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What's It Like to Have a Dictator for Your Dad?

At least your dad never threatened to feed you to the crocodiles.

by Elizabeth Nicholas
Jun 21 2015, 5:58am

Photo via Flickr user home_of_chaos

Maybe your dad was a workaholic. Maybe your dad was an alcoholic. Maybe your dad was never around at all. But hey, at least he's not a dictator. Father's Day can be a tough time for the kids of difficult fathers, but it's important to remember that you're not alone. At the end of the day, you have one blessing on your side: Your daddy isn't Abdala Bucaram.

While the progeny of many a dictator enjoy a standard of living far higher than their future citizens, they also have the propensity to inherit the blame for their father's misdeeds. And in the tumultuous world of dictatorial politics, that can turn very bad, very quickly. In honor of Father's Day, VICE took a look at some of the most infamous dictatorial father-son duos of recent history.

Hafez and Bashar al-Assad

Photo by Tony Wheeler/Getty Images

The "gangly bachelor and computer buff" Bashar al-Assad had set up a quiet life for himself as an ophthalmologist in London, when a car crash killing his elder brother Bassel forced him to return to Syria and learn the dictatorial ropes from his father, Hafez. Hafez al-Assad had been too busy ruling Syria with an iron fist since 1970 to spend much time with his children—Bassel once told his father's biographer, "We saw Father at home, but he was so busy that three days could go by without us exchanging a word with him." But with the task of transforming his introverted son into a credible arbiter of absolute power, Bashar got his father's full attention: the elder Assad forced his son into a Syrian military academy and sought his advice on domestic and foreign policy. Bashar assumed the presidency upon his father's death in 2000, and Levantine diplomats say it's clear the elder Assad instilled his readiness to eliminate potential rivals and his distaste for compromise in his son.

Since 2011, Bashar—who but for a foggy day in Damascus might still be conducting eye surgery—has been suppressing a civilian uprising that has mushroomed into a full-blown civil war with barrel bombs and chlorine gas. And it looks like Bashar's son might need less of a personality overhaul than his father did should the Assad regime outlive Bashar: Then-11-year-old Hafez Assad wrote a bombastic Facebook post about the prospect of American military intervention against the regime: "I just want them to attack sooo much, because I want them to make this huge mistake of beginning something that they don't know the end of it... [America doesn't] know our land like we do, no one does, victory is ours in the end no matter how much time it takes. Syria forever and ever. [peace sign emojis]"

Jean-Bédel and Jean-Serge Bokassa

Jean-Bédel Bokassa: great dresser, terrible human. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

One of the more rococo dictators in modern memory, Jean-Bédel Bokassa proclaimed himself Emperor Bokassa I of the desperately poor Central African Empire (now the Central African Republic) in 1977. In homage to his hero Napoleon, Bokassa threw himself a coronation ceremony replete with a two million dollar crown, enormous tureens of caviar, and a gold throne in the shape of an eagle. He had been terrorizing the country as its president for the previous eleven years, requiring thieves' ears and hands be cut off, literally feeding his enemies to crocodiles, and, as one of his last acts as a strongman, shooting schoolchildren who didn't like their school uniforms, which were made by his wife's company.

His own children were far luckier: Son Jean-Serge was sent to Swiss boarding school until the French overthrew Bokassa in 1979. "As a son, I have many warm memories," Jean-Serge told the BBC. "[Jean-Bédel] was very affectionate. He loved children. He loved children a lot. And for that reason he had about 50 kids." Jean-Bédel's other children (61 of them, actually), aren't all doing quite as well as Jean-Serge, who is now the CAR's Minister of Youth, Sports, Arts, and Culture. Four years after Jean-Bédel's death, many were "liv[ing] in rags" on the crumbling grounds of his palace, where bullet holes from the French coup riddle the wall of the bedroom where he reportedly slept surrounded by piles of diamonds. "We are very poor. The palace is all we've got left," one of Jean-Bédel's grandsons told the Guardian in 2000.

Abdala Bucaram and Abdala Bucaram Junior

Abdala Bucaram sporting some casual facial hair. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Not only did Ecuadorian president Abdala Bucaram sport an unmistakable and unapologetic Hitler mustache, he also harbored an admiration for the führer as one of the " greatest political geniuses of all mankind." In his short reign from August of 1996 to February of 1997, Bucaram got busy promoting his lyrical prowess by performing a Spanish version of "Jailhouse Rock" on a stage with women dressed like Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, called an ex-president a burro (donkey) and then issued an apology to burros, and took charge of Ecuador's economic crisis by offering a celebrated soccer coach one million dollars to play a single game with him. Ousted by congress for "mental incapacity," Bucaram took refuge in Panama, where he is still granted residency on the grounds of political asylum. Despite his infamous surname, Bucaram's eponymous only son was elected to Ecuador's National Assembly in 2009, and retains his seat. But things haven't always been easy for the son of the self-described "El Loco": Despite his brief tenure, Bucaram Sr. survived an assassination attempt made while traveling in a car with his son, who has recently been chastised for defending his father's legacy too stridently in the National Assembly.

Idi and Hussein Amin

How Idi Amin kept his suit clean of all the blood is rather impressive. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Executing estimates of more than 300,000 political opponents, expelling Indian and Pakistani citizens by the tens of thousands, forcing white residents of Kampala to carry him around on a throne, murdering the country's archbishop, saving the heads of his most prominent murdered nemeses in his freezer, and unsuccessfully invading Tanzania in an attempt to detract attention from his own mismanagement are just some of the former Ugandan president Idi Amin's more baroque atrocities. Remembered by much of the world today as a "jovial psychopath" Idi and his brutality took center-stage in the Oscar-winning 2006 film The Last King of Scotland.

But according to his son, Hussein Amin, his father's rule is misunderstood: Hussein went so far as to contact the Guardian eleven years after his father's death in Saudi Arabian exile to contest the number of deaths that bore his father's imprint in the newspaper's obituary. Another son, Jaffar, told the Daily Mailthat his father "...loved jesting. One of his favorite jokes was to run at people with a spear. They would be shocked to see this huge figure hurtling at them. Then he would throw the spear so it landed at their feet." Hussein also wrote an open letter to the current Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni demanding the return of Amin family property, which he claims was acquired before his father's ascent to power, and for the president to make good on his "[promise of] good positions in government." "Unfortunately," he wrote in the 2013 letter, "since you announced the above developments 10 years ago, the achievement index for this simple matter is zero."

Muammar and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi

At least your dad isn't buddies with Vladimir Putin. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

With his London School of Economics PhD on democracy and good governance, the establishment and oversight of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, and his ability to "[don] a Savile Row suit to make polite small talk in impeccable English with the cream of British society and politics," it's no wonder Muammar Gaddafi used his son Saif-al Islam as "the public face of the regime to the West." Many senior government officials believed Saif was a genuine reformer, and attributed many of the country's advancements in the 2000s to his efforts. But all that changed when Muammar—whose rule was nasty, brutish, but unfortunately not short—called his son home as the civil uprising against him intensified in February of 2011. Saif appeared on state television that month, and appeared unrecognizably disoriented and combative, rambling that the regime would "fight to the last minute, until the last bullet." A former LSE advisor told the Guardian: "Watching Saif give that speech—looking so exhausted, nervous, and frankly, terrible—was the stuff of Shakespeare and Freud. A young man torn by a struggle between loyalty to his father and family and the beliefs he had come to hold for reform, democracy, and the rule of law." Wanted by the International Criminal Court for his role in trying to suppress the uprising, Saif has instead been held by former rebels in Zintan, who refuse to comply with the ICC's extradition request or turn him over to the government in Tripoli. He claims he lost parts of his thumb and index finger in a NATO attack, but many in Libya suspect they were cut off by the rebels, who captured him in retaliation for wagging them in his infamous speech.

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