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The Crash Landings of Corrupt Dictators

Published on News24: 7 September 2017


The biographies of corrupt dictators rarely end with, “and he lived happily ever after…” - Robert J. Traydon


When looking at the long list of unsavoury dictators - and what eventually became of them - one has to wonder why dictatorship still holds such appeal for so many of today’s leaders.


Reading up on the likes of Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Mabutu Sese Seko, Jorge Rafael Videla, Juvénal Habyarimana, and Adolf Hitler, one quickly appreciates that being a corrupt ‘dictator seldom has a happy ending.


Libya - Muammar Gadhafi


Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya for more than four decades from 1969 to 2011. During this tenure, it is estimated that Gaddafi amassed a staggering fortune of up to US$200 billion – easily making him the wealthiest person in the world. Unfortunately, not even this amount of money could save him from his brutal demise.


While fleeing Sirte, his joint civilian-military convoy was attacked by NATO bombers, which killed at least 53 people. Gadhafi and his cadres fled to a nearby house which was promptly shelled by Misrata militia. This forced Gadhafi to take refuge inside a drainage pipe lying on a construction site.


A skirmish ensued during which Gadhafi’s bodyguards and Defence Minister were killed, and Gadhafi himself was captured. The militia dragged him into the open where he was beaten savagely, partially stripped and violated with a sharp implement – all the while being filmed on a mobile phone.


His bleeding body was then loaded into an ambulance and taken to Misrata where he was declared dead on arrival. Gadhafi’s son and 66 other Gadhafi loyalists were found hours later, tied-up, abused and dead – most likely as a result of extrajudicial execution.


Iraq - Saddam Hussein


Saddam Hussein was the President of Iraq from 1979 to 2003. During his reign of tyranny, it is estimated that up to 250 000 Iraqi nationals were killed in ruthless purges and genocides.


In March 2003, a US-led coalition of forces invaded Iraq to neutralise supposed weapons of mass destruction. When Bagdad was captured in April, Hussein’s monuments were desecrated and his Firdos Square statue torn down, but his whereabouts were unknown. In July, his two sons and his 14-year-old grandson were killed in combat by US forces.


Only in December 2003 was Hussein found – hiding in a dusty hole in the ground next to a farmhouse. He then remained in prison for three years while standing trial for crimes against humanity and numerous other charges.


In November 2006, Saddam Hussein was found guilty. A month later he was executed by hanging – an event also filmed on a mobile phone.


Zaire - Mobutu Sese Seko


Mobutu Sese Seko was the President of Zaire from 1965 to 1997. Described as the ‘archetypal African dictator’, he is believed to have embezzled up to US$15 billion during his tenure as president.


Afflicted with a profound weakness for colonial-style indulgences, he built a private palace to the glory of himself known as Gbadolite, and often referred to as the ‘African Versailles’. 


Astonishingly, the nearby airport’s runway was extended to accommodate the Concorde, which Sese Seko regularly chartered for extravagant shopping trips in Paris, and the import of French champagne and caviar for his lavish dinner parties. But alas, in May 1997, Mobutu was forced to abandon his palace and flee Zaire as Kabila’s rebels closed in.


He went into temporary exile in Togo and just four months later, died a sad, lonely and painful death in Rabat, Morocco. His glorious palace was sacked and now lies in ruins – a fitting relic of his inglorious reign. 


Argentina - Jorge Rafael Videla


Jorge Rafael Videla came to power in a coup d'état and reigned as President of Argentina from 1976 to 1981.


After surviving three assassination attempts, Videla carried out a ruthless campaign of torture and murder against his political opponents and their family members in various undisclosed concentration camps. It is estimated that up to 30 000 people disappeared while in custody during this period.


In 1985, Videla was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent the next 30 years in and out of trial and prison until his unceremonious death in a prison shower in 2013.


Rwanda - Juvénal Habyarimana


Juvénal Habyarimana also seized power in a coup d'état to become the President of Rwanda from 1973 to 1994. He went by the nickname ‘Kinani’, which means ‘invincible’ and likely retained power for two decades through election rigging.


Widely known for his political antics, people were ‘encouraged’ to sing and dance in euphoric adulation of their President at various government rallies. But in 1994, Habyarimana's private jet was shot down by a ground-to-air missile shortly after taking off from the Kigali International Airport.


Both Habyarimana and the President of Burundi were killed in the crash, causing ethnic tensions to flare up across the region and eventually plunging Rwanda into a full-scale Hutu/Tutsi genocide which claimed up to one million Rwandan lives in just five months.


Germany - Adolf Hitler


A list of remorseless dictators would not be complete without Adolf Hitler, who led Germany between 1934 and 1945. During this period, he set the stage for and started World War Two which lasted six years and resulted in the death of an estimated 60 million people.


Not only this, he targeted minority groups and proactively stirred up anti-Jewish sentiment across German society. This escalated into all-out ethnic/racist victimisation which eventually led to the horrific extermination of six million Jews and others in concentration camps.


But, as WW2 drew to an end and Russian forces advanced on Berlin, Hitler committed suicide by shooting himself in his underground bunker.


His body – and that of his poisoned wife – were later taken outside by SS guards, doused in petrol and set on fire.


And the point of all this is…


Humanity can rest assured that there are few stories which end with: ‘and the corrupt dictator lived happily ever after’. Most tyrants meet their end in one of the following ways: violent death by mob beating; public trial and execution; assassination; suicide; or forlorn demise in prison/exile.


It’s easy for citizens to feel a sense of hopelessness when their leader begins to behave like a corrupt dictator, but they should fear not – every tyrant meets his end, and generally it’s an unpleasant one. Some might argue that the opulent lifestyles of corrupt dictators are worth the price they ultimately pay … but others would disagree wholeheartedly.


One thing is abundantly clear though: you become a corrupt dictator, not only at the peril of your country and its people, but also at the peril of yourself, your family and your legacy. 


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