WASHINGTON -- President Suharto, the Indonesian strongman of 32 years, has just been driven from power by an army of little people protesting rising food prices. Thus, he has learned the age-old truism that a leader can steal and cheat and commit myriad other sins, but he dare not take food off the people's plates.
Mr. Suharto and his family have been cheating Indonesians -- who make up the fourth most populous country on earth -- since the 1960s when they exploited wheat given in the U.S. Food for Peace Program. He and his six children became billionaires through nepotism, cronyism and old-fashioned corruption as they also built up Indonesia while building themselves empires in banking, manufacturing and agriculture.
A father of the country
Enough prosperity trickled down to the people for Mr. Suharto to become known as the country's "Father of Development."
Eventually, the corruption and greed produced a crisis. Indonesia's currency, the rupiah, plunged 80 percent in just a few months, causing the prices of food and other necessities of life to spiral. That produced recent violent protests in which at least 500 Indonesians have died.
Seeing that his cronies and even the military could not save him from protesters crying "Corrupsi" and "Reformasi", Mr. Suharto has resigned in favor of his longtime crony and vice president, B.J. Habibie, who is not likely to retain power for long.
I pray that Seneca's wisdom, which came so late to Mr. Suharto, will soon be visited upon an even less benevolent dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha of Nigeria. If hunger drives people to rebellion, a bloody revolution is long overdue in this most populous of African countries.
Not only are hunger and corruption rampant under the corrupt and vicious regime of General Abacha in oil-rich Nigeria, but also the people must now pay outrageous prices for gasoline -- if and when they are allowed to purchase it. There are reports from Lagos, the biggest city, of soldiers flogging motorists who display anger as they wait in line to buy fuel.
Many hospitals, homes and businesses lack electricity as General Abacha's cronies steal the nation's wealth and allow the infrastructure to crumble. The masses have suffered as this potentially rich country has accumulated more than $30 billion in debt.
Beyond economic misery, the Nigerian people suffer jailings and other oppressions that exceed anything heaped upon the people of Indonesia.
There is a bitter and perhaps telling similarity between Indonesia and Nigeria. Just this March Mr. Suharto thought that he had secured his future by having his hand-picked assembly elect him to a seventh five-year term; in August General Abacha plans to take off his military uniform and declare himself the "civilian president" after corrupted "elections."
But Seneca's hungry man foiled the scheme in Indonesia. I pray that sooner rather than later the "hungry men" of Nigeria will rise up.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 5/25/98