Thinking Aloud: Autocrats, dictators and tyrants I — By Razi Azmi

Although most Muslim countries have been under authoritarian, dictatorial or tyrannical rule (at least until recently), not all dictators or tyrants are Muslims

People with ulterior motives are fond of saying that while not all Muslims are terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims. This is certainly not true, although it is an embarrassing fact that a very large proportion of terrorist activities in today’s world are perpetrated by Muslims. By the same token, although most Muslim countries have been under authoritarian, dictatorial or tyrannical rule (at least until recently), not all dictators or tyrants are Muslims. Their list is long and habitat rather extensive, spanning many continents, including at least one European country. Here goes.

Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia, died of an undisclosed illness a couple of weeks ago. He was given a very big state funeral and it was noted that this was the first state funeral in Ethiopia since 1930. Emperor Haile Selassie, who was coronated in 1930, died a prisoner in 1975. His successor and jailer, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had seized power through a military coup in 1974, fled for his life to Zimbabwe in 1991, when Zenawi installed himself in Addis Ababa after leading a successful insurgency.

Whether the death of Zenawi is good or bad for Ethiopia is too early to judge, but had his maker not recalled him at the comparatively young age of 57, he might have gone on forever. He was an authoritarian ruler who suppressed the opposition with a heavy hand, but he is mostly being remembered as a leader who launched this backward, poor and diverse country on the road to economic progress.

Not so Isaias Afewerki, Zenawi’s comrade-in-arms in the liberation war against the Mengistu dictatorship, and the president of the new country of Eritrea, which amicably seceded from Ethiopia after a referendum in 1991. Afewerki launched a territorial war against Ethiopia in 1999 and lost badly. Nevertheless, he continues to rule over an impoverished and truncated nation by force.

Afewerki’s Eritrea is a one-party state in which national legislative elections have been repeatedly postponed. It ranks last, below even North Korea, in the Press Freedom Index. Eritreans are fleeing the country in droves, happy to be anywhere else, and many have perished in the Sinai desert in search of a better life in Israel.

In Zimbabwe, the 87-year old Robert Mugabe, who enjoyed great prestige after he led the country to independence in 1980, clings to power after over three decades through deceit and force, despite a horrendous performance. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, who was seen as a liberator in 1986, shows no sign of going. It is the same in Rwanda with Paul Kagame, president since 1994. But Museveni and Kagame are credited with economic progress of their countries while Mugabe’s 32-year rule has been catastrophic for Zimbabwe.

Congo (formerly Zaire) has seen power shift from one dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko (1965-1997) to another, Laurent-Desiree Kabila (1997-2001), on whose assassination his son, Joseph Kabila, succeeded him. Mobutu’s government was guilty of severe political repression, a personality cult and massive corruption. By 1984, Mobutu was said to have four billion dollars deposited in a personal Swiss bank account while the country’s infrastructure crumbled and his countrymen were impoverished.

In 1972, Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, which translates into ‘the all powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, shall go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake’. He was always to be seen in a leopard skin hat, carrying a carved tribal stick.

At the time of his death in 1993, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, president of Ivory Coast since 1960, had an estimated personal wealth of between $ seven and 11 billion. Referring to his bank accounts in Switzerland, he reportedly asked if “there is any serious man on earth not stocking parts of his fortune in Switzerland.”

In the west African country of Togo, Colonel (later General) Gnassingbé Eyadéma was president from 1967 until his death in 2005. Eyadéma had an extensive personality cult, including an entourage of 1,000 dancing women who sang and danced in praise of him, and $ 20 wristwatches with his portrait, which disappeared and re-appeared every 15 seconds.

The date of a failed attempt on President Eyadéma’s life was annually commemorated as the ‘Feast of Victory Over Forces of Evil’. On his death in 2005, his son Faure Gnassingbé, who was a minister in his father’s cabinet, took over as president with the support of the army.

When Equatorial Guinea gained independence from Spain in 1968, Francisco Macías Nguema became president. On Christmas Day in 1975, he had 150 alleged coup plotters executed in a stadium to the sound of a band playing Mary Hopkin’s tune Those Were the Days. His reign of terror led to the death or exile of up to a third of the small country’s total population of 300,000.

In 1979, Nguema was deposed by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang, whose father was among those executed by the tyrant. Now it was the tyrant-uncle’s turn to be executed. For his part, the nephew has survived 12 real and perceived unsuccessful coup attempts. He rules the oil-rich country with an iron fist. He reportedly once asked, “What right does the opposition have to criticise the actions of a government?”

In 2003, Obiang told his countrymen that he was taking full control of the national treasury in order to prevent civil servants from engaging in corrupt practices. To avoid this corruption, Obiang deposited more than half a billion dollars into accounts controlled by him and his family overseas.

Jean Bedel Bokassa, president of the impoverished Central African Republic since 1966, when he seized power through a coup, declared the country to be a monarchy 10 years later, renaming it as the Central African Empire, with himself as ‘His Majesty Emperor Bokassa I’. His coronation ceremony in 1977 was estimated to have cost the country about $ 20 million, one third of the country’s annual budget. He was overthrown and exiled three years later.

The writer is a former academic with a doctorate in modern history and can be reached at raziazmi@hotmail.com

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