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 that Mugabe led in the 1970s. Mugabe’s loyalty to his mentor is heart-warming, especially considering the expense of maintaining an ex-dictator year after year in the style to which he is accustomed, with twenty-four-hour guards and limitless phone calls.
The Zimbabwean economy is currently under unprecedented strain, with the country half-paralyzed by national strikes. Mugabe’s army is embroiled in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in support of the regime of Laurent Kabila, a would-be Mobutu whose iron heel is hobbled by the absence of backing from the United States and Europe. There’s little public support in Zimbabwe for the intervention in the Congo, which is generally believed to be designed to protect the Zimbabwean President’s personal financial interests there.
A few weeks ago Mugabe was in London, but not on official business. He was doing his Christmas shopping. It’s reminiscent of the most notorious African autocrat of all, Idi Amin Dada, today in well-upholstered exile in Saudi Arabia. Back in 1971 Amin arrived unannounced one day at Heathrow in his private plane. An audience with the Queen was rapidly arranged. She asked him to what she owed the unexpected pleasure of his visit. Her 250-pound guest, the heavyweight among modern tyrants—and on his way to becoming one of the most bloodstained—chuckled and replied, “In Uganda, Your Majesty, it is very difficult to find a pair of size 14 shoes.”
How they love to shop, these big men. They’ve taken the wisecrack to heart. When the going gets tough, they go shopping. And when they get the chop, they shop on. It is a cross-cultural phenomenon—the Imelda Marcos syndrome. Baby Doc Duvalier, former dictator of Haiti, exiled to France, was a great one for boutiques. Until his wife made off with all the money.
How unfortunate for Mengistu that, owing to the precedent set by the Pinochet case, he could not risk accompanying Mugabe on his jaunt to see the Christmas lights in London. He may have an inkling that his patron’s days are numbered. Recently it was reported that Mengistu had been discussing political asylum with North Korea, one of the last surviving members of the now depleted Dictators Club. It was the North Koreans who trained the notorious Fifth Brigade of the Zimbabwean army, involved in the murder of dissidents in the early 1980s. And it was North Korean iconographers who painted the huge portraits of the revolutionary leader that dominated the streets of Addis Ababa in the days of Mengistu’s personality cult.
Mengistu in Pyongyang. Now that is a good idea. In fact, why don’t they all go there—all the dictators—and not come back? The North Korean president, Kim Jong Il, son and successor of Kim Il Sung, would surely be pleased to welcome Baby Doc Duvalier, a fils de papa like himself. Baby Doc and Kim. Mengistu, Mugabe, and Amin. Pinochet, Stroessner, Castro, Suharto, Qaddhafi, and Saddam. Let Pyongyang be their prison. All together in one run-down villa without heat or running water; with nothing to read but the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Let them do their Christmas shopping in the empty arcades of the North Korean economic disaster. They’ll have plenty of time to decide who plays Santa Claus.
It may seem unfair to the people of North Korea. But such a collection of old tyrants could become a tourist attraction the day that freedom comes. The public architecture of Pyongyang is already a kind of Dictators’ Disneyland, a museum of totalitarian kitsch. These superannuated autocrats could form the core of a living exhibit of bad government. And then—as they die off and are embalmed—a mausoleum of dictatorship, a memorial to the days when wickedness was embodied in all-powerful leaders.
January 14, 1999