By Jonathan PowerForeign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 20 years and guest columnist for New York Times
Thankfully neither candidate for US president is threatening “a war against dictators”. If George W. Bush had been allowed a third term- as President Franklin Roosevelt was in the 1940s- then who knows where he and his Machiavellian vice-president, Dick Cheney, might have led us.
Not for them the observation of General Colin Powell, when he was the US military’s top commander, who said “I am running out of demons”. They managed to find demons all over the place and doubtless if they were in power would have found many more. According to the new issue of World Policy Journal there are at least 10 living dictators who have all the reins of power in their own hands, controlling not just government but the law and the media. The Journal ranks them according to these criteria plus the percentage of the national income spent on the military, the prison population per capita and length of time in power.
Surprise, surprise. The number one candidate on George Bush’s and Mitt Romney’s hit list, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, didn’t make the top ten. Yet Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, heralded as a reformer, did- at number 9. Cuba’s large prison population and freeze on any kind of press freedom hangs like an albatross round his neck whatever economic reforms allowing small scale businesses he now permits.
A lesser surprise is that the autocrat, President Thein Sein of Burma, although still head of the military junta, is no longer in the top ten. Since coming to power he has freed Aung San Suu Kyi and is making fewer arrests.
One other interesting fact that emerges from this survey is that the conventional wisdom that it is more difficult to maintain an autocratic regime when surrounded by other illiberal governments or its converse turns out not to be true. Alexander Lukashenko’s hold over Belarus has been resilient despite the proximity of liberal governments in Latvia, Poland and Lithuania. Likewise Ghana has had a succession of liberal prime ministers despite the authoritarian nature of some of its African neighbours.
The worst of the dictators is Kim Jong-un of North Korea, the most secluded country in the world. On nearly all freedom and human rights indices the country comes out the worst.
Second on the dictators’ list is Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, a man wanted by the International Criminal Court, accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. He is the first sitting head of state to be indicted.
Third is Bashar al-Hassad of Syria. In the last 16 months he has presided over mass killings, torture and arbitrary arrests. He had the constitution altered, introducing a cumulative presidential term limit of 14 years.
Fourth is Teordoro Obiango Nduema of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. In the election of 2002 he won 98% of the vote. However, his apparent popularity fell when in the 2007 election he won only 97%. He has declared himself “the country’s God”. He has a personal fortune of some $600 million.
Fifth is Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe who has ruled for 33 uninterrupted years. At the age of 88 years he has become even more dictatorial and vicious. He has run a once-prosperous country into the ground.
Sixth is Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Europe’s last dictator. Presidential term limits have been abolished. He is publicly anti-Semitic and uses neo-Nazi youth gangs to intimidate opponents.
Seventh is Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea who when he ran the war of independence against Ethiopia was regarded as a democrat. Today he has absolute power and foreign journalists once so welcome during the struggle are now forbidden. A Wikileaks cable reports a diplomat as saying he is “unhinged” and “cruel and defiant”. Eighth is Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan. Hundreds of anti-regime protestors have been murdered. He has elections but opposition parties are not allowed to run against him.
Ninth is Raul Castro. His brother gave Cuba a country almost universal literacy, a good free health service and a life expectancy of 78 years. But there are no elections and no freedom of the press. Last on the list is Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo who inherited the position of president from his slain father. He has gradually put the country on the path to economic growth, brought the country’s long running civil war to an end, apart from in the far east, and has begun to liberalize, holding elections in 2009 and 2011 but circumscribing opposition movements. However, his record shows that he once led a militia of child soldiers. His country is only climbing up slowly from the brutalised state his father left it in.
None of these ten are a threat to the US or the world at large. How can they be deposed? Not by foreign military intervention. Only by natural death or by defeat in civil uprisings. Some countries may have to wait a long time.