WHEN TO QUIT... LESSONS FROM PRESIDENT SUHARTO - Issues with Shola Ola

robert mugabe

(This article contains excerpt from the book, “From 3rd World to First World”, by Lee Kuan Yew)

In the dark days of Indonesia, some communist’s rebel forces attempted to topple the government of President Sukarno on 30 September 1965. Suharto, an army general however, led Special Forces to counter the coup. With the support of troops under loyal commanders in the army, navy, air force and police, Suharto warned the rebel military forces at the palace and at a radio and communication centre to surrender peacefully. Daunted by the show of force, the rebel forces fled.  

In the course of the failed coup, several Indonesia generals were gruesomely murdered and thousands of others (estimated at half a million) killed, some of them were ethnic Chinese, the alleged supporters of the communists. Later on, Suharto carefully orchestrated the stripping of Sukarno authority. Although he did not oust the president but acted in his name to keep up appearance as he quietly gathered the levers of power in his hands, removing Sukarno’s supporters and weakening his position.

In March 1966, Sukarno signed a presidential decree that gave General Suharto power to take all necessary steps to guarantee security and preserve stability. A year later, in February 1967, Suharto was formally elected acting president by the national assembly.

Suharto was determined to get Indonesia moving forward after 20 years of neglect. He abandoned the aggressive policies of Sukarno to pursue peace with her neighbours by restoring bilateral relations with Singapore and Malaysia. Through dint of hard work, he and his cabinets laid the foundation of modern Indonesia. 

surkano (left), suharto (right)
The Indonesia rupiah crisis in 1997 however changed the course of event. In order to salvage the continuous falling of the rupiah, Suharto’s government sought loans from International Monetary Fund, Singapore and Japan. The intervention thus raised the value of the rupiah from 3,600 to 3,200 to the US dollar. Rupiah had been 2,500 to the US dollar before the crisis. This improvement was later rubbished when President Suharto reneged on his agreement with IMF by reinstating some fourteen major infrastructure projects that had been cancelled, which his children had vested interest.


By January 1998, the Indonesian rupiah dropped from 7,500 to 10,000 to the US dollar. On the street, the rupiah was trading as low as 11,500 to the US dollar. Suharto’s problems were compounded by the increasing intrusion of his children into all lucrative contracts and monopolies, which the IMF targeted several of them for dismantling.

Well meaning individuals, organizations and nations at various points had to advice Suharto to take the crisis serious. One of such advice came from Prime Minister Goh of Singapore who reminded him of the consequences (food shortage, social unrest, loss of confidence). Suharto’s response was a confident assertion that the army was fully behind him. Goh hinted that there could be circumstances in which the people would be so hungry that the soldiers would not shoot. Of course, Suharto dismissed the possibility.

Suharto’s decision to appoint B.J Habibie (known for high-cost, high-tech projects like building of airplanes) against the advice of several concerned foreign leaders made the market uncomfortable and caused the rupiah to further drop 17,000 to the US dollar.

As expected, the economic situation triggered wild protest. Student demonstrations were confined to their campuses, where faculty members, former ministers, and generals often addressed them and added to the call for reforms. The president was away in Cairo attending a conference, when six students of Trisakti University were killed on 12 May 1998 after a demonstration outside their campus. The outrage that followed the killing caused a complete collapse of law and order as the police and soldiers surrendered the city to the rampaging mobs that looted, burned shops and houses and raped women. By the time the president returned, he had lost his seat.  
buhari and jonathan

The story of President Suharto is similar to that of many African leaders who fought the colonial masters to get independence. Many rode on the goodwill and trust of the people to get to power after independence. Some of them ceased power from corrupt and oppressive civilian regimes to the cheering of the people. Initially they actually meant well and they worked hard to better the lots of their people. However, after many years in charge they got carried away. The sycophants around them made them believe that they are the “people’s messiah” and no one in the land is better than them. They refused to bow out for a new leader with fresh idea even when it was obvious they no longer have anything new to offer and their people are tired of seeing their face. They forgot that only the Immortal has no substitute and there is always a better substitute for every man. They are never perturbed even when their actions result in hardship and unnecessary bloodshed.   


Suharto like some African leaders didn’t know when to quit until he was forced out. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Laurent Gbagbo of Cote D’Ivoire, Yahaya Jammeh of Gambia and more recently, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe are good examples in Africa. Leaders, particularly in Africa must learn to bow out when the ovation is loudest in order not to rubbish their sacrifices and good works. They must be concerned with how they go down in memory lane because they won’t be there to defend the reasons for their actions.

Finally, no institution or nation became great under one leader, one would lay the foundation and another would come to consolidate. That’s how great institutions are built. That’s how great nations are built.

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Shola Olayiwola is a freelance writer. He loves to write and defend the course of his country.

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