We live in the twilight of the dictators. The military strong men of South America are long gone. The big men of Africa are dying off, or repining in exile. Their replacements are constrained by the hegemony of global capitalism—which finds less use for autocrats now that the cold war has ended. In Africa the power of new leaders is further limited by the dissolution of the states over which they preside. Yet there’s still a problem of what to do with those of the old guard that remain. For them, since General Pinochet’s detention, the world is suddenly a more dangerous place. In the new era, where can they go for Christmas?
The decline of the old-style dictator doesn’t mean that citizens of the countries they used to rule are any better off, at least not in Africa. These countries are now subject, sometimes more than before, to the collapse of government services, the depredations of warlords, and the scourge of famine. But it means that responsibility for abuses can no longer be plausibly pinned on a single figure. Armies, insurgents, militias, and mafias all take a share. The symbolic location of wickedness has shifted, making the imposition of international standards of accountability trickier, even as the human rights movement begins to make significant inroads on impunity.
Meanwhile a good number of the old crocodiles still walk free. Some will be enjoying the protection of neighbors who remain in power, while their countrymen continue to suffer the aftereffects of tyranny. Consider Mengistu Haile Mariam, leader of the Derg, the junta that ruled Ethiopia for most of the 1970s and 1980s, a man who can be held responsible for the imprisonment, torture, and murder of thousands of his opponents, as well as the deaths of hundreds of thousands of other Ethiopians and Eritreans in over a decade of civil war, a man who makes General Pinochet look like a pussycat.
Most of Mengistu’s henchmen are now on trial in Addis Ababa, charged with genocide and crimes against humanity—a half-forgotten trial that began in 1994 and has still not been concluded. Christmas in the Ethiopian calendar falls differently from the rest of Christendom, but we can be reasonably sure that it is not very pleasant in the jail where they are housed in Addis Ababa, a jail known as The End of the World. For Mengistu, on the other hand, it will be quite congenial. Since he fled the country in 1991, abandoning his followers to their fate, he has been living with his family in Zimbabwe, outside Harare, in an exclusive suburb with the apt name of Gun Hill. Ethiopian calls for his extradition have been ignored by the Zimbabwean government.
Mengistu’s protector, Robert Mugabe, also has more than a few human rights abuses to his name, both as a leader of the insurgency in Rhodesia and as head of state after independence. Indeed he learned his trade partly from Mengistu, whose army trained units of the liberation forces…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.