Dictators, like all of us, suffer from insecurities. It’s hard to know if you’re really very good at being a dictator – there are no books that tell you exactly how to crush freedoms and sideline opposition; and there’s rarely any positive affirmation, someone telling you what a good job you’re making of this authoritarianism business. Which is why dictators all over the world – and there are a lot of them – would have been waiting in nervous anticipation for the release of Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the World’s Worst Dictators, basically the Oscars for autocrats.
Kim Jong-Il did very well, as always, stamping his authority all over the top spot in the same way he stamps his authority over renegade elements at home. His mix of repression, secrecy and potential nuclear threat proved simply too good, as it has done for decades now. The good news will come as a relief to the country after their football team’s 7-0 humiliation by Portugal at the World Cup. No Portuguese figures make it onto this list, a fact likely to be emphasised by North Korean media.
Robert Mugabe too will be pleased. A silver medal is nothing to be sniffed at, especially when you consider that he’s had to invite his main opponent into government with him. To be the world’s second best dictator in a government of national unity takes some skill, but no one is surprised –Robert is a consummate professional, indeed a role model for some of the younger names on this list, such as Bashar Al-Assad and Hugo Chavez.
Than Shwe will accept his bronze medal, but might quibble the definition, and will need to make sure that the glory is shared around a little; after all, Burma’s meant to be more of a junta than a dictatorship, and there will be a few displeased generals to placate.
There are also a few figures which will be deeply troubled by the list. Most notable of course is Raul Castro, ranked only 21st; this is hardly a continuation of Fidel’s far more impressive dictatorial legacy. Also unhappy is Muammar Al-Gaddafi, out of the top 10, although he must have seen it coming. In February, Gaddafi launched an audacious bid to stop the rotation of the African Union’s rotating presidency, and make himself African Union president for an unprecedented second time. If the move had succeeded, he would have been dictator of an entire continent; as it was, he failed, and lost some of his dictatorial capital in the process.
The likes of Gaddafi, Kim Jong-Il, Hosni Mubarak, Islam Karimov, etc., will also be unhappy with the inclusion of a few controversial names. They are proper, old-school dictators; cult of the personality, individual control, and absolute power. Hu Jintao surely doesn’t fall into this category. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad certainly doesn’t; in fact, some would argue he is more of a flawed democrat than a real dictator. Paul Kagame too would be unlikely to describe himself as a dictator, and the World Bank and IMF will not be happy with the inclusion of their golden boy on this year’s list.
Nonetheless, congratulations to Kim Jong-Il, who looks like he’s got a secure hold on the title for many years to come. That’s not to say that other dictators of the world should give up – being a dictator is a somewhat precarious position at the best of times, so Jong-Il might pop off (or be popped off) at any time. And if this doesn’t happen, one can always hold out for a lifetime achievement award.
Here are the complete rankings (note that pretensions of royalty seem to be an immediate dis-qualifier):
- Kim Jong-Il (North Korea)
- Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe)
- Than Shwe (Burma/Myanmar)
- Omar Al-Bashir (Sudan)
- Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (Turkmenistan)
- Isaias Afwerki (Eritrea)
- Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan)
- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Iran)
- Meles Zenawi (Ethiopia)
- Hu Jintao (China)
- Muammar Al-Gaddafi (Libya)
- Bashar Al-Assad (Syria)
- Idriss Deby (Chad)
- Teodoro Obiang (Equatorial Guinea)
- Hosni Mubarak (Egypt)
- Yahya Jammeh (Gambia)
- Hugo Chavez (Venezuela)
- Blaise Compaore (Burkina Faso)
- Yoweri Museveni (Uganda)
- Paul Kagame (Rwanda)
- Raul Castro (Cuba)
- Alesandr Lukashenko (Belarus)
- Paul Biya (Cameroon)