970
Jeanne Martin Cissé et Sékou Touré, vers 1970

Sous la plume de François-Xavier Freland Jeune Afrique reprend la nouvelle de la mort de Jeanne-Martin Cissé (1926-2017). Reflétant diverses sources d’information, l’hebdomadaire évoque, en quelque 532 mots, la vie de cette compagne de Sékou Touré.

  1. On y relève ainsi le tableau du cadre familial au crépuscule de la vie à Conakry. Il n’y est question toutefois que des filles de la disparue, alors qu’au moins trois de ses enfants sont des hommes. L’aîné, Cheick Mohammed ‘Papus’ Camara, est un de mes promotionnaires aux lycées de Conakry et de Labé. Notre dernière rencontre, vite transformée en une longue, amicale et intéressante conversation, remonte à 2003 à Dakar.
  2. Mais l’auteur reste vague sur la naissance, l’éducation et l’adolescence : noms et occupation des parents, un brin de généalogie, postes d’enseignement. Il néglige, par exemple, un détail important, à savoir comment peut-on naître “dans une famille musulmane modeste d’origine Soussou et Malinké” et s’appeler Jeanne-Martin ?
  3. L’article maquille et embellit le passage sur “la célèbre école normale de Rufisque”,  qu’il présente comme étant  un établissement “d’élite féminine qui s’était employée à faire de ces élèves venues de toutes l’Afrique coloniale française de futures enseignantes, attachées à leur africanité.” François-Xavier Freland aurait dû mettre un peu d’eau dans son vin, car dans l’ensemble le palmarès de l’école française n’est pas du tout rose. Surtout sous la Troisième République (1870-1940) qui imposa le déshumanisant Empire colonial et l”abominable régime de l’Indigénat.
  4. François-Xavier glisse le nom de Germaine Le Goff sans préciser qu’il est l’auteur de la biographie intitulée L’Africaine blanche (1891-1986) : Germaine Le Goff, éducatrice mythique.  Il aurait dû apporter la précision, ne serait-ce que pour élargir l’horizon des lecteurs.
  5. Certaines camarades de formation de Jeanne-Martin sont mieux introduites, notamment avec la mention d’Une si longue lettre, l’oeuvre principale de Mariama Bâ.
  6. Le portrait matrimonial de Jeanne-Martin se limite à son  mariage avec Bansoumane Touré. Cette victime du Camp Boiro fut en réalité le second époux de Mme. Jeanne. Sur les circonstances de la disparition de Bansoumane à la Prison de Kindia, lire Kindo Touré “La mort de Ban Ansoumane Touré”.
  7. Dans sa biographie de Sékou Touré André Lewin indique, à juste titre, que le premier mari de Jeanne-Martin s’appelait Camara. Malheureusement, il omet le prénom du défunt, qui mourut victime d’un accident de circulation en 1958. Lire Ahmed Sékou Touré (1922-1984). De Gaulle à Conakry,  25/26 août 1958 (volume 2, chapitre 25)
  8. L’article présente Bansoumane Touré comme “un des fondateurs du Parti Démocrate Guinéen (PDG) animé par Sékou Touré. Très vite, elle (Jeanne-Martin) milite pour l’indépendance et œuvre pour l’émancipation des femmes en Afrique.” L’auteur va vite en besogne et commet ici deux erreurs aussi gratuites que légères :
    (a) Bansoumane ne figure pas parmi les membres fondateurs du PDG-RDA
    (b) Au lendemain de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, les pionniers de l’activité politique visaient d’abord l’autonomie interne. Le régime colonial fit la sourde oreille et traîna la savate jusqu’en 1956, date de promulgation de la loi-cadre Gaston Deferre. Mais c’était trop tard. Le Viet-Minh avait déjà vaincu des milliers de troupes françaises en 1954 à Dien Bien Phu. Cette cinglante défaite militaire ainsi que le déclenchement de la guerre d’Indépendance d’Algérie accélérèrent le cours de l’Histoire. Les protectorats du Maroc et de la Tunisie devinrent des états souverains en 1956. En mai 1958, l’armée imposa le Général Charles de Gaulle au Parlement français. Cherchant à retarder l’implosion du domaine colonial de la France, le vieux guerrier,  intellectuel et homme d’Etat organisa le référendum de 1958 autour d’une nouvelle Constitution. Le projet de loi fondamentale proposait, entre autres, l’abolition de l’instable 4ème république (en place depuis 1946), l’avènement de l’actuelle 5è république,  et l’instauration de la Communauté franco-africaine, en lieu et place de l’Union française, elle-même héritière de l’Empire colonial.
  9. L’auteur effleure ensuite la carrière onusienne de Jeanne-Martin. François-Xavier Freland écrit : “… elle est désignée en 1972 au poste de représentante permanente de la Guinée aux Nations unies, et devient … même présidente du Conseil de Sécurité de l’ONU, son pays étant alors membre non permanent de ce comité.”
    Lire également “Jeanne-Martin Cissé accepte une invitation de Louis de Guiringaud, ambassadeur de France auprès des Nations Unies”, A. Lewin, volume 6, chapitre 68
    Aucun mot sur Telli Diallo et Marof Achkar, autrement plus efficients et prestigieux que l’ambassadrice Cissé. Silence total aussi sur le sort des proches de Madame Sow Nima Bâ, ancienne détenue du Camp Boiro et dont Sékou Touré décima la famille en faisant assassiner :

Et en condamnant à mort par contumace le frère cadet, Bâ Mamadou.

  1. L’article cite Hadja Nima en ces termes : « Mais la période des purges l’avait rendu triste. » Peu importe que ma belle-soeur ait prononcé des mots. Le fait est qu’ils sont en porte-à-faux avec la réalité post-sékoutouréenne.
  2. Dirigeante ddu Conseil national des Femmes de Guinée, membre du Comité central du Parti démocratique de Guinée, membre du Burean politique national et du Gouvernement, feue Jeanne-Martin fut, de bout en bout,  une collaboratrice fidèle et une porte-parole aussi “impénitente et non-repentante” de la dictature de Sékou Touré que Mme. Andrée Touré.

Pour conclure, je me propose de lire La fille du Milo. Après quoi, je  ferai une suite à cet article.

Tierno S. Bah