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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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