How Milosevic's defeat is inspiring the repressed

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The Independent Online

It is called the "Belgrade effect". All over Africa, from Abidjan to Zimbabwe, people who would have trouble placing Yugoslavia's capital on a map are invoking the power of ordinary people to take to the streets and unseat stubborn strongmen.

It is called the "Belgrade effect". All over Africa, from Abidjan to Zimbabwe, people who would have trouble placing Yugoslavia's capital on a map are invoking the power of ordinary people to take to the streets and unseat stubborn strongmen.

Yesterday, in Zimbabwe's parliament, the country's new opposition, born in a tidal wave of popular pressure this year, launched impeachment proceedings against President Robert Mugabe. The veteran Zimbabwean leader, named "Africa's Milosevic" by the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, increasingly resembles a desperate despot.

On Tuesday evening in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast, protesters were talking of the Belgrade effect which drove the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, from power in favour of his elected challenger.

Ivory Coast's President, General Robert Guei, had declared himself winner of presidential elections before all ballots had been counted. An opposition supporter told street crowds on a borrowed microphone: "He has chosen to go like [Slobodan] Milosevic. We will drive him from power in 24 hours."

Even in the tiny southern African kingdom of Swaziland, people are talking about Belgrade. Fourteen teachers and several students in the capital, Mbabane, were hurt in clashes with police during a demonstration against King Mswati III. He had evicted families from their land to install a new tribal chief in the area.

Africa has more than its fair share of candidates for unseating. In Kenya, run into the ground by corruption and crime, the President, Daniel Arap Moi, has few supporters outside his mollycoddled élite. The leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Laurent-Désiré Kabila, is maintaining control of only the western third of the country thanks to military support from foreign allies. And President Blaise Compaoré, at the helm of the world's poorest country, Burkina Faso, has an execrable human rights record.

The game is not up yet in Ivory Coast but it is clear, as Belgrade demonstrated, that the people need the military on their side. Ivorian military chiefs first ordered their men to fire at protesters, then said they were "with the people", supporting Laurent Gbagbo, the main civilian challenger. Every African leader knows he is safe as long as he has the armed forces. In Nigeria, for years run by military regimes, it took the ruthless rule of General Sani Abacha to bring a voluntary transition to civilian government last year.

So President Mugabe probably is not "Africa's Milosevic". His ruling Zimbabwe Africa National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) won the June parliamentary elections, and the presidential poll is not for at least 18 months.

Zimbabweans are suffering as food and fuel prices rise beyond their means but the army and police show no sign of switching allegiance to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The army is, on orders from Mr Mugabe, engaged in the DRC conflict, which is said to have lucrative spin-offs, including mining rights.

Yet the "Belgrade effect" remains inspiring for Africa. Here, where newspapers are a luxury and only the privileged have televisions few saw the scenes of Mr Milosevic's demise three weeks ago. But the word is out that ordinary people successfully stood up to the strongman. So why not your average African despot?

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