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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The foibles of despotic dictators

by Linda S. Heard

© Shutterstock
© AP Images, Mobutu Sese Seko
© AP Images, Kim Jong-Il
© AP Images, Idi Amin Dada
© AP Images, Col. Muammar Qaddafi

Does eccentricity and despotism go hand in hand? Few of us are completely without personality quirks or foibles but dictators either have more than most or feel no compulsion to keep their weird traits under wraps, writes Linda S. Heard.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s characterisation of a fictional dictator called Admiral Gen. Aladeen in his movie ‘The Dictator’ was a comedic parody. Nevertheless, it does sum up some of the worst personality traits of authoritarian leaders - egocentricity, narcissism, sadism, selfishness, grandiosity and paranoia. Quite a few might have been classed as mentally ill if only psychiatrists had been permitted to get up close and personal.

Studies headed by Frederick L. Coolidge and Daniel L. Segal of the University of Colorado, derived from expert assessments and firsthand accounts, suggest that Adolf Hitler and North Korea’s late Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il, who regularly dined on snakes and spiders and was infatuated with Elizabeth Taylor, both suffered from Schizophrenia. One question goes unanswered. We do know that absolute power corrupts but can it also turn reasonably normal brains into mush?

Former President of the Dominican Republic Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo was certainly a candidate for therapy. During his tyrannical rule that severed the lives of 50,000, he fostered a cult of personality. His country’s capital city Santo Domingo became Ciudad Trujillo, statues of el Jefe (The Chief) were mass produced and electric signs appeared outside churches that read ‘Dios y Trujillo’ (God and Trujillo). A law required all vehicle number plates to carry the slogan ‘Viva Trujillo’. He amassed a fortune, wore ostentatious uniforms weighed down with medals and collected over 1,000 ties. Determined to shape his legacy, he appointed his three year- old son a general and campaigned to get his illiterate wife nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Haiti’s President for Life, Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, was so unhinged he believed his nemesis, failed coup instigator Clement Barbot, who evaded an extensive police hunt, had morphed into a black dog. Papa Doc promptly ordered the killing of every black dog in the land. Barbot was eventually captured and executed; his head was presented to Duvalier for use in his Voodoo rituals. Like Trujillo, he saw himself as a godlike figure and forced the population to recite a distorted version of a Christian prayer each day, beginning “Our Doc, who art in the National Palace for life…”

The archetypical African dictator was Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko, who, although he was installed by the US and Belgium, was vehemently anti-Colonial. Citizens with Western-sounding names were told to discard them for African ones and priests who dared to baptise a child with a European name were sentenced to five years in prison. Men were forbidden from wearing Western garb as well as leopard print hats; those were reserved exclusively for Mobutu. Local TV networks were commanded to begin news reports with Mobutu descending from the heavens.

Africa’s most notorious brutish dictator was, of course, Uganda’s Idi Amin Dada, a former British Army cook and boxing champ. Dubbed ‘the Butcher of Uganda’, he reportedly expelled Asians from his country after being rejected by a young woman from a prominent Asian family. It’s widely believed that he cannibalised his opponents. His claim to be the King of Scotland and his penchant for writing love letters to the British Queen evidence his lunacy.

Going against the grain was the former President of Equatorial Guinea Francisco Macias Nguema whose inferiority complex led him to erase the word ‘intellectual’ from his nation’s lexicon and to shut down private schools. This witch doctor’s son was disappointed to find his ‘magic powers’ did not extend to fuelling a power station after he had banned it from using lubricants.

Several dictators have fancied themselves as authors.

President for Life of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, closed his capital’s libraries on the grounds that the only books worth reading were the Quran and his own creation ‘Ruhnama’ or ‘The Book of the Soul’ deemed compulsory reading. Niyazov renamed months of the year in honour of his own family members with September being re-named Ruhnama. His eccentricities included outlawing ballet, opera and circuses as being contrary to Turkmen traditions.

Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s ‘Green Book’ outlining the dictator’s political tenets as well as his views on women (“like men, they are human beings”) to sporting clubs (“rapacious social instruments”) and lauded freedom of expression as, “the right of every natural person, even if a person chooses to behave irrationally to express his or her insanity.”

Qaddafi freely expressed his own insanity by appointing female virgins as his personal bodyguards and travelling the world with air-conditioned tents, erected in the grounds of Libyan embassies. The Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution once sponsored a UN resolution to dissolve Switzerland and lent his support to Somali pirates in the UN General Assembly. Former Egyptian President Anwar el- Sadat once wrote in his diary that the Libyan leader was mentally ill and requires treatment.

Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein wrote four novels and poems under the penname, ‘He who Wrote it’. In ‘Zabibah and the King’, whose plot centers around a beautiful young commoner married to a cruel ruler, he displays his softer, romantic side. His book ‘The Fortified Castle’ features a wounded war hero engaged to a Kurdish girl. On his return home, his mother refuses to divide the property, representing the nation of Iraq, saying, “Only those who give it their blood and defend it are their rightful owners.”

What’s little-known is that Saddam was given to self-deprecation. He would tell a joke about a man who takes his television set to be repaired. Upon his return to collect it, he was angry to find a poster of Saddam glued to the screen. When he complains, the repairman responds with, “What’s the problem? The only thing we ever see on TV is Saddam’s face”. Saddam is said to have been a compulsive hand-washer who frequently gave lectures on the importance of cleanliness.

Europe’s also suffered its fair share of despots. Adolf Hitler is the one name that springs to everyone’s mind. It’s not generally known that this man responsible for the death of millions, including six million Jews, was obsessed with a Jewish girl named Stefanie Isak in his youth and contemplated committing suicide when his love was unrequited. Hitler was extremely vain and fastidiously clean. He would never remove his jacket even during hot weather and never allowed anyone to see him disrobed. The Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini described his German counterpart as “a teary-eyed sentimentalist” in his diaries. Indeed, just before committing suicide in his Berlin bunker, Hitler tied the knot with his longtime mistress Eva Braun. Or did he?

In their book ‘Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler’, British authors Gerrard Williams and Simon Dunstan assert he escaped from the bunker with Braun and her brother-in-law to board an aircraft to Spain en route to Argentina. There he lived peacefully until his death in 1962, aged 73 leaving behind two daughters. Sounds farcical? Then again, who knows with the lives of this special breed we call dictators are always stranger than fiction.

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