Dictators and despots – endangered but not extinct

In our this 21st century,  military coups have become rare, presidents for life have become an extinct species and shameless dictators, despots and autocrats with no end date are an endangered species. It will be a while, however, before the latter type become altogether extinct. In some countries, leaders find it possible to defy not only the law of the land, but also the laws of both political and physical wear and tear to prolong their stay at the top.

(Published in the Daily Times, 18 January 2018)

For a good many years, a Damocles sword had hung over Pakistan in the shape of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). While the NPT-related danger has now passed, the country continues to be tormented by MPT (Manipulated Power Transfer).

Their popularity and mandate notwithstanding, elected heads of government in Pakistan have found it impossible to complete one term, let alone seek a second term. Powers that be, often referred to as the Establishment or the Deep State, decide who comes, who goes, when and how.

What follows is manipulated power transfer, hidden from public view but obvious to everyone. Beginning in the early years of the founding of the state, the process of covert manipulation of the political process continues unabated.

But in some countries, leaders find it possible to defy not only the law of the land, but also the laws of both political and physical wear and tear to prolong their stay at the top.

The Ugandan parliament recently descended into a brawl when opposition members resisted an attempt by the government to lift the constitutional age limit on the head of state. This would allow the incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, to run again for a sixth term. He has been in office since 1986.

Once upon a time, throughout the world, rulers had no term limits and they never had to stand for re-election. The reign of kings, queens and chiefs was only terminated by death or murder, and only occasionally by abdication or peaceful overthrow. But times have changed. Now, elected governments have become the norm, absolute monarchies or downright dictatorships the exception.

But in Asia, Africa and South America, the rule of law is frequently flouted, and elections are postponed, cancelled or rigged by the incumbent who has no desire to go. Sometimes, long-time despots have been overthrown by military officers, high and low, from general to sergeant, who seized power through the barrel of the gun. They promised reform, redemption and election, but then transformed into just another dictator determined to hang on, whatever it takes.

Some dictators and autocrats had themselves officially proclaimed as “president for life”. Although “presidents for life” seem like ancient history now, some swaggered like eternal, indispensable, conquering heroes not so long ago: Idi Amin (Uganda), Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenistan), Jean Bedel Bokassa (Central African Republic), Habib Bougouiba (Tunisia), Hastings Banda (Malawi), Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (Haiti) come to mind.

In our this 21st century, heaven be thanked, military coups have become rare, presidents for life have become an extinct species and shameless dictators, despots and autocrats with no end date are an endangered species. It will be a while, however, before the latter type become altogether extinct.

Nursultan Nazarbayev has held the highest office in Kazakhstan since 1991. And Emomali Rohman in neighbouring Tajikistan since 1994. Ayatollah Khamenei has been the unelected “Supreme Leader” of Iran since 1989. Heydar Aliyev ruled Azerbaijan from 1993 with an iron hand, but shortly before his death from illness in 2003 he nominated his son Ilham Aliyev to succeed him. The son shows no sign of going.

A couple of months ago, Angola had its first new head of state in 38 years when President José Eduardo dos Santos, in office since 1979, decided not to run again, although he will continue to call the shots as head of the ruling party.

Also in Africa, the Togolese people are demonstrating on the streets for an end to the family rule of Faure Gnassingbe. He came to power in 2005 upon the death of his father Gnassingbe Eyadima. Papa Gnassingbe had ruled Togo for 38 years.

Famously, on the same continent, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, ruled for 37 years. At the ripe old age of 93, he had declared his intention to run for election again or, at the very least, ensure succession for his ambitious young wife. In the end, the army persuaded him to go, with the offer of a generous package worth millions of dollars. No matter that the state’s coffers are empty, owing to Mugabe’s misrule.

In Kenya, when the High Court recently declared the re-election of President Ohuro Kenyatta “invalid, null and void”, he denounced the judges as “crooks” who had snatched victory from him. He found the wherewithal to get “re-elected” anyway, with a farcical repeat election. Discretion being the better part of valour, the judges kept quiet this time.

In the small West African country of Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh left only after Senegalese troops threatened to invade. Having seized power through a military coup in 1994, he refused to accept his surprise election defeat earlier this year.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, in power since 1994, shows no intention to retire. To his credit, he has restored peace, political and economic stability to a country which had witnessed one of the worst recorded ethnic cleansing in history.

In mineral-rich but dirt poor Democratic Republic of Congo, President Joseph Kabila is maneuvering to hang on despite a constitutional term limit. He became president in 2001, after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila who, five years earlier, had overthrown President Mobutu Sese Seko, dictator for over 30 years.

Thousands of miles and a continent away, in Asia, the Cambodian opposition leader has just been jailed and the leading opposition newspaper forced to shut down by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for over 30 years.

In distant Bolivia in South America, Evo Morales, president since 2006, the first and only native Indian ever to be head of state in South America, is now maneuvering to bring about constitutional changes to enable him to run again.

One would think that Europe has outgrown dictatorships and autocracies. But in Belarus, President Aleksandr Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and shows no sign of going. His good friend Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia since 1999 and has already declared that he will run again.

North Korea is in a class of its own, having been ruled by one family since independence in 1948. In this so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, democratic principles and the people’s will belong to the garbage bin. Over sixty years, power has passed from father to son to grandson.

Dictators, despots and autocrats know no race, religion, ideology or ethnicity, though they use them to divide and rule. They buy support through selective distribution of state patronage and concomitant financial and economic benefits.

Despotic rulers stoke religious, sectarian, nationalist, ethnic and tribal tensions and, increasingly, the threat of terrorism, to concentrate power and perpetuate their rule.

Besides promises of stability and security, a successful and oft-used ploy of dictators, despots and autocrats is to appeal to people’s patriotism, which Samuel Johnson famously described as the “the last refuge of a scoundrel” and Leo Tolstoy called “slavery.” Sadly, far too many people allow themselves to be deceived.

by Razi Azmi

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7 Responses to Dictators and despots – endangered but not extinct

  1. Pradeep Kalra says:

    As always enjoyed reading and impressed by the research and presentation of facts.A job well done.

  2. Khalid Pathan says:

    Very well written, quite interesting. Write something about the deep state rule in Pakistan.

  3. Jehanzeb says:

    Interesting facts and a nice read.

    I thought a couple of more paragraphs on the Pakistan situation would have made it more informative and relevant. You started with the topical issue but then seemed to had switched the subject somewhat to cover despots and dictators elsewhere. Pakistan is nothing if not sufficient in its own niche pool of dictators. Some manipulating Islam to perpetuate their rule, others militant patriotism. There were referendums, charades of basic democracy and brute force.

  4. Javed Agha says:

    Thanks for sending me an interesting article. I recaptured all that I had forgotten. You, historians and political analysts do not let anything fade away.

  5. Anwar says:

    Very informative

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