Failed States

A Literal Disaster

Things are just what they seem in the Central African Republic.

A charming tic of Central Africans is a tendency to label things as literally as possible, including their own country, a republic in Central Africa that calls itself the "Central African Republic." For a few dollars, street vendors in the capital city of Bangui sell framed collages of butterfly wings as souvenirs of Central Africa; they are emblazoned with the helpful slogan, "SOUVENIR OF CENTRAL AFRICA." The only Chinese restaurant in town is called "Chinese Restaurant."

So it was a surprise and a disappointment to be warned that for World Food Day, the one thing I could not depend on finding was something to eat. François Bozizé, the Central African general who declared himself president in 2003, had chosen to celebrate the U.N.-sponsored holiday last December in Obo, the country's worst-off region. Obo suffers from the triple whammy of extreme remoteness, proximity to perennial basket cases Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and -- worst of all -- constant raids by the Lord's Resistance Army, the Ugandan terrorist group that is the African answer to the Manson Family, only less predictable and with better musical taste. Bozizé brought his own food, while the people of Obo prepared to survive on their usual diet of manioc, a crop easy to grow but about as nutritious as sawdust.

The Central African Republic is a black hole of governance at the center of the continent. Since declaring independence from France in 1960 it has served up a veritable tasting menu of African despotisms: military dictatorships, civilian kleptocracies, and even an "empire," complete with an emperor on a golden throne. None lasted much more than a decade before the chef brought out an equally unpalatable new course. Bozizé has fared no better than his predecessors, ruling a territory the size of Texas with a GDP significantly smaller than that of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. As it has for the last two decades, the CAR under Bozizé gets by only through massive quantities of foreign aid, which has familiar corrosive effects on government. As one traveler has written, "Foreign aid is to the CAR what cocaine is to Colombia."

But that aid has helped Bozizé, now 63, establish a firm if thieving grip on the country. A general of the George Custer variety -- last in his class at the officers' academy in Libreville, Gabon, yet canny enough to rise through the ranks -- Bozizé first found a patron in the late 1970s in Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who promoted him after witnessing Bozizé beat an insolent soldier. After Bozizé rose to army chief of staff in the 1990s, Chadian President Idriss Déby -- a neighborhood power broker and enemy of Bozizé's predecessor -- eventually smiled upon him, and Bozizé took power almost unopposed in 2003. He continues to have a Chadian praetorian guard, along with a surprising reputation as an improvement on his predecessors, at least when it comes to consolidating corruption inside the state. What Rudyard Kipling once wrote of police in colonial India could apply to him: He may be a thief and extortionist, but at least he does not suffer any rivals outside his own circle.

But aid money -- and the power that flows with it -- extends only so far in the CAR. And the republic under Bozizé is now rotting at the edges. Bozizé took power through force, and a thousand revolts have blossomed following his example. His procedure to deal with them is now routine: Rebels seize a prefectural capital for a day or two, scaring off ill-equipped government forces. Bozizé sends in his own soldiers with French support to take back the town. The rebels negotiate, and eventually they come to the capital as Bozizé supporters, their leader reincarnated as a trusted presidential advisor and each of his lieutenants upgraded to colonel. Like doomed planets, the rebel movements are pulled into Bozizé's black hole and then eliminated by being bought off. The cycle continues, and paradoxically it is almost sustainable: Having mini-rebellions on every border means no single one gathers enough force to threaten the capital. The best one can say about this equilibrium of anarchy is that the CAR is modestly better off than its neighbors, which are saddled with a malevolent strongman in Chad, the permanent menace of civil war in Sudan, and the wholesale discontinuation of government in the Congo.

At least that appears to be the cause for celebration when I follow Bozizé to the farthest edge of his domain in Obo, which lies near the border of the plagues in Sudan and the Congo. The authorities had been determined to make an occasion of the visit. Bozizé ordered the road cleared so his entourage could drive there in five days, when before if they had tried the journey, they would have arrived sometime between a week later and never. He also sent a generator, and in the days before the World Food Day party, Obo had the unbelievable luxury of whole nights of power. When Bozizé arrives, those lined up to meet him include vendors of illegal elephant ivory, kindergarteners, and a group of pratfall artists who clown around the presidential dais in whiteface, pretending to hunt monkeys.

When the strongman addresses the crowd, he promises more attention from the government, but the people of Obo seem unsure what to think of this, given that power around there is associated with banditry and they might actually prefer their government to stay far away. Bozizé resolves their ambivalence: "Applaud!" he commands, and they do.

Bozizé really has two constituencies: the Central Africans, whom he addresses in the Sango language, and the U.N. and diplomatic delegations, whom he addresses in French. The messages diverge brazenly, with paternalism for the citizens ("amolenge," he calls them, or "children") and pious talk of responsibility and development for the international donors on the dais next to him. French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Vidon is resplendent in an all-white suit, like Tom Wolfe just back from the dry cleaner. U.S. Ambassador Frederick Cook, who at $12 million per year represents CAR's single largest humanitarian donor, recently quarreled with Bozizé about dispersal of funds to build roads (Bozizé wanted to spend the money to rent his government's grader; Cook wanted to pay manual laborers directly). Today he is not present.

In Sango, Bozizé ends with the best-received promise of the afternoon, which is to step up security enough to allow the World Food Program to cart in its troughs of aid. The state has so withered outside the capital, however, that the only guarantee of security Bozizé can offer comes from the Ugandan military forces that prowl the forests outside Obo in search of the Lord's Resistance Army. It's a reminder of just how little the government has to offer; Bozizé can promise nothing but benign neglect and protection provided by a foreign state with only its own terrorist-hunting expedition in mind.

The president has brought food, but for Obo's people, it is strictly look-but-don't-touch, smell-but-don't-taste. Bozizé (wearing an orange shirt emblazoned with his party's logo and no fewer than six photographic likenesses of himself) convenes his cabinet and foreign dignitaries around a specially built concrete platform in an open area of the town. The catering is lavish: cold beer and French wine; cold cuts; and a buffet with potatoes, bread, couscous, and a Nile perch as thick as my thigh. Soldiers keep back the rest of Obo -- thousands of people -- about 20 yards from the tables, close enough for the rich grainy smell of the couscous to romance their nostrils. If I were not among the dignitaries, shamelessly profiting from my pale skin, I would probably be seriously annoyed at the arrangement. But the people of Obo think somewhat differently. The only Central African leader whose rule they claim to remember more fondly is Emperor Bokassa, who spent $22 million, or about 5 percent of the country's GDP, on a ceremony to have himself installed on a golden throne, Napoleon-style.

When Bozizé leaves Obo the next day, his entourage stays behind to finish the wine, even licking the bottlenecks clean. The generator that Bozizé sent in stops running that night (Where would it get fuel? No one seemed to know), and the buffet stands abandoned, like circus grounds after the elephants and big tops have been crated up and moved out. To the east in the darkness is Sudan, to the south the madness of Congo. North and west, Ugandan soldiers and rebels are shooting at each other. So how can hungry Obo complain?

NEXT: Eritrea: Africa's North Korea


Failed States

The Worst of the Worst

Bad dude dictators and general coconut heads.

A continent away from Kyrgyzstan, Africans like myself cheered this spring as a coalition of opposition groups ousted the country's dictator, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. "One coconut down, 39 more to harvest!" we shouted. There are at least 40 dictators around the world today, and approximately 1.9 billion people live under the grip of the 23 autocrats on this list alone. There are plenty of coconuts to go around.

The cost of all that despotism has been stultifying. Millions of lives have been lost, economies have collapsed, and whole states have failed under brutal repression. And what has made it worse is that the world is in denial. The end of the Cold War was also supposed to be the "End of History" -- when democracy swept the world and repression went the way of the dinosaurs. Instead, Freedom House reports that only 60 percent of the world's countries are democratic -- far more than the 28 percent in 1950, but still not much more than a majority. And many of those aren't real democracies at all, ruled instead by despots in disguise while the world takes their freedom for granted. As for the rest, they're just left to languish.

Although all dictators are bad in their own way, there's one insidious aspect of despotism that is most infuriating and galling to me: the disturbing frequency with which many despots, as in Kyrgyzstan, began their careers as erstwhile "freedom fighters" who were supposed to have liberated their people. Back in 2005, Bakiyev rode the crest of the so-called Tulip Revolution to oust the previous dictator. So familiar are Africans with this phenomenon that we have another saying: "We struggle very hard to remove one cockroach from power, and the next rat comes to do the same thing. Haba!" Darn!

I call these revolutionaries-turned-tyrants "crocodile liberators," joining the ranks of other fine specimens: the Swiss bank socialists who force the people to pay for economic losses while stashing personal gains abroad, the quack revolutionaries who betray the ideals that brought them to power, and the briefcase bandits who simply pillage and steal. Here's my list of the world's worst dictators. I have ranked them based on ignoble qualities of perfidy, cultural betrayal, and economic devastation. If this account of their evils makes you cringe, just imagine living under their rule.

Photo Composite by Wind Up Digital

1. KIM JONG IL of North Korea: A personality-cult-cultivating isolationist with a taste for fine French cognac, Kim has pauperized his people, allowed famine to run rampant, and thrown hundreds of thousands in prison camps (where as many as 200,000 languish today) -- all while spending his country's precious few resources on a nuclear program.
Years in power: 16

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2. ROBERT MUGABE of Zimbabwe: A liberation "hero" in the struggle for independence who has since transformed himself into a murderous despot, Mugabe has arrested and tortured the opposition, squeezed his economy into astounding negative growth and billion-percent inflation, and funneled off a juicy cut for himself using currency manipulation and offshore accounts.
Years in power: 30


3. THAN SHWE of Burma: A heartless military coconut head whose sole consuming preoccupation is power, Shwe has decimated the opposition with arrests and detentions, denied humanitarian aid to his people after 2008's devastating Cyclone Nargis, and thrived off a black market economy of natural gas exports. This vainglorious general bubbling with swagger sports a uniform festooned with self-awarded medals, but he is too cowardly to face an honest ballot box.
Years in power: 18


4. OMAR HASSAN AL-BASHIR of Sudan: A megalomaniac zealot who has quashed all opposition, Bashir is responsible for the deaths of millions of Sudanese and has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Bashir's Arab militias, the janjaweed, may have halted their massacres in Darfur, but they continue to traffic black Sudanese as slaves (Bashir himself has been accused of having had several at one point).
Years in power: 21


5. GURBANGULY BERDIMUHAMEDOV of Turkmenistan: Succeeding the eccentric tyrant Saparmurat Niyazov (who even renamed the months of the year after himself and his family), this obscure dentist has kept on keeping on with his late predecessor's repressive policies, explaining that, after all, he bears an "uncanny resemblance to Niyazov."
Years in power: 4


6. ISAIAS AFWERKI of Eritrea: A crocodile liberator, Afwerki has turned his country into a national prison in which independent media are shut down, elections are categorically rejected, indefinite military service is mandatory, and the government would rather support Somali militants than its own people.
Years in power: 17


7. ISLAM KARIMOV of Uzbekistan: A ruthless thug ruling since Soviet times, Karimov has banned opposition parties, tossed as many as 6,500 political prisoners into jail, and labels anyone who challenges him an "Islamic terrorist." What does he do with "terrorists" once they are in his hands? Torture them: Karimov's regime earned notoriety for boiling two people alive and torturing many others. Outside the prisons, the president's troops are equally indiscriminate, massacring hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in 2005 after a minor uprising in the city of Andijan.
Years in power: 20


8. MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD of Iran: Inflammatory, obstinate, and a traitor to the liberation philosophy of the Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad has pursued a nuclear program in defiance of international law and the West. Responsible for countless injustices during his five years in power, the president's latest egregious offense was leading his paramilitary goons, the Basij, to violently repress protesters after June 2009's disputed presidential election, which many believe he firmly lost.
Years in power: 5


9. MELES ZENAWI of Ethiopia: Worse than the former Marxist dictator he ousted nearly two decades ago, Zenawi has clamped down on the opposition, stifled all dissent, and rigged elections. Like a true Marxist revolutionary, Zenawi has stashed millions in foreign banks and acquired mansions in Maryland and London in his wife's name, according to the opposition -- even as his barbaric regime collects a whopping $1 billion in foreign aid each year.
Years in power: 19


10. HU JINTAO of China: A chameleon despot who beguiles foreign investors with a smile and a bow, but ferociously crushes political dissent with brutal abandon, Hu has an iron grip on Tibet and is now seeking what can only be described as new colonies in Africa from which to extract the natural resources his growing economy craves.
Years in power: 7

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11. MUAMMAR AL-QADDAFI of Libya: An eccentric egoist infamous for his indecipherably flamboyant speeches and equally erratic politics, Qaddafi runs a police state based on his version of Mao's Red Book -- the Green Book -- which includes a solution to "the Problem of Democracy." Repressive at home, Qaddafi masquerades as Africa's king of kings abroad (the African Union had to politely insist that he step down as its rotating head).
Years in power: 41


12. BASHAR AL-ASSAD of Syria: A pretentious despot trying to fit into his father's shoes (they're too big for him), Assad has squandered billions on foreign misadventures in such places as Lebanon and Iraq while neglecting the needs of the Syrian people. His extensive security apparatus ensures that the population doesn't complain.
Years in power: 10


13. IDRISS DÉBY of Chad: Having led a rebel insurgency against a former dictator, Déby today faces a similar challenge -- from one of his own former cabinet officials, among others. To repel would-be coup leaders, Déby has drained social spending accounts to equip the military, co-opted opposition-leader foes, and is now building a moat around the capital, N'Djamena.
Years in power: 20


14. TEODORO OBIANG NGUEMA MBASOGO of Equatorial Guinea: Obiang and his family literally own the economy, having reportedly amassed a fortune exceeding $600 million while the masses are left in desperate poverty. Equatorial Guinea's extraordinary oil wealth puts its GDP per capita on par with many European states -- if only it were evenly shared. Instead, revenues remain a "state secret."
Years in power: 31


15. HOSNI MUBARAK of Egypt: A senile and paranoid autocrat whose sole preoccupation is self-perpetuation in office, Mubarak is suspicious of even his own shadow. He keeps a 30-year-old emergency law in place to squelch any opposition activity and has groomed his son, Gamal, to succeed him. (No wonder only 23 percent of Egyptians bothered to vote in the 2005 presidential election.)
Years in power: 29


16. YAHYA JAMMEH of Gambia: This eccentric military buffoon has vowed to rule for 40 years and claims to have discovered the cure for HIV/AIDS. (Jammeh also claims he has mystic powers and will turn Gambia into an oil-producing country; no luck yet.) A narcissist at heart, the dictator insists on being addressed as His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh.
Years in power: 16


17. HUGO CHÁVEZ of Venezuela: The quack leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, Chávez promotes a doctrine of participatory democracy in which he is the sole participant, having jailed opposition leaders, extended term limits indefinitely, and closed independent media.
Years in power: 11


18. BLAISE COMPAORÉ of Burkina Faso: A tin-pot despot with no vision and no agenda, save self-perpetuation in power by liquidating opponents and stifling dissent, Compaoré has lived up to the low standards of his own rise to power, after murdering his predecessor, Thomas Sankara, in a 1987 coup.
Years in power: 23


19. YOWERI MUSEVENI of Uganda: After leading a rebel insurgency that took over Uganda in 1986, Museveni declared: "No African head of state should be in power for more than 10 years." But 24 years later, he is still here, winning one "coconut election" after another in which other political parties are technically legal but a political rally of more than a handful of people is not.
Years in power: 24


20. PAUL KAGAME of Rwanda: A liberator who saved the Tutsis from complete extermination in 1994, Kagame now practices the same ethnic apartheid he sought to end. His Rwandan Patriotic Front dominates all levers of power: the security forces, the civil service, the judiciary, banks, universities, and state-owned corporations. Those who challenge the president are accused of being a hatemonger or divisionist and arrested.
Years in power: 10


21. RAÚL CASTRO of Cuba: Afflicted with intellectual astigmatism, the second brother Castro is pitifully unaware that the revolution he leads is obsolete, an abysmal failure, and totally irrelevant to the aspirations of the Cuban people. He blames the failure of the revolution on foreign conspiracies -- which he then uses to justify even more brutal clampdowns.
Years in power: 2

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22. ALEKSANDR LUKASHENKO of Belarus: An autocrat and former collective farm chairman, Lukashenko maintains an iron grip on his country, monitoring opposition movements with a secret police distastefully called the KGB. His brutal style of governance has earned him the title "Europe's last dictator"; he even gave safe haven to Kyrgyzstan's toppled leader when that country rose up this spring.
Years in power: 16

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23. PAUL BIYA of Cameroon: A suave bandit who has reportedly amassed a personal fortune of more than $200 million and the mansions to go with it, Biya has co-opted the opposition into complete submission. Not that he's worried about elections; he has rigged the term limit laws twice to make sure the party doesn't end anytime soon.
Years in power: 28

NEXT: The Central Republic: A Literal Disaster