AFRICA'S GREATEST DICTATORS

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Jul 15 2010, 10:43am

Being a dictator is a tough business. I bet, if you caught them on a bad day, most of the globe's great dictators would gladly trade-in their lives of palm-fronded luxury and front-row seats at the torture chambers for a quiet life talking down the phone to pensioners in Grantham about how they could save £150 a year by switching their premiums. That's nine-to-five work, that is. Dictating is 24/7 stuff. Never knowing where the next poisoned salmon roulade is coming from? Constantly having to re-plant the grass outside the presidential palace after rival generals try to park their tanks on your lawn? It's hard on the nerves. That these men soldier on for the benefit of their subjects is a fact that should inspire us all.

Last week, Foreign Policy Magazine announced its equivalent of the Forbes Rich List--a countdown of the 23 worst dictators on the planet. But in-amongst all the obvious big-hitters, the Mugabes, Jong-Ils and Gaddafis, there were many names that aren't nearly so well-known. Guys like Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan. Belarus's Aleksandr Lukashenk. Paul Biya of Cameroon. Guys who've had to fight just as hard for their right to ban political parties. Like major stars in minor football teams, they've never had the chance to hit the headlines because their nations are simply too minuscule, too obscure, too geopolitically redundant, to count.

They deserve their moment in the spotlight too. So now, as 80s dictating legend Manuel Noriega finally goes on trial in Paris, we're saluting the little guys, the underdogs, of the autocrat world.

OBIANG MBASOGO


In 1979, those who were still alive in Equatorial Guinea heaved a huge sigh of relief when the bloody yoke of Francisco Macias Nguema was finally thrown off. Having murdered a third of the population, earning his country the nickname "The Dachau Of Africa," outlawed the use of the word "intellectual," destroyed all boats (fishing was forbidden), and reduced the nation's entire education system to kids chanting his name for eight hours a day, it was obvious that, no matter what incoming dictator Mbasogo would prove to be, it could hardly be any worse than what they had endured. This turned out to be true. Just.

In fact, in his thirty years in power, Mbasogo hasn't killed as many people as Nguema. But he reserves the right to. In July 2003, state radio declared Obiang to be a god who is "in permanent contact with the Almighty" and "can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell." He has also fostered rumors of cannibalism to enhance the general air of fear around the presidency.

Being a god is an expensive business, and so, later that same year, Obiang made a speech in which he decreed that he "felt compelled to take full control of the national treasury in order to prevent civil servants from being tempted to engage in corrupt practices." The first act of business, therefore, would be to deposit half a billion dollars into private family accounts, held by the US bank Riggs (who were sharply fined $16 million by the federal government for their sloppy ethics). Perhaps he felt so emboldened that year because he had the full support of his people, having taken 97% of the votes in the 2002 election.

YAHYA JAMMEH


In December 2008, two British citizens, David Fulton, 60, a former army major, and his wife Fiona, sent a regular Christmas email home to friends in England, offering news of their life in The Gambia. In passing, they mentioned that the government maybe wasn't up to much. The government, as it turned out, was up to a lot: their correspondence was intercepted, and they were soon sentenced to a year's hard labor each for the crime of sedition. Like all good showtrialists, in court they issued a fulsome apology to their president.

Ever since Jammeh took power in a coup in 1994, dissent in the Gambia has been ruthlessly quashed. But it's in combating queerdom that the former military chief of staff has been most effective. In May 2008, Jammeh told the nation's gays that he would cut off the head of any homosexual left in Gambia, vowing to cleanse the country, and promising legislation "stricter than Iran" to help him do so. He then gave all gays an ultimatum to leave the country, ordering that any hotel or lodge found to be housing a homosexual would be closed down.

When not ridding his nation of the gay plague, Jammeh spends much of his time pushing back the frontiers of medicine. In 2007, he announced he could cure AIDS with herbs, and set about treating the delighted citizenry with his infusions. AIDS successfully cured, by August of that year, he was ready to roll out a single-dose herbal infusion that would cure high blood pressure.

Presumably impressed by his forthright stance on imaginary magical herb-healing, the governor of the US state of Kentucky made Jammeh an honorary Kentucky Colonel in 2008.

BLAISE COMPAORÉ

Women's rights, vaccination campaigns, the tithing of civil servants to fund social development projects, the planting of 10 million trees to halt the advance of the Sahara desert: Thomas Sankara was a man who believed in the very best in humanity. The so-called "world's poorest president" despised luxury, getting by on a $450 a month salary, selling-off the government's fleet of Mercedes and forbidding air-conditioning in his office because it would have been a luxury denied to most of his Burkina Faso subjects. Naturally, he didn't last long...

After four short years, Sankara was gunned down by henchmen of his one-time friend, Blaise Compaoré, and dumped in a makeshift grave. Thousands of ordinary citizens spent days filing past the tiny earth-mound in tribute. Compaoré once described this murder as an accident. It was no accident that he soon repealed most of Sankara's reforms, creamed off millions into his personal pot, and changed the constitution to give himself unlimited presidential terms. He's still there now. As a dictator, he's a mediocrity, very much lacking the sadistic panache of many of his more inventive neighbors. But he's surely entitled to a million points for murdering Africa's greatest hope since Nelson Mandela. Right?

KING MSWATI III


"A strong, traditional public school in a delightful setting," says the Good Schools Guide about Sherborne College. "It provides an invigorating, intellectually sound, and multi-faceted environment." Perhaps on some roll of honor above some far-flung gymnasium is etched the name of King Mswati III, past-pupil. Like all the best dictators, he's British-educated. Though it would seem biology was optional at Sherborne, because in 2000 the young King announced in a parliamentary debate that those with AIDS (about a third of Swaziland's population) should be "sterilized and branded." Not long after, he invoked an ancient rite, banning sex for women under-50 in the kingdom for a period of five years. Actually, "parliamentary debate" might be pushing it a bit, for Mswati is of course an absolute monarch. But there remains a sort of public assembly of chieftans which still has debates.

Certainly, where the King's own rights are concerned, "absolute" is the name of the game. In 2002, he drew mild criticism for kidnapping his bride-to-be. Zena Mahlangu, a high school student, was bundled off on her way home from school, taken to the royal kraal, and summarily told that she was to become the tenth wife of Mswati, even as her mother was searching the streets in vain for her vanished daughter. He has added another four wives since then (a further three left him by fleeing to South Africa). Most are wedded between the ages of 12 and 16, but Mswati still has a way to go to catch his father: the late Sobhuza II, who was up to 70 by the time he died, and is estimated to have spawned over 1000 grandchildren.

Still, at least the guy can take a bit of criticism. When he bought a half-million dollar Maybach in a country where 70% of the population live on under a dollar a day, the subsequent international press attention lead him to do the decent thing: ban all photographs of his motorcade.

GAVIN HAYNES

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