This week, we mourn the deaths of Václav Havel, the man who led the former Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution against Soviet domination, and of Christopher Hitchens, the man of the astonishingly agile mind, who railed against totalitarianism in all its forms.
In fitting counterpoint, news broke this weekend that the Dear Leader of North Korea has obliged them, and joined the Brother Leader of Libya on the ash heap of history.
It’s been quite a year for dictators and international fugitives. Many were deposed, and not a few died. Few were more odious than North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, who presided over a country that stubbornly clung to a vicious brand of communist thought control.
North Korea has long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. Its standing army is exceeded only by those of three vastly larger countries: China, the USA and India. Per capita, it is by some margin the largest in the world. For every thousand of its starving people, fifty better-fed soldiers guard the country’s deserted streets, barren farms and empty food shops from foreign attack.
After all, the greed of American neo-fascist imperialist warmongers knows no bounds, and the jealous bastards have troops just across the “demilitarised” zone for a reason. In international relations departments, the term “juche envy” is used to describe such latent Yankee aggression.
Rare visitors to the secretive state report many positive emotions – happiness, national pride, and when appropriate, grief – etched on the faces of newsreaders and tour guides. North Korea has concentration camps in which live humans – those who failed to hold Kim in sufficiently high esteem, along with their parents, siblings and children – are subjected to gruesome chemical weapon experiments. You’d smile too, if that was your alternative.
Inept though the country’s official propaganda is, it should be noted that in reality, Kim Jong Il was dead for two days before anyone – but anyone – knew about it. At first, reports said he, the indefatigable Dear Leader, had died of fatigue. Reports remain mixed at the time of writing, but the Korean Central News Agency, the source for a great deal of amusement and very little truth, says it was a myocardial infarction.
Such secrecy is the mark of a thoroughly repressive totalitarian state. It is also why the song I’m so ronery, from that superb documentary, Team America: World Police, is so funny. Few people – outside an unthinking few on the far left who support by default anything the free world opposes – have any sympathy for the porcine, totalitarian bastard. He died with the blood of uncounted millions on his hands.
Much the same sentiment (though at somewhat lesser scale) goes for Osama Bin Laden, the non-national paramilitary leader whose death in May was celebrated by all freedom-loving people on the planet, despite any disquiet that the robust application of military force on the part of the world’s powerful but free nations might raise.
And the same also holds true for Father O’Gaddafey, to use the Irish variation of the name of the Brother Leader with 112 Names. (I made that up. To be clear, I made up the Irish variation, not the bit about 112 names.)
Let us not forget Tunisia, where the death of a salesman, Mohammed Bouazizi, by self-immolation led to the overthrow of its dictator of 24 years, Zine el Abedine Ben Ali. Or Egypt, where courageous protestors first toppled the 29-year dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and are now engaged in resistance against the military rule that followed. Or Yemen, where Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled since 1978, has been forced out of office, and will decamp this week, if he proves true to his word.
Many other countries across the Mahreb and Levant have witnessed dramatic political change in the last year as their long-oppressed peoples find their voices, their inspiration, and their courage to fight for freedom.
The events of 2011 prompted an inspired Nando’s advertisement. The visuals are hilarious. The politics are shrewd: the notion that Robert Mugabe and PW Botha were birds of a feather was spot-on. And the nostalgic lyrics, which never fail to raise a lump in the throat, are beautifully ironic. Here’s a subtitled version of the most famous recording, by Mary Hopkin in 1968. (And if you’re interested in the original Russian gypsy song, it is here. Do your self a favour – Editor)
But despite the happy light this advert casts on political developments in the world, the dictator dominoes still have a way to go. Despite all this progress, it is sobering to note how many vicious tyrants the world still holds.
I’d like to make a wish, in the spirit of the year that has been. With the #godisnotgreat Twitter furore that followed the death of the Hitch, I got all I wanted for Christmas, so this will have to be a New Year’s wish. I’d like to see a dozen more dictators resolve to go, or be forced out by revolution or death.
Let’s start with the Nando’s ad, and the observation that it was pulled from television stations for fear of the safety of employees in Zimbabwe, the country ruled by the dictator it lampooned.
1. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe
Mugabe was once arguably a hero of the freedom struggle, but he turned liberation into an awful parody. He started his three decades of tyranny with the Matabeleland massacres, and spent the remainder turning his beautiful country into a cesspit of oppression, violence, corruption and poverty. What used to be the food basket of southern Africa became a hyperinflationary joke. Many died. Many more suffered brutal beatings or starvation. Millions fled.
Almost nobody, except the thugs on Mugabe’s payroll, is willing to defend his destruction of Zimbabwe, and that’s a boast not even many dictators can make.
Mad Bob, you’ve done enough to prove that only the good die young. Go.
2. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran
Iran’s president was the object of the Green Revolution, the popular but as-yet incomplete uprising that started the social networks’ obsession with the overthrow of tyrannical regimes.
The image of Neda Agha-Soltan’s beautiful, startled face as she died on camera will forever be engraved on my mind. The Twitter hashtag that brought this new kind of news coverage to the world, #iranelection, stand etched in the annals of history as a turning point in how people interact on social networks.
The Green Revolution to a considerable extent inspired the uprisings elsewhere in the region, by demonstrating that the love of freedom gives power and courage even to the most oppressed peoples. Iranians led the march to freedom. They deserve some of the success that others have achieved.
Iran has a long and fractious history. It has degenerated by stages, from the flowering civilisation of Persia, to a modern but corrupt Cold War client state, to the backward and repressive theocracy it is today. From the outset, Iran’s revolutionary rulers have indulged in reckless diplomatic and military brinkmanship, both overt and covert. Its government persists on a path of nuclear stand-off, threatening its neighbours and the free world in the hope of dominating the region. Its religious leaders routinely torture and kill people, including women, for exercising even the most petty freedoms.
The Iranian regime has become odious – too offensive for its own people to tolerate. It is no surprise that it has to buy the acquiescence of the middle class with cheap fuel and handouts. It is no surprise it has employed the Basij, millions of violent thugs reminiscent of Hitler’s “brown shirts”, to enforce strict religious codes and suppress political resistance. The revolutionary path of Iran will end, and a free society will emerge. What was once a great civilisation will rise again. The question is how long it will take, and how bloody it will be. For the good of the Iranian people, and the world, Ahmadinejad must go. If he takes Ayatollah Khamenei with him, few will complain.
3. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
Arguably less violent but no less oppressive than Iran, this awkward ally of the US lies at the heart of the Middle East. Its oil-driven engine is in dire need of an overhaul. Either the regime needs to change, or the people need to change the regime. Under a strict interpretation of religious law based on the teachings of a fundamentalist sect, women are segregated from male society and live their lives as chattel. In the ultimate insult to their legal competence, they are subject even to male children, if a male adult cannot serve as guardian. Minority tribes, guest workers and Hajj pilgrims who don’t share the Saudi interpretation of Islam have few rights, and suffer injustices ranging from petty discrimination to domestic abuse. Religious freedom is non-existent in Saudi Arabia, which officially considers the Quran and Sunna to be its constitution. Political parties, trades union and public protests are banned. The press is heavily censored. If I were Saudi, this column wouldn’t get published, and I’d be jailed. Lucky I’m not gay, because that could earn me a flogging or execution at the hands of the enlightened monarchy. The House of Saud must fall. It is time for Sheik Abdullah to go.
4. Omar al-Bashir of Sudan
His 22 years in command of the Sudan have been blighted decades of violent civil war, brutal repression, medieval religious rules, genocide in Darfur, and the documented theft of many billions of dollars from the people of the Sudan. Make us happy and go, Al-Bashir. To hell, if heaven won’t have you.
5. Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea
Eritrea has suffered under brutal misrule ever since its independence from Ethiopia 20 years ago. Afewerki dissolved parliament in 1992, and it hasn’t met since. There is no private, free media at all in his country, so we can’t know just how bad things really are, but tales about draconian work camps, religious persecution and tens of thousands of political refugees make it clear that he is no longer welcome among his people. Go.
6. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela
A darling of the socialist left, Chávez has confiscated private property, suppressed the media, taken control of formerly independent universities, and persecuted political opponents, including by co-opting the judiciary as a political weapon. Venezuela’s bountiful oil revenue affords Chávez the opportunity to bribe citizens with subsidised necessities and political patronage, a strategy that, as with Iran, is not atypical of repressive regimes. Ironically, this produces some statistics that give cover to his defenders on the left, and give force to his attempts to export the “Bolívarian revolution” to Latin America and beyond. The truth, however, is simple: Chávez is a brutal socialist thug on an oil drip. He needs to go.
7 and 8. Raúl and Fidel Castro of Cuba
While we’re sojourning on the communist side of Latin America, let’s add the Castro brothers. There is a reason their citizens risk their lives to flee their prison state on home-made rafts. Useful idiots such as Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore find themselves (rightly) moved by the harsh embargo against Cuba, to (wrongly) romanticise an idealised, sanitised version of the revolutionary island state. Unlike them, the people who actually suffer Cuba’s much-vaunted “quality of life” are not entirely enchanted with the island paradise, and prefer to risk drowning. The Castros must go.
9. Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia
His Excellency Sheikh Professor Al Haji Dr Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh of The Gambia is not very widely known, but those who do, know him for allegedly killing journalists, proposing to decapitate homosexuals, disappearing thousands of citizens with arbitrary detentions and rigged trials, and duping the rest with claims of miracle herbal cures for everything from infertility to Aids. Development spending is limited to regions that support him, in the classic political patronage ploy of dictators. Inspired by the uprisings in the Arab world, Gambians both at home and abroad have been protesting his rule all year, noting that the leader of the opposition is rotting in jail for daring to oppose Jammeh in public. Yahya Jammeh, your time is up. Go.
10. Bashar al-Assad of Syria
Bashar al-Assad and his father have ruled Syria for a combined 40 years. Intelligence circles are undoubtedly mistaken about the chemical weapons stockpiles Syria has had for decades. Satellite imagery shows it has recently been expanding its facilities to warehouse and manufacture complex chemicals, but surely the chemicals in question are multi-vitamins. For little babies. After all, Syria says it’s been calling for a WMD-free Middle East since 1987, and none were found in Iraq, from where a large convoy was seen heading to Syria mere days before the 2003 invasion. In 2007, an Israeli air strike targeted what couldn’t possibly have been a military nuclear facility built by the North Koreans, because that would violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty of which Syria is a signatory.
All this is just western imperialist propaganda, no doubt, but what we do know is that just this year, thousands of Syrians have died protesting their continued repression at the hands of the Assad regime.
The Arab League, not renowned for its aggressive stance against members on matters of liberty and democracy, has suspended Syria and imposed sanctions. Never mind a peace deal. Assad is a dangerous, murderous dictator. He must go.
11. Theodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea
Nguema has ruled his small but oil-rich country for 32 years, after deposing and killing his murderous uncle. He is Africa’s longest-serving “democratically-elected leader”, having won 99 of 100 seats in elections a few years ago.
He might be chairman of the African Union, but perhaps that is because they couldn’t deny a fellow who claims to be God, and above the judgement of mere mortals in matters of murder and torture. Besides, as the histories of UN Commissions on Human Rights, Disarmament and the Status of Women show, membership of international organisations means squat, especially when you have oil or broadly oppose the United States.
Nguema has won several other plaudits. Most of them are fictional, however, with the notable exception of the Admiralship of the Great Navy of Nebraska. This is indeed a genuine award, most fitting to this eccentric tyrant.
His people might be too scared to say so, and foreign governments – like South Africa – too enamoured of his abundant new oil wealth, but Nguema is a blot on the African continent. He needs to go.
12… no, scratch that. I was going to include Burma on this list, but the long-serving tyrant in charge of the military junta in that benighted country, Than Shwe, has this year given way to the supposedly civilian rule of U Thein Sein. Though his “election” was neither free nor fair, he is seen as a pragmatic reformer, has released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and convened a parliament for the first time in two decades. He merits a close eye, but doesn’t make my wish list. Yet. Also, I spent an extra number on the ghost of Fidel Castro, so I need number 12 for someone closer to home.
12. King Mswati III of Swaziland
Mswati runs his small country as a personal fiefdom. He is the quintessential kleptocrat, who had the temerity to demand a R400 million “facilitation fee” for arranging a financial rescue package from South Africa. By all accounts, his interior decorators and luxury car dealers need this money. Mswati and his thirteen wives – whom he chooses by annually having the country’s most nubile virgins line up and dance for him – live it up in ever-more lavish style, while his subjects endure abject poverty. They are dependent on unproductive subsistence farming or food aid despite living in one of the most fertile regions of the sub-continent. The popular press makes caricatures out of fat little despots like Mswati, because ordinary people needlessly suffer under their boot-heels. Fat little despots like Mswati ruthlessly crush popular protest, because they know this. He’s a festering pimple on the cheek of South Africa. The sooner he is gone, the better.
In the interest of modest ambitions, I’ve limited the list to these dirty dozen. There are a few more leaders deserving of a proper ousting, notably in some of the former Soviet states, but getting rid of this dirty dozen would be a good start for 2012. DM