The Worst of the Worst: Revisited
Who will be the next coconut to fall?
When I listed the “Worst of the Worst” dictators — or coconut heads, as I like to call them — in Foreign Policy last summer, bemoaning their “ignoble qualities of perfidy, cultural betrayal, and economic devastation,” few people thought the tyrants would fall any time soon. Then on Jan. 14, 2011, came a loud “THUD!” in Tunisia. A coconut dropped and smashed! Then another in Egypt on Feb. 11! Then on Aug. 24, rebels in Libya seized the “Brother Leader’s” compound, forcing the rat to flee into his underground tunnels and disappear. Pro-democracy activists are now vigorously shaking coconut trees in Africa and the Middle East, hoping that their leaders’ rickety autocracies will also come crashing down.
The so-called experts in the Western media were caught napping. These people are not ready for democracy, they once told us. Fox News couldn’t even find Egypt on the map, and seemed befuddled by the “senile and paranoid autocrat,” as I called Hosni Mubarak last year.
More pathetic and clueless than anyone else, however, were — and still are — the hardened coconuts themselves. They never saw it coming and never knew what hit them. With cobwebs dangling from their ears, they remain stone deaf and impervious to reason. With an abiding faith in their security forces to protect and save them, they have spent inordinate amounts of time and money erecting layer upon layer of security between themselves and their people — just in case one fails.
Under increasing pressure to reform their abominable political systems, dictators across Africa and the Middle East are resorting to some bizarre antics. One after another, they perform the same “coconut boogie”:
One swing forward with promises of reform, such as promising not to stand for reelection or investing in jobs programs;
Three swings back, unleashing the full fury of security forces to brutally clamp down on street demonstrators, arresting hundreds of activists and deploying live ammunition, tanks, and jet fighters;
A jerk to the left, with fists pounding on a table and a jab in the air with clenched fist, vowing to hunt down “rats and traitors”;
Then finally, a tumble for a hard landing on a frozen Swiss bank account.
Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar al-Qaddafi have all now done the coconut boogie. Now, it is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s turn, though he’s still clinging to power. More than 2,200 civilians have been killed so far in the 6-month uprising in Syria, according to the United Nations. But the tree is shaking.
Indeed, it is tough to be a coconut these days. The world is closing in on them. Their citizens are rising up. In the international community, dictators are finding their circle of friends rapidly dwindling, even in the places they used to feel most comfortable. The United Nations, generally petrified of taking on the coconut-heads, adopted a resolution permitting the international no-fly zone against Qaddafi’s forces. Switzerland has frozen the bank accounts of one despot after another. Coconuts are no longer welcome, now shunned like the bubonic plague.
And in this climate, paranoia, suspicion, and fear now grip many dictators, leading them to overact hysterically to the least provocation or expression of public dissent. Here are a few examples of the latest antics of some nervous coconuts from our Worst of the Worst list:
1. OMAR AL-BASHIR
After 21 years in office, Bashir is being hammered from all sides. On Jan. 30, taking inspiration from the events in Tunisia, angry student activists and unemployed graduates calling themselves Girifna (Arabic for “we are fed up”), began an uprising against the president’s strong-arm rule. They decried the rising cost of living and demanded that Bashir step down. The government’s response was predictable: Riot police and security officers dispersed crowds, beat demonstrators with batons, fired tear gas, and surrounded universities. One student was reportedly killed. The youth have vowed to regroup and continue with the protests until Bashir does the Tunisian two-step. But his options for a safe sanctuary have been vastly diminished since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest in March 2009.
Then on July 2, South Sudan broke away from the Arab-dominated north, taking with it oil wells and substantial oil deposits. It was not only a huge economic loss but also a personal humiliation for Bashir, who will now go down in Sudanese history as the man responsible for the break-up of Sudan. But Bashir’s woes are far from over. He faces a clutch of rebel groups in the western province of Darfur, in South Kordofan province, as well as in the east. Then in August, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in South Kordofan and two factions from the Sudan Liberation Movement in Darfur joined forces with the declared goal of overthrowing Bashir’s government and establishing a secular state in the country. Bashir has outsmarted his enemies before, but even he may find it difficult to maintain control with the country literally falling apart around him.
2. MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD
In the heat of the Egypt’s revolution, Iran’s leaders made several crass, bald-faced attempts to spin the revolt as an example of popular anti-Western aspirations. The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the oppressed people of Egypt and Tunisia yearned for an Islamic state modeled after Iran’s and that the street demonstrations were “liberating Islamic movements.”
Before Mubarak stepped down, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who assumed his second term only after crushing massive street protests denouncing his fraudulent election, urged Egyptian protestors to “free” themselves and choose their own leaders and their own form of government — as if Iranians are able do the same. He even organized a pro-government rally in Tehran where Egyptian flags were handed out to teenage schoolgirls who sang Iran’s praises, calling it the “cradle of Islamic belief and love.” The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was unimpressed, rejecting the link outright.
The arrogance of the Iranian regime is stultifying, not least because when opposition leaders asked for permission to stage a demonstration in support of Egyptian protesters, permission was flatly refused. Defiant protesters took to the streets of Tehran on Feb. 14 anyway, and were brutally suppressed. Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi was placed under house arrest. Then, after brutally suppressing his own country’s pro-democracy activists, Ahmadinejad had the temerity to condemn Qaddafi’s use of force against demonstrators, calling it “grotesque.”
Still, Iran’s reckless megalomaniac leader is in hot water — as he has been since long before the Arab revolutions began to sweep the Middle East. His incendiary rhetoric is matched in scale only by his decrepit capacity to deliver basic social services. Iran is an oil-producing country but can’t supply petroleum products to its people and must import them. This type of failure to attend to the needs of the people is exactly what touched off civil unrest in Tunisia and Egypt. But in Iran’s case, Ahmadinejad might become the casualty, if not the Islamic Republic itself.
3. YOWERI MUSEVENI
Back in 1986, when he led a rebel insurgency to overthrow strongman Milton Obote, Yoweri Museveni ebulliently declared, “No African head of state should be in power for more than 10 years.” Twenty-five years later, he is still there. His credibility in tatters, this coconut-head won re-election in February with 68 percent of the vote in a stolen election. The electoral commission was packed with the same men who ensured Museveni’s victory in previous elections. In 2005, Museveni had constitutional term limits abolished completely in a sham referendum, meaning he could run for president for life. There are also suspicions that the president is grooming his son, 36-year-old Lt. Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, to succeed him.
In June, Uganda’s main opposition leader, Kiiza Besigye, called on his supporters to walk to work to protest the high cost of transportation. The protest was over an economic issue, not a political one. But the ever-paranoid government security forces saw it differently. Describing it as “an act of terrorism,” they sprang into action, beating, tear-gassing, and hauling Besigye to jail. Upon release, he has vowed to continue with the protests and ignite a Tunisian-type of revolution.
4. RAÚL CASTRO
After 52 years under the rule of the Castro brothers, Cubans are stirring. On Aug. 23, a group of four women took to the steps of the capitol building in Havana chanting “freedom.” The Castro security goons pounced, raining rocks and using iron bars on the unarmed ladies. The crowd that had gathered booed, hissed, and insulted the agents.
Things were already getting hot for Raúl prior to the Arab Spring. Cuba’s socialist economy has been in the doldrums. On Sept. 13, 2010, Cuba announced it would lay off “at least” half a million state workers over the next six months and simultaneously allow more jobs to be created in the private sector as the socialist economy struggled to get back on its feet. The plan was part of a pledge to shed some one million state jobs, a full fifth of the official workforce. It increasingly looks like Raúl’s plan is akin to Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika” — sans “glasnost.”
“Our state cannot and should not continue maintaining companies, productive entities and services with inflated payrolls and losses that damage our economy and result counterproductive, create bad habits and distort workers’ conduct,” the CTC, Cuba’s official labor union, announced. The Castro regime, which has for decades relied on its relatively generous welfare state to retain autocratic rule, will now have to rely entirely on state repression. It’s a very fragile arrangement.
5. PAUL BIYA
After 28 years in office, Paul Biya still hasn’t had his fill. So he’ll run again for the presidency in November. But the closer the country gets to the polls, the more public frustration grows. Biya came to power in the oil-producing nation in 1982. But economic mismanagement and rampant corruption have kept the people in abject poverty.
Activists planned to start an Egypt-like uprising on Feb. 23. Itchy Cameroonian authorities were immediately placed on high alert. Riot police and paramilitary gendarmes were deployed in all major cities; the communication minister, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, warned that the organizers of the protests wanted “to destroy this nation.” The protesters did not materialize in the numbers they had hoped for, but they made the point that there is a vital opposition movement in Cameroon.
After Biya changed the constitution back in 2008 to enable another run for the presidency, riots broke out across the country, killing scores. Unrest could still easily erupt again if Biya “wins” the election over the more than 51 candidates running against him — which he is likely to. The rubber-stamp parliament passed a bill in March 2010 giving the government oversight of poll preparations, supplanting the previous independent electoral body. Could a more responsible Swiss banking system help tame the dictator? It froze the bank accounts of Ben Ali and Mubarak. Now Biya may be pondering where to hide his estimated $200 million in loot.
6. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo
In an ironic (and depressing) turn of events, this ruthless dictator, who has been in power for 31 years, has just become the chairman of the supposedly democracy-espousing African Union (AU). After the Ivory Coast’s disputed elections, he visited the Ivory Coast to preach “dialogue,” “democracy,” and “peaceful resolution” of the conflict between then-President Laurent Gbagbo and challenger Alassane Ouattara.
But, alas, his own people won’t hear the sermons, as Obiang controls the media in Equatorial Guinea. He controls pretty much everything else as well. In the November 2009 presidential election, Obiang “won” 95 percent of the vote. Placido Mico Abogo, the main opposition leader, claimed that government agents voted in place of the public and that some polling stations closed early. Foreign election observers were not allowed in the country.
Equatorial Guinea’s vast earnings from oil and gas should give its population of 700,000 people a theoretical income of $37,000 a year each. But most of them live in poverty after 15 years of plentiful oil production. There are no overt signs of dissent yet. But one thing is clear: The status quo is too unstable to hold.
Under increasing pressure to reform, Obiang is holding a constitutional referendum in December to reduce the presidential term from seven to five years — a meaningless exercise. But one more year under Obiang’s 32-year dictatorship is one too many, much less five. He is also widely suspected to be grooming his son Teodorin as a successor. Meanwhile, emboldened by Obiang’s rhetoric — as chairman of the AU — to promote democracy elsewhere in Africa, the opposition parties are demanding the release of all political prisoners before the referendum and the right to hold peaceful demonstrations.
Can the coconuts hang on? Stay tuned.