The ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia has highlighted the continued relevance of the words of the late US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Serving as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Force in Europe during World War II and as President in the years following, Eisenhower was well-positioned to comment on the implications of a lack of rule of law, famously stating, “The clearest way to show us what the rule of law means in everyday life is to recall what has happened when there is no rule of law” – writes Jean Baptiste
Indeed, two central factors have facilitated the ongoing invasion, replete with crimes against humanity and destruction on a scale Europe has not known since World War II, where Eisenhower attained the rank of Five Star general. The first contributing factor has been President Putin’s lack of respect for the rule of law, instead constructing what has been aptly referred to as a “rule by law” state, where his whims are the order of the day.
Putin’s belligerent assault on the rule of law in Ukraine has not come as a shock to many, illustrating the abject lawlessness his regime has and continues to operate by. What has been a surprise, and second on the list of factors facilitating the invasion, has been the lack of firm response from the international community, which has been as complacent as ever in the face of Russian aggression.
Spectators, however, should not be taken by surprise. Tactics being employed by Putin’s regime are exactly those which he has been employing at home for years, solidifying his authoritarian stranglehold over the Russian population. Despite these making headlines in light of the invasion, similar methods are employed the world over by strongmen seeking to consolidate their rule.
A far less prominently covered case has been that of Wavel Ramkalawan, who has, since gaining power in October 2020, been serving as President of the Seychelles, an archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean. Similar to Putin, Ramkalawan ran on a platform promising to clean up corruption and restore democracy in a nation transitioning from the rule of long-time President France-Albert René. Also similar to Putin, since his election, Ramkalawan has been making use of democratic institutions, and specifically the justice system, to disappear members of the opposition all the while enriching himself and his cronies.
In the case of Putin, quite literally thousands of members of the opposition at home or abroad have been arrested, tried in “courts of law” and disappeared since he took office for the first time in May of 2000. Most recent has been the case of opposition activist Alexey Navalny, which the Kremlin has been using the Russian court system in order to prosecute and put an end to his harsh criticism of the violent Russian regime.
In the Seychelles, a similar but more subtle approach has been employed by President Ramkalawan. Working to live up to his commitment to combat corruption, a recent case saw 9 prominent individuals, now known as the “Seychelles 9”, arrested on the grounds of corruption and weapons possession. The arrests would not be so questionable if each and every one of those arrested were not associated with the former government. This includes the former president’s wife and son, his former chief of staff and military advisor, a minister and a future presidential candidate, a bureaucrat as well as a prominent businessman and his wife.
Making this case even more worrying for those concerned about authoritarian regimes consolidating power by exploiting the rule of law has been the government’s approach to the trial. Some of the defendants have been denied access to legal representation, leading the law firm representing the discussed businessman, Mukesh Valabhji, and his wife Laura, to call the case a, “show-trial, founded on a politically motivated prosecution case riddled with errors of fact and procedural defects”. Other defendants have been, according to the admission of the police, held in conditions which violate every known human rights standard.
The case in question surrounds a donation of $50 million, given as a grant to the government of the Seychelles in 2002, during a financial crisis it was facing at the time. As has been the case in Putin’s Russia quite frequently, the $50 million disappeared, with the blame being placed on the 9 arrested now defendants. Despite a vast number of associates of the current President having been in key positions at the time of the funds’ disappearance, not an eyebrow has been lifted with regard to their potential guilt. This includes the current Vice President, Ahmed Afif, who worked at the Central Bank at the time, and the former President, then Minister of Finance, Jean Michel, who fled the country shortly thereafter, incidentally to the UAE and has close personal and political ties to the current Chief Justice who is trying the case Rony Govinden.
Turning back to the factors enabling the invasion of Ukraine, and considering similarities in the way Presidents Putin and Ramkalawan have paid no heed to the rule of law, what must be different is the international community’s response. Sadly, with thousands dead and hundreds of thousands left homeless, Ukraine is already lost. The Seychelles, and the country’s delicate democratic transition, can still however be salvaged.
With a population of under 100,000 citizens, the direct significance of the country’s future to the international community is quite limited. The reason however, why the severe human rights abuses taking place on the East African archipelago, with the help of a coopted justice system, should matter to everyone, is the message it sends to other aspiring autocratic regimes.
Violent regimes learn from one another. The impact of the invasion of Ukraine, will according to analysts, be felt as far as Taiwan. With a recalcitrant Beijing seeing little to no international effort to stem Putin’s expansion of Russian territory, lessons learned by Beijing will undoubtably be that one can expect little to no response from the international community in the case of international violations of rule of law and sovereignty standards.
The house cleaning and consolidation of power taking place in the Seychelles will undoubtably send a similar message to other aspiring autocracies across the African continent. If one employs democratic mechanisms for pursuing political rivals, even if those mechanisms are funded by western powers, as the Seychelles Anti-Corruption Commission is funded by the EU, one need not be concerned so long as a façade of the rule of law is upheld. Unless of course one has the power of the entire Russian military at its disposal, in which case even the rule of law is an irrelevant consideration.
Jean Baptiste, 31, is French freelance writer who studied cinema and audiovisual writing. He is currently the editor of the newly launched Indian Ocean Economic Times. Follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/IOEcontimes