Disneyland for Dictators
Send the autocrats of the world to Pyongyang—then confiscate their passports.By John Ryle • 7 December 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian • Expanded • New York Review of Books • Posted 2016 • 1,253 words
We live in the twilight of the dictators. Or we hope we do. The military strongmen of South America are long gone. Many of the big men of Africa are dying off, or repining in exile. Their replacements are constrained by the hegemony of global capitalism—which finds less use for autocrats now that the Cold War has ended. In Africa the power of many new leaders is further limited by the progressive dissolution of the states over which they preside
But there’s still the problem of what to do with the old guard that remains. For them, since General Pinochet’s detention in London in 1998, the world is suddenly a riskier place. And at this time of year there is liable to be a specific question on their minds: where should they go for their end-of-year break and shopping spree?
The decline of the old-style dictator doesn’t mean that citizens of the countries they used to rule are any safer or better off, at least not in Africa. These countries are now subject, sometimes more than before, to the collapse of government services, the depradations of warlords and the scourge of famine. But it means that responsibility for abuses can no longer be plausibly pinned on a single figure. Armies, insurgents, militias, mafias and international capital all take a share. The symbolic location of wickedness has shifted, making the imposition of international standards of accountability trickier, even as the human rights movement begins to make inroads on impunity.
Mengistu, Mugabe, Kabila, Amin…
Meanwhile, though, a good number of the old crocodiles still crawl free. Some are enjoying the protection of neighbours who remain in power, while their countrymen suffer the after-effects of tyranny. Consider Mengistu Haile Mariam, leader of the Derg, the junta that ruled Ethiopia for most of the 1970s and 1980s, a man who can be held responsible for the imprisonment, torture and murder of thousands of his opponents, as well as the deaths of hundreds of thousands of other Ethiopians and Eritreans in over a decade of civil war, a man who makes General Pinochet look like a pussycat.
Most of Mengistu’s henchmen are now on trial in Addis Ababa, charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. It’s a half-forgotten trial that began in 1994 and has still not been concluded. Christmas in the Ethiopian calendar falls differently from the rest of Christendom, but we can be reasonably sure that conditions are not pleasant where they are housed in Addis Ababa, in a jail called The End of the World.
For Mengistu, on the other hand, the holiday period will be quite congenial. Since he fled the country in 1991, abandoning his followers to their fate, he has been living with his family in Zimbabwe, in Harare, in an exclusive suburb with the apt name of Gun Hill. Ethiopian calls for his extradition have been ignored by the Zimbabwean government.
…Babydoc, Pinochet, Stroessner, Suharto…
Mengistu’s protector, Robert Mugabe, also has more than a few human rights abuses to his name, both as a leader of the insurgency in Rhodesia, and as head of state after independence. In fact he learned his trade partly from Mengistu, whose army trained units of the liberation forces that Mugabe led in the 1970s. Mugabe’s loyalty to his mentor and fellow-autocrat is heart-warming, a model of honour among thieves—especially considering the expense of maintaining an ex-dictator year after year in the style to which he is accustomed, with 24-hour guards and limitless international phone calls.
The Zimbabwean economy is currently under unprecedented strain. The country is half-paralysed by national strikes and the army is embroiled in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in support of the regime of Laurent Kabila, a would-be Mobutu whose iron heel has been hobbled only by the absence of backing from the United States and Europe. In Zimbabwe there’s little public support for the intervention in the Congo, which is generally believed to be designed to protect the Zimbabwean President’s personal financial interests there.
Mugabe himself was in London recently, but not on official business. What was he doing? He was doing his Christmas shopping, naturally. It’s reminiscent of the most notorious African autocrat of all, Idi Amin Dada, who lives now in well-upholstered exile in Saudi Arabia. Back in 1971, it is said, President Amin arrived unannounced one day at Heathrow in his private plane. An audience with the Queen was rapidly arranged. She asked him to what she owed the unexpected pleasure of his visit. Her 18-stone guest, a heavyweight among modern tyrants—on his way to becoming one of the most bloodstained—reportedly told her that in Uganda it was very difficult to find a pair of size 14 shoes.
…Castro, Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein…
How they love to shop, these big men. They’ve taken the old wisecrack to heart: when the going gets tough, they go shopping. And when they finally get the chop, they shop on. It seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon: the Imelda Marcos syndrome. Babydoc Duvalier, former dictator of Haiti, exiled to France, was a great one for boutiques too. That was until his wife made off with all the money.
How unfortunate for Mengistu that, owing to the precedent set by the Pinochet case, he could not risk accompanying his host, Robert Mugabe, on his jaunt to see the Christmas lights in London. But maybe Mengistu also has an inkling that his patron’s days are numbered. It was reported recently that he had been discussing political asylum with diplomats from North Korea, a country whose leader is another of the surviving members of the now depleted Dictators’ Club. It was North Koreans who trained the notorious Fifth Brigade of the Zimbabwean Army, which was involved in the murder of dissidents in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. And North Korean iconographers working in Ethiopia painted the huge portraits of Mengistu that dominated the streets of Addis Ababa back in the days of the personality cult.
…send them all to Pyongyang
Mengistu in Pyongyang. Now there’s a capital idea. And here’s a better one: why don’t they all go there—all the dictators—and not come back? Why not sentence them to life in exile—in North Korea, the phantom zone of global politics. The North Korean President, Kim Jong Il, son and successor of Kim Il Sung, would surely be particularly pleased to welcome Babydoc Duvalier, who is a fils de papa just like himself.
Babydoc and Kim. Mengistu, Mugabe and Amin. Pinochet, Stroessner and Castro. And Suharto, Gaddafi and Saddam. Let Pyongyang be their prison. All together in one run-down villa without heat or running water or internet access. With nothing to read except the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Let them do their Christmas shopping in the empty arcades of the North Korean economic disaster, where they’ll have plenty of time to decide who plays Santa Claus.
It may seem unfair to the long-suffering people of North Korea to impose this bunch of kleptocrats on them. But the day freedom comes they could become a tourist attraction. The public architecture of Pyongyang is already a kind of Dictators’ Disneyland, a museum of totalitarian kitsch. These superannuated autocrats could form the core of a living exhibit of bad government. And then—as they die off and are embalmed—a mausoleum of dictatorship, a memorial to the old days when political wickedness was embodied in all-powerful leaders. ✭