Autocrats, dictators and tyrants – I

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

(Published in Daily Times, 12 September 2012)

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. The list of recent or living non-Muslim dictators and tyrants is a long one spanning many continents and includes all religious persuasions, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, animist, even atheist.  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 unforgiving Sinai desert in search of a better life in Israel.

In Zimbabwe, 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, Lauent-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 $4 billion deposited in a personal Swiss bank account while the country’s infrastructure crumbled and 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 the carved stick of a tribal chieftain.

At the time of his death in 1993, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, president of Ivory Coast since 1960, had an estimated personal wealth of between US$7 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 fifteen seconds. The date of a failed attempt on President Eyadema’s life was annually commemorated as the “the feast of victory over forces of evil.”  On this death in 2005, his son Faure Gnassingbe, who was 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 criticize 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.  With such noble intentions, he deposited more than half a billion dollars into an overseas account controlled by him and his family.

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 ten 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.

by Razi Azmi


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9 Responses to Autocrats, dictators and tyrants – I

  1. tony says:

    Razi Razi razi,
    Get Real. No one is saying the all terrorists are muslims but what is undeniable is that Islamic intolerance is the source of more conflict, mayhem and violence than any other religion around the world today. Of course you can point out that ther have been non Muslim dictators in recent times but non of them have blown up American warships, murdered American ambassadors or Journalists. To talk about the tendency of African leaders to become despots is a feeble attempt to distract thought from the most important question of why Islam seems so rooted in violence. Not only against other political or religious groups but even within its own tent.

    Tell me of another group that he mudered a Daniel Pearl or the poor quadruplegic that was thrown of the deck of the cruise ship in the Mediterranean. One could go on all night listing the mindless atrocitities commited in the name of Islam. This is a religion with massive problems.

    Get serious Razi.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Tony, I am afraid you fired first and aimed later. My article is not about terrorism or “Islamic” terrorism, but about dictators and tyrants. You haven’t told me what what’s wrong with what I have said in the article, not with what you imagine I might be thinking.

  2. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Respected Razi Sahib, your articles are always a treasure trove of information and insights. You have given a dictionary of depots from Africa in your piece.
    I await the next piece.

  3. Jehanzeb says:

    Letford is spot on. While informative, the narration of biographies of non-Muslim dictators will be seen by cynics as an attempt to distract from the real issue: the concepts of tolerance and peaceful co-existence are less prevalent and accepted in Muslim societies than others.

  4. Ishtiaq Ahmed says:

    I have read Razi’s article differently. By showing the salience of dictatorships in Africa, and I hope he would also bring in those terrible military juntas that were prevalent in Latin America during the Cold War, he is presenting an overall sordid picture. Islamic extremism however goes far beyond megalomaniacs ruling over unruly societies and such terrorism indeed has to be understood and explained on its own. It is not variation of the same theme but a case of its own kind though the Tamil Tigers were not very long ago wreaking havoc too and then the Irish and Basque terrorists have also had their heydays. I would urge Razi to make explicit the link between Islamic terrorism and the patronage it received as freedom fighters by the Americans. It is a tendency intrinsic to the Muslim community but its proliferation and strength derives also from out well it fitted into the American strategy in Afghanistan.

  5. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    @Tony Terrorism and tyranny has many many faces and not all of them lead to Islam. The Latim American dictatorships and the killing of political opponents wasn’t done in name of Islam. Apartheid as it was practised in the United States and South africa had nothing to do with Islam. The Israeli terrorism is not Islamic terrorism.
    Terrorism and injustices by any country, group or individual for any reason be it religious or oil-interests is an abberation and a blot on humanity.
    Tony do widen your vision a little to see a more clear a picture.

  6. Zulfiqar Ali says:

    Razi has rightly pointed out that the civilized world need to take note of the continuing dictatorships in many parts of the world. I would take this opportunity to respond to Mr Tony’s query that Terrorism is not a phenomena in the Muslim societies, it is all across the various countries. Morever, no religion in the world supports terrorist activities. The Muslims too believe in the peaceful co-existence of all people belonging to all religions and none of the Muslim communities or their leaderships support terrorism any where. One must think what are the root causes of today’s terrorism? Why people become terrorists? I would suggest to Tony and the people who suppose on these lines to read through the latest research studies written especially in the post 9/11 era in plenty in the form of books, journal articles, research reports and lectures by writers from all parts of the world, then he would find answers to his questions.

  7. Nadeem says:

    Azmi Saheb, good to read that its not only Muslim world ruled by dictators. In my opinion, Dictatorship never works whether it’s Islamic country or non-islamic, it might be good for short term to the dictator but country never prosper. It’s very clear from past and recent history that more democratic nations, where right of the individual’s are respected prosper in the long run and become triumphant over nondemocratic countries. In the early days of Islam Muslim respected the individual right and had elected government. As a result they prospered and were victorious over Persian and Byzantine. During colonial times, western democracies prevailed over most of the Asian and African countries that were all ruled by autocrat/dictators. More recently, Britain and America won against Germany ruled by one man. Look at India with a stable democratic system has defeated and dismembered Pakistan ruled mostly by military dictators. And in the end democratic Israel, triumphant for the past many decades on the richer and more populous Arab countries ruled by dictator or kings.
    I will say to Tony to read the article again, it’s on dictatorship and not on terrorism but I agree with him that Muslims are less tolarent.

  8. tony says:

    Razi, your followers and acolytes seem to accept that the tendency of Muslims from India to Algeria, on a daily basis, blow each other up in the name of Islam. It is not just a Sunni Shia conflict there are dozens of sects and groups who are content to use violence in the name of Islam. It is all very well, as one of your fans has claimed, to argue that this is not sanctioned by the leaders of Islam. One might as well say that because a malignant cancer is not sanctioned by the body it inhabits, then it is not a problem.

    Until we all agree that Islam and its follows are beset by a terrible tendency to resort to extreme violence for absurd reasons, then no sensible discussion is possible.

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