Gwynne Dyer: The return of dictators

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      “I prefer death to surrender,” said Pakistan’s former military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, on April 1 to the special court that is trying him on five counts of high treason, but it’s a reasonable guess that he’d prefer exile to either of those options. The real puzzle is why he ever left his comfortable exile in England in the first place.

      In theory Musharraf, who seized power in Pakistan in 1999 and finally gave it up under great pressure in 2007, could face the death penalty if he is found guilty, but in practice he is protected by the Important Persons Act, an unwritten law that operates in almost every country. High political office is a club, and the members look after one another.

      Nevertheless, Musharraf is being greatly inconvenienced by the trial, and last week the Taliban nearly got him with a roadside bomb near Islamabad. Doubtless he missed Pakistan, but what bizarre calculation could have led him to go home and put himself in the hands of his many enemies?

      Musharraf said he was coming home to run in the 2013 election, which was delusional in the extreme. There was little reason to believe that many Pakistanis would want to vote for him after living under his arbitrary rule for eight years. There was no reason at all to think that he would not be disqualified from running in the election and put on trial for grave crimes.

      Yet Musharraf is not alone. Other ex-dictators, far nastier than him, have succumbed to the same delusion and gone home convinced that they would be welcomed back. Another recent case is Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who took over as Haiti’s dictator at 19 when his father “Papa Doc” died in 1971 and ruled it until he was overthrown by a popular revolt in 1986.

      Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere when he took power, and still the poorest when he lost it, but he took an alleged $120 million with him into exile in France. His dreaded Tonton Macoute militia murdered thousands and drove hundreds of thousands into exile, and many of them were massacred in the revolution that ended his rule, but he lived on in Paris in great luxury.

      Eventually Duvalier’s spendthrift ways and an expensive divorce got him into financial difficulties, but just going back to Haiti was not going to fix that. Yet he went home in 2011, after a quarter-century in exile. He said he was “just coming to help,” whatever that meant, but he arrived just as the recently elected president was facing charges of election-rigging, which led some to speculate that Duvalier still had political ambitions.

      He was arrested and charged with embezzlement, human rights abuses, and crimes against humanity. Three years later the courts are still pursuing him on those charges, but in the meantime he is frequently seen lunching in the bistros of Petionville, and has even been welcomed at the same events as the current president, Michel Martelly. It’s safe to say that he will not die in jail.

      And then there was Jean-Bedel Bokassa, president of the Central African Republic, later known as Emperor Bokassa I of the Central African Empire. He was a brutal soldier who had served in the French colonial army, and seized power from his country’s first president (a cousin) in 1966. For the next thirteen years he ruled the country with great violence and practically bankrupted it.

      The mass murder of schoolchildren and rumours of cannibalism finally moved the French to intervene militarily and overthrow Bokassa in 1979 while he was travelling abroad. He was sentenced to death in absentia in 1980 for the murder of many political rivals – but he returned from exile in Paris in 1986, seemingly confident that he would be welcomed with open arms.

      He was put on trial and sentenced to death againin person, this time. But the following year his sentence was commuted to life in prison, and in 1993 he was set free. In 2010, President François Bozizé issued a decree rehabilitating Bokassa and calling him “a son of the nation recognised by all as a great builder.”

      Two things are odd about this phenomenon of ex-dictators confidently returning to the scene of the crime. One, obviously, is their belief that they are still loved (as if they ever really were). But that is less strange than it seems, for during their time in power very few people dared to tell them anything else.

      What’s much more curious is the fact that the countries they misruled eventually find it necessary to forgive them. They do this not so much out of sympathy for the man who committed the crimes, but rather out of a need for the nation’s history not to be merely a meaningless catalogue of blunders and misdeeds.

      Musharraf may have come back a bit too early to benefit from instant forgiveness, for some of the people he hurt have not yet retired. But he will not face really serious jail time or the death penalty, because Pakistan’s army would not permit it. And he will be forgiven by Pakistan’s historians and myth-makers in the end, because somehow or other the history has to make sense.

      Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.




      Apr 7, 2014 at 11:22am

      Did anyone else get fooled by the headline? The Return of Dictators...I thought for sure at least Dyer might mention the return of Turkey and Egypt to dictatorship!!

      "High political office is a club, and the members look after one another."
      No one was looking after Benazir Bhutto or Zia for that matter? Perhaps they weren't luck enough to be invited on Progressive shows like Stewart's Daily Show?
      The elites regularly murder their own...The US itself ran an assassination program under COINTEL which is probably still operating through the NSA? They either kill (Wellstone), arrest (Elliott Abrahms) or neutralize (Howard Dean).
      Dyer is too much.
      Typical of these writers...they think they're insights are somehow radical and edgy and they totally miss the necessary element of deep imperialist collaboration between the West, which used to do all the 'genocidal' stuff until they hired proxies simply for domestic deniability and the myth of western enlightenment, which are simply disposable like Kleenex....ref. Tim Osman.


      Apr 7, 2014 at 4:35pm

      Hi again to all you Gwynne Dyer readers. What's the matter, can't you accept other peoples opinions when they disagree with your all knowing political columnist? Case in point-Hellslayerandy in this column or Eric's in the previous column,etc. Why the thumbs down reflex to all those who make a critical yet enlightening comments to Gwynne's column? However insightful his columns my seem they are pretty lame and time; otherwise he wouldn't get published. Thank's to you his followers he can still put bread on this table and Ease up on the tumb action!


      Apr 7, 2014 at 11:28pm

      What's with the negative comments? Dyer said nothing offensive or misleading. Sure, he did not rant about the things you want to hear about, but every article cannot be about American imperialism or hippie views on the illuminati. He is simply a left-leaning realist who produces solid articles twice a week. Give the guy a break, go get a job and stop ripping authors in comment boards with rants that have nothing to do with their articles.

      I Chandler

      Apr 8, 2014 at 2:15am

      "And he will be forgiven by historians and myth-makers in the end, because somehow or other history has to make sense."

      Presidential historian is the oldest profession. Most history is top-secret. Daniel Ellsberg contributed to the top-secret history of the Vietnam war. The papers were official bureaucratic reporting, not independent fact. They told Washington what it wanted to hear:
      Better history can be obtained from a cat video:

      Dictators are more useful than democratically elected nationalists:
      "The New Cold War doctrine is that democratically elected nationalist are new dominos threatening the US-controlled order. Egypt and Latin American elections proved that democracy is not reliable. The dangerous dominoes must be removed before they fall with the NED "democracy promoters" with their secret foreign funding and advice. "

      " because somehow or other history has to make sense."

      Ahh...that's why we need the New York Times:

      Who's behind it all ?

      Apr 8, 2014 at 10:53am

      Sure the dictators come and stay for a while. Eventually they all have to leave, but the real question to ask is who are behind them, meaning who are their paymasters?
      Recently is the unstable area of the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan , The Saudis and the Qatari's have been playing a heavy hand in creating instability either directly or through their various proxies.
      Who pays for the madrassas that brain wash hungry and uneducated young boys?

      In Uganda, there is also a dictator who has been in power for more than 20 years. He has come out against the gays in that country. If you study who is behind him you will find that it is the Christian right in the US that is propping him up.

      Who is Obama's paymaster?
      Who is Bibi's paymaster?
      Who is Harper's paymaster?
      Who is Cameron's paymaster?

      Meanwhile there are more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
      From what I understand they all lived together in harmony for many years. Shia/Sunni/Alawites/Christians and Jews all living peacefully together and now the whole country is in disarray and the most extreme elements have wormed their way in. If the Syrian government fails to hold them back the blow back is going to be very serious for the region and the US and the UK will have to put boots on the ground.
      Read the late Gore Vidal's book called " A perpetual war for a perpetual peace" to have a idea of how many outposts the US military has these days.
      I also recommend reading Robert Fisk's book " The Great War for Civilisation" which details how the British tried and failed in Afghanistan one hundred years ago.
      With Putin playing the Eastern Europe card and China playing the South China Sea card, the US and Europe with their trashed economies are going to run into serious problems.
      Alas, let's not confuse the issue, as this events are all because of of oil and gas or the routes to take it to market.


      Apr 8, 2014 at 11:09am

      I kind of liked Musharaff, or at least his book. His analysis of Pakistan's structural deficiencies, lack of rule of law, insufficient income tax, mindboggling institutional corruption, feckless religiousity, and inferiority complex makes all kinds of sense.

      Dictator he may have been, yes. But really, it's not like you can point at him as being so much less democratic than his predecessors. The army has always taken over Pakistan. He took off his uniform merely for convenience and symbolism.


      Apr 8, 2014 at 6:34pm

      Uppal, I have been suitably chastened for my rant. Now, Dyer posses the question as to why returning dictators may be forgiven for their "crimes" and suggests it might be "out of a need for the nation’s history not to be merely a meaningless catalogue of blunders and misdeeds." While there may be many reasonable explanations the reason given by D is quite farfetched and even a tad cynical. It seems rather ironic that many people would prefer a past dictator, with all his failings, to the anarchy and suffering that comes after his demise. Iraq after Saddam, Libya after Gaddafi, come to mind. Sometimes a nation is better held together by a strongman and the people prosper or suffer less than if they attempt to rule themselves without any possibility of consensus. People may yearn for a dictator, even one who has been deposed, if he can restore stability back into their lives.[Russia after the fall of Communism, via Putin] Sometimes dictatorship is a lesser evil.

      I Chandler

      Apr 8, 2014 at 7:57pm

      The dictator of the year may be elected - but he buys the votes, like Chavez:
      "The oil revenues are big enough ($1 trillion during Chavez’s presidency ) to sustain subsidies, they're not enough to transform the economy. Though Chavez’s rule has benefited the poor, they are still poor."

      A New York Times article (by Clifford Levy), describes how the dictator's opponents are blacklisted and not allowed to appear on TV. Blacklists do not happen in democracies... PravdaTV-Youtube has some propaganda on the dictator of the year: