The Dirty Dozen Worst Dictators

| June 26, 2011 | 0 Comments

In the minds of millions, the Arab Spring began on Dec. 17, 2010, with a solitary act of desperate defiance when Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi torched himself to protest the humiliating harassment he had just experienced at the hands of corrupt government officials. By the time Mr. Bouazizi died of third-degree burns, 18 days later, he had become a legendary figure, whose singular example inspired an historic revolt in his home country, whose shockwaves then spread, thanks to social media, across the Arab region.
Yet it would be more than premature to declare the Arab Spring a triumph over tyranny. Long-serving Arab potentates such as Tunisia’s Ben Alia and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak might be gone, but others are hanging on. The fragile flower of liberty that has broken ground this spring is still unfurling itself before our very eyes and may yet wilt in the toxic atmosphere of illiteracy, religious intolerance and economic stagnation that has turned the Middle East into a fertile ground for despotism.
Even so, no one can deny the historic significance of this moment and this list of the world’s current worst dictators has sought to acknowledge this. But it has also tried to remind readers about regimes, which have ransomed human liberties for so long, their countless, untold crimes run the risk of being taken for granted.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Il
Kim Jong Il appeared frail during the coming-out party for his youngest son and designated successor, Kim Jung Un. As one account notes, the 70-year-old despot had to steady himself along the balcony from which he observed the festivities — but prospects for a stable Korean Peninsula are even less steady. It’s true that the region no longer teeters at the edge of a cataclysmic war as it did last November when North Korean forces shelled a South Korean island just weeks after the Kims’ appearance. But tensions remain high. The reasons behind this latest round of North Korean bellicosity appear unclear. Kim Jong Il might be trying to get the attention of the United States, legitimize his successor, or both. Whatever the reason, Kim Jong Il likely enjoys the attention, even if his Chinese allies might sound exasperated. Yet they also realize the value of his regime, for China fears the unification of Korea. As long as he keeps North Korea hermetic, as long as he pursues policies that numb the minds and starve the bodies of millions, as long as he antagonizes South Korea without pushing things too far, Korean unification remains a distant fantasy. This anti-unification policy, enforced with great bruality and cruelty, is therefore arguably the Dear Leader’s greatest crime.

Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi
Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, the nominal leader of Libya since his military coup of 1969, currently controls little beyond his many self-aggrandizing titles. At this very moment, Gadhafi, 69, is nothing more than the haunted, diminished master of a Tripolitanian domicile that lacks a roof to protect him against the very real prospect of a deliberate, albeit legally questionable, air strike against his life. NATO forces have already aided sneaker-wearing rebels controlling the Cyrenaica and may yet deliver the regime’s final death knell. Yet it appears that nothing sharpens the mind of a tyrant more than the possibility of death from above. Gadhafi has turned his remaining military forces, domestic or otherwise, into tools of terror that traverse the confusing battlefields of the Libyan civil war under the cover of human shields, raping and killing civilians whom they suspect of being rebels. Without expecting quarter, they will offer none themselves. But Gadhafi may yet survive in exile. Many of Africa’s emerging generation of petty despots have received his tutelage and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez considers him a co-revolutionary.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad
Isolated abroad, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad confronts a multitude of internal enemies in ruling a state whose stagnating economy has long failed to satisfy the aspirations of a youthful but disillusioned society. The list of domestic opponents confronting Assad, who succeeded his late father, Hafez, in 2000 after older brother and designated successor Basil had died in a 1994 car accident, reads long. It includes Kurds, exiled opposition leaders, disgruntled Ba’ath party members, radical Islamists said to speak for Syria’s Sunni majority of 70 percent, and potentially, members of his own Alawite family clan. Recent reports suggest younger brother, Maher, has turned parts of the Syrian army into his private militia. Yet this opposition is as divided as it is diverse. Assad, 45, can also count on the undying loyalty of Syria’s ruthless security service, a legacy of his father, whose troops killed thousands during the 1982 storming of Hama, a rebellious stronghold. Whether Assad —whose policies have vacillated between unsatisfying reforms and brutal repression — will reproduce this part of the family biography remains to be seen. Do not bet against it though, especially if the Arab Spring continues to threaten his regime.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah
King Abdullah ascended to the Saudi throne in 2005 with the reputation of being a reformer, at least relative to other members of his extended family, including his half-brother and designated successor Crown Prince Sultan. Such hopes received some validation as the 87-year-old monarch initiated several minor reforms that relaxed, albeit slightly, his regime’s totalitarian enforcement of the medieval mores and morals that govern Saudi society. But these largely cosmetic changes happened before the Arab Spring toppled dictators throughout the region. Its events have certainly spooked King Abdullah to the point that he has tried to buy off would-be revolutionaries by spending an additional $36 billion on public services and welfare, a concession to the economics of the current crisis in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has also directly intervened on the side of the status quo by propping up King Abdullah’s fellow Sunni Monarch Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain. Some suggest that Saudis might not have the same steely courage as the Egyptians who occupied Tahrir Square. Perhaps. But this suggestion also says something about the level of fear in Saudi Arabia.
China’s Hu Jintao
Hu Jintao is due to step down as China’s leader in 2012. This timeline means he eventually loses his eligibility for making future lists of this kind. Consider Hu’s inclusion, therefore, a reminder of the oppressive regime in which he has been a major player since the early 1990s. Whereas the global use of the death penalty declines, China continues to conduct far more executions than any other nation, according to Amnesty International estimates. Last year, alone, China executed several thousand individuals, many of them for non-lethal crimes and after trials that did not meet accepted standards of jurisprudence. The harsh arbitrariness of the Chinese state during the 61-year-old’s reign also appears in the treatment of prominent regime critics such as writer Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei. They are the public faces of countless others whom the Chinese state has denied the right to experience freedoms that citizens in western countries take for granted. Yet Hu will likely remain a welcome guest in their capitals. He is, after all, the head of the world’s most important emerging economy.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin
Events one decade after then-U.S. president George W. Bush approvingly gazed into the eyes of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have revealed the soul of a cold, calculating individual who relishes grand public gestures as he runs roughshod over individual liberties. And yes, we are talking about Putin, who dispensed with such charades, in denuding the thin layer of democratic sensibilities that (once) covered the fossilized remains of the former Soviet Union. Critical local journalists, foreign non-governmental organizations and non-ethnic Russians from the former Soviet Republics, especially if they practise the Muslim faith, have experienced an unprecedented erosion of their personal liberties and safety during the Putin years. They, to be sure, are nominally a memory of the past after Putin, 58, had ‘demoted’ himself to prime minister in vacating the country’s top job for the ‘duly’ elected Dimtry Medvedev in 2008. But even Russians, who know a thing or two about chess, see Medvedev for what he really is: a pawn.
Belarus’ Aljaksandr
Observers of Europe’s Last Dictator conceded that Belorussian President Aljaksandr Lukashenko enjoys a certain degree of popularity among segments of his population. As genuine as this support might seem, Lukashenko continues to insult the intelligence of his own people and the international community by claiming levels of electoral support in the high 70s percentiles, as he did during the 2010 presidential election, deemed to be irregular, if not rigged like other recent elections. Yet deceptions of this kind rank perhaps among the least deserving reasons for Lukashenko’s inclusion on this list. Critical reporters face the possibility of house arrest, exile, or worse under the 56-year-old’s rule. A divided opposition, meanwhile, confronts a Soviet-style security service aptly named KGB that rarely refrains from using brutal force in quelling opposition activities. Indeed, fears that the deadly but suspicious April 2011 bombing of the Minsk metro would lead to additional reprisals have proven to be true. Western states neighbouring Lukashenko continue to condemn him, and he continues to treat their threats of tougher sanctions with the sanguine cool of someone who has divided them before, thanks to his strongest trump card: Belarus’ status as a transit country for the pipelines that carry energy from Russia — hardly an enlightened state itself — to western Europe. They are the ties that will continue to bind Lukashenko’s regime in its current place for the foreseeable future.
Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir
Sudanese president Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir owns several dubious distinctions in the domain of international law. In 2008, he became the first sitting head of state to be charged by the International Criminal Court for his role in the conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands in Sudan’s western region of Darfur between 2003 and 2010. The charges against al-Bashir — who rose to power in 1989 as leader of a bloodless military coup — include crimes against humanity, war crimes and most seriously, genocide, another historic first for a current head of state. Yet al-Bashir, 67, has continued to travel freely, despite an international arrest warrant. His blatant disregard of criminal charges speaks volumes about the enforcement capabilities of the ICC, particularly in Africa where it enjoys next to no support. But such are the privileges of a tyrant whose militias can murder freely, with the full knowledge that their master can always count on a sheltering hand from Moscow and, increasingly, Beijing, as resource-greedy and scruple-less China continues to invest heavily in sub-Saharan Africa.

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe
One might expect that Robert Mugabe would be rather fearful of the revolutionary seed that has spread from North Africa. Tunisia and Egypt, for all their respective faults, appear like oases of relative prosperity and sensible governance compared to Zimbabwe, now experiencing its fourth decade of Mugabe’s policy-making. Once one of Africa’s most prosperous countries, Zimbabwe under Mugabe has become the defining example of an economic basket-case. The fact that millions of his fellow citizens are willing to endure countless hardships as migrant labourers in the countries that surround Zimbabwe speaks clearly about his statesmanship. Yet the 87-year-old ruler remains unfazed. Zimbabwe, unlike its distant North African cousins, lacks a middle class that might have the (relative) means to organize an effective opposition. The challenges of daily survival leave little room for politics. Mugabe also continues to draw on his historical role as one of the leading lights of the de-colonization movement, a role that allows him to blame the West, as he currently does, while he collects signatures to protest sanctions. Mugabe has also shown his insolence by travelling to Europe despite an EU travel ban. His point of entry? The Papal State. The occasion? The recent beatification of John Paul II. While the late Pontiff may never achieve universal sainthood thanks to his opposition of liberation theology in Latin America, few will ever question Mugabe’s status as one of the worst sinners of recent memory.

Rwanda’s Paul Kagame
Paul Kagame’s presidency of Rwanda has earned him, until recently, praise from western nations, including Great Britain and Canada, which backed Rwanda’s successful ascendancy to the Commonwealth. Perhaps they might have been desperate for a success story after the searing memories of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and their failure to stop the country’s Hutu majority from slaughtering some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Yes, Kagame, 60, has sought to end the ethnic schism that continues to divide his fellow Tutsis from the Hutu majority. He has also received high marks for reforming his country’s economy. But Kagame’s philosophical commitment to liberalism does not go beyond economics. He outlawed all major political parties except his own ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front to ensure re-election in 2010. Worse, several prominent Kagame critics met gruesome ends leading up to the rigged vote, drawing protests from the United Nations. Kagame — who, according to The Economist, might be worse than Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe — has also brought human misery to neighbourhing Democratic Republic of the Congo as Rwanda continues to exert influence there.

Despots of Central Asia (former USSR )
The former Soviet republics of Central Asia constitute a distinct bloc of kleptocratic despotism. Whereas the current elites of their former Russian masters go through the (increasingly implausible) pretense of building a modern, western-style state, the despotic elites of this strategically important region at the crossroads between Europe, India and China abandoned such efforts soon after the demise of the Soviet Union. Indeed, they have embraced a political style that dates back to the Brezhnev era of regional despots. However, they are more than up-to-date about recent developments in the Middle East as they step up measures to protect their own regimes. That said, it was hard to pick the worst of the worst. Pictured above, Emomalii Rahmon, president of Tajikistan since 1994, continues to suppress Islamist insurgents following a civil war that killed about 100,000 between 1994 and 1997. Islam Karimow, who frequently appears on lists of this kind since taking charge of Uzbekistan in 1991, ordered his army to kill 500 protesters in May 2005 in the city of Andijan. All of this makes the current president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, appear enlightened. At least, he had the decency of rigging an early election in April 2011 to create the thinnest sheen of legitimacy.

Chechnya’s Ramzan
Ramzan Kadyrov, president of the autonomous Russian republic of Chechnya since 2007, holds his current post by the graces of his Russian masters, particularly Vladimir Putin. Yet it is obvious that Moscow has blessed Kadyrov’s vassalage with a great deal of latitude, something this 34-year-old former pro-Russian militia leader has relished. Reports have linked Kadyrov — said to keep a lengthy Murder List — to the death of several high-profile enemies before and after assuming his current post. This record is said to include the execution-style killing of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. Kadyrov, who has not shied away from crowing about his accomplishments in rebuilding war-torn Chechnya, particularly its capital Grozny, has also initiated steps that have strengthened the influence of radical Islam in the lives of Chechens. At the same time, he has mused about the benefits of polygamy. Kadyrov has certainly tried to develop a human touch. Like so many dictators before, he has sought to ingratiate himself through sports, hence his recent hiring of washed-up star Netherlands-born Ruud Gullit to coach the country’s top soccer team.

Author’s Note
Hopefully this list will spark debate. In fact, such debate would remind readers that billions of people around the world lack such a precious privilege. This list also aims to inspire some introspection. What role do Western countries play in supporting regimes hostile to human liberties? How can average citizens in Western democracies help fellow human beings who might have never experienced the dignity that comes with freedom, yet yearn for it? Which aspects of the human condition produce the depravities described above? What inspires some of us to reject them? The self-sacrificing actions of Mohammed Bouazizi responded to some of these questions, but we owe him more satisfactory answers.

Wolfgang Depner is currently pursuing his doctorate in interdisciplinary studies at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, in Kelowna, B.C.


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Category: Dispatches

About the Author ()

Wolfgang Depner is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan and the co-editor of Readings in Political Idealogies since the Rise of Modern Science, published by Oxford University Press.

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