God-like kings who became killer clowns

Missing Persons No. 12: Africa's dictators

"His face is on the money. His photograph hangs in every office in his realm. His ministers wear gold pins with tiny photographs of Him on the lapels of their tailored pin-stripe suits. He names streets, football stadiums, hospitals and universities after himself. He carries a silver inlaid ivory mace or ornately carved walking- stick or a fly-whisk or a chiefly stool. He insists on being called `Doctor' or `Conqueror' or `Teacher' or `The Big Elephant' ... His every pronouncement is reported on the front page. He sleeps with the wives and daughters of powerful men ... He bans all parties except the one he controls. He rigs elections. He emasculates the courts. He cows the press. He stifles academia. He goes to church ... His cult equates his personal well-being with the well- being of the state. His rule has one overriding goal: to perpetuate his reign as Big Man.''

This description of the universal African dictator by the American journalist Blaine Harden cannot be bettered, but, like the rhinoceros, the African tyrant is becoming scarce. In the past few years the killer clowns have been replaced by technocrats or democratically elected leaders or more discreet dictators. During the Cold War tyrants were tolerated, even protected by governments in the West and East - as long as they were on "our side". Now African politics are more open, governments less powerful and the rulers thus unable to build themselves into god-like kings.

In a sense, all the first generation of African rulers were dictators. Only two stepped down gracefully from office. Some are still around, having survived the wave of democratic elections and wars in the early Nineties. The survivors include Gnassingb Eyadma of Togo and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. In Malawi, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who fits the dictator profile almost exactly, is on trial for his life. Now senile, he was forced out by an election last year. Others, such as Siad Barre of Somalia, died in their beds in exile. A few, like Ian Smith of Rhodesia and PW Botha in South Africa, are allowed to live their retirement in peace.

A few have been subdued by circumstance. Daniel arap Moi, a would-be dictator, is bound by Western allies into a show of accountability and democracy. And the world has been spared - so far - the dictatorships of President Jonas Savimbi of Angola and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi of South Africa.

The most colourful of the village tyrants was Idi Amin Dada,the huge semi-literate former sergeant who ruined Uganda between 1971 and 1979. He was driven out by the Tanzanian army and fled to Libya. Saudi Arabia gave refuge to this errant Muslim and provided him with a villa in Jeddah. He lives there now with one of the wives he didn't eat, and some of his children. Those who have seen him say he is calm and relaxed but he occasionally telephones journalists to announce that he is going back to Uganda.

I made contact him when I was in Jeddah once and he invited me "for lunch". The Saudi secret police stepped in and forced him to cancel it. In 1989 he escaped from Jeddah with a false passport and reached Nigeria unrecognised. He changed planes and went on to Kinshasa, where he was stopped and sent back.

Although Amin had the image of the savage in uniform, his predecessor and successor, Milton Obote, killed more people and caused more destruction. His second rule was ended in 1986 and he now lives in Zambia.

Jean-Bdel Bokassa, of the Central African Republic, who once ate people and crowned himself emperor, now lives as a private citizen.

A former French paratrooper, he was France's puppet; after he was overthrown in 1979 he lived in France until he decided that his country needed him again.

In 1986 he returned to reclaim his empire in the belief that people would rise up and worship him. He was arrested and put on trial but his death- sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Last year he was released, having become a born-again Christian in jail. Now he wears a white cassock and proclaims that he is the 13th apostle.

Mengistu Haile Mariam was perhaps the most drab and most dangerous of them all. He ruled Ethiopia from 1976 until he was overthrown in 1991. Hundreds of thousands died during his rule and he killed many of his political opponents personally. He modelled his state on the Soviet Union and his portrait was placed in public next to those of Marx and Lenin. He fled the capital in May 1991 and was given asylum in Zimbabwe. Visitors to his farm near Harare are banned but he too is restless to return. The new government in Ethiopia may put him on trial in absentia.

The age of the dictator has passed in Africa but tyranny is not dead. The dreams peddled by their successors, the bankers and the aid donors, may be as unreal as Bokassa's empire or Idi Amin's African superpower - and a lot less colourful.

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