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Tussling with Masters of the Game

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In several developing countries, military generals remain a big factor in politics. They may rule directly. They may rule thinly disguised as civilians. Or they may constitute the class of players --sometimes known as the Deep State -- able to affect what passes for democratic politics in the specific country should a vital interest of theirs be threatened. In such political communities, while the international community may want ‘free and fair’ elections (right now!), and good, accountable governance, structural factors impose their own realities; those factors define the jagged boundaries of the possible.

Because military generals control the ultimate instruments of coercive violence in a political community, it is tempting, and all too common, to think about them as rough beasts invading our perfumed salons. What we often forget is that in societies seeking to transition to modernity, and attempting the grounding of liberal constitutional democracy, the process often boils down to a tussle for power between civilian politicians and politicians in military uniform. In addition, it is wrong, in my view, to believe that military generals only ever want direct military or authoritarian rule. Sometimes, as happened in my own country, Nigeria, they can decide as a class that constitutional democracy is in their broad interest, but they want it to happen on their terms, in ways that protect their liberties, their fortunes and those of their friends, families and partners.

The blunt question that I am posing is this: in a contest for power, in a contest to shape political outcomes in specific political communities, how good are civilian politicians on average? Seriously, how good are they? Please note that being good is not the same thing as meaning well or being progressive, pro-poor and all that; being good means mastery of the game of politics: the skillful acquisition, use and retention of power. It is great to mean well, of course; it is crucial to mean well. But, given the competition, how good a player of the great game of power is your typical civilian politician?

Here is a perspective I acquired many years ago in Lagos. Because of my visibility –I was a newspaper columnist for many years – I got to know a number of senior leaders well, and some of them were military generals. The first thing that astounded me about getting to know them was how well educated they often were, how well-read. Several had advanced degrees in a range of disciplines, and all of them had taken advanced courses at war colleges for senior command staff in the United Kingdom, the United States of America and even India. The second thing that astounded me was that to a man –needless to say, they were all men – they treated civilian politicians with utter disdain.

‘Jokers! Amateurs!’ they used to call them.

As one of them said to me once (I am paraphrasing from memory):

‘You have to understand that when we go to War College as generals we are not there to learn the basics of how to lead men in battle, how to be a good soldier. You master that as a junior officer if you are any good. You go to war colleges to learn about power. To truly take a country apart or put it together again you have to understand everything about how it works. At the core of that is power dynamics. You learn how to put complex strategic games together in order to achieve your objectives. Now, tell me, what do civilian politicians bring to the table? Have you studied the backgrounds of some of these people who want to be president? In a contest with a well-trained general they do not stand a chance!’

As you can imagine, current events around the world bring those late night conversations in Lagos back to me. Civilian politicians in these tough environments can sometimes be incredibly naïve and incompetent; some of the liberal/progressive ones are even worse. For, it is not enough to mean well, to be pro-poor, pro-human rights, pro-gender, crucial though these things are. It is equally important to know how…how to acquire, use and retain power. For if you merely mean well but cannot get into power or maintain yourself in power, you cannot help the poor. And if you are in the same dusty, clangorous, chaotic arena as well-trained army generals, very often disciples of the wily Florentine, then you have a real problem.
Why? Because you are playing The Game of Thrones, and when you play the game of thrones and you lose…well, you lose a lot more than a chance to do some good.

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Submitted by Lillian on

so then the flip side of the question (or another angle to it anyway) is, is it necessary for a country to have a democratically elected leader/a civilian leader to put in place pro-poor policies and/or "do well"? What are the trade offs of having a "benevolent dictator", and are they worth it? Having civilian leaders doesn't automatically guarantee pro-development/pro-poor policies; in fact, they can be terribly incompetent even under normal settings, let alone "tough environments"...

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