Monday, October 30, 2006

The gentler sex?

Recently, reader Eriqua left a comment, asking:

"do we have any modern examples of women dictators? I just wonder if the gender gap has been bridged"

This is a fairly good question. The answer is, somewhat surprisingly, not really. Even though it's a man's world, there have certainly been some notable female tyrants, but nearly all of them have been monarchs from centuries past. From Queen Ravanalona I ("The Cruel") of Madagascar to Empress Catherine II of Russia, one would normally find a crown on the head of a woman crushing her people under her heel.

Given the relatively small list of female national leaders, the question remains: where are the dictators? It is curious that for communism's alleged penchant for gender equity, not one of the leaders of the former Soviet Union, nor any of its satellite states, was a woman. Similarly, there were no women among the military brasshats taking power in South America or post-colonial Africa. Lots of superfluous military decorations, yards of shiny patent leather, but no estrogen. Even when Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto took the top job in a nation notorious for its dictatorships, she either failed, or elected not to, follow in the footsteps of some of her infamous contemporaries.

So where has the modern age, so rife with dictators, found a woman's touch? Naturally, there have been a number of dictators whose wives have played a role behind the scenes, but only one of them, Argentina's Eva Perón, took a public role alongside her dictator husband (a role she eventually renounced). One supposes there are other reasons for a lack of women dictators, ranging from the traditional links between military service and dictatorial rule, to the overall lack of women in prominent leadership roles around the world, but even considering the diminished opportunities, few female rulers have sought to rule with an iron fist as male rulers have.

The best I can think of is a woman who, while not a dictator in the strict sense of the word, did at one point exercise dictatorial control over her country: the late Indira Gandhi of India (pictured above, manhandling a hapless koala).

Riding high after crushing Pakistan in the 1971 war of Bangladeshi Independence and India's equally successful entry to the nuclear age, Gandhi was riding high until the country found itself paralyzed by a political crisis in 1975. Without hesitating, Gandhi suspended India's democracy during the (now infamous) "emergency period", during which time, she adopted dictatorial powers, including the all important ability to rule by decree.

During the two year emergency period, Gandhi rode roughshod over her political enemies, sending tens of thousands of political opponents to jail on specious charges, imposed strict press censorship, dismissing state officials perceived to be hostile to her rule, while simultaneously grooming her sons Sanjay and Rajiv for a more political role.

Gandhi's confidence proved to be her undoing. Believing the economic progress made during the emergency period added to her political prestige, she called for new elections in 1977, and was soundly trounced by the opposing BJP party. She removed herself from office without a struggle, thus ending the brief and only dictatorship by a woman in the last century. Indira returned to power again, with disastrous results, before being assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Top 10 Profile: Saparmurat Niazov

Name: Saparmurat Atayevich Niazov
Born: Aşgabat, TSSR (USSR) February 19, 1940
Length of rule: June 21, 1991 - present (15 years)
Means of ascent to power: Elected
Style: Cult of personality


Quick: what the first thing you think of when you hear the word "Turkmenistan"? For most Americans, the answer would be "What-where-i-stan?". For people fascinated by dictators, however, the sleepy Central Asian republic is white hot, thanks to its viciously ruthless yet lovably eccentric tyrant, Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niazov. With rumors of his imminent demise coming from all angles, it behooves me to provide a quick outline of one of the strangest dictators of the past century.

After the catastrophic dissolution of the Soviet Union, the backwater chunk of Central Asia formerly known as the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic found itself, for better or worse, an indepent nation. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, but nobody really took much notice when the leader of the Turkmen Communist Party, an undistinguished hack named Saparmurat Niazov, won newly independent Turkmenistan's first, and last, presidential election in 1992.

Taking a cue from Kemal Atatürk, Niazov found the role of "president" a bit too limiting, preferring shrewdly to announce that he had become the very personification, and even the very essence of the Turkmen people themselves. Very soon, Saparmurat Niazov, the colorless Soviet apparatchik, restyled himself as the dynamic Turkmenbashi, meaning, "leader of all Turkmen".

Taking a cue from Josef Stalin, Niazov isolated his nation from the rest of the world and began building a formidable personality cult. In case anyone might think he's a one trick pony, Niazov also borrowed something from Mao Zedong (more specifically, Mao's odious Little Red Book): the Ruhnama.

Written as a national epic in a quasi-religious, quasi-nationalistic style, Niazov's Little Green Book humbly purports to be the equal of lesser known works like the Bible and the Koran. Lest anyone attempt to diminish the importance of his book, Niazov has made study of Ruhnama compulsory. If there is anyone in Turkmenistan seeking employment (in the public or private sector), anyone seeking a driver's license, anyone looking to get married, and so on, he or she had better be able to recite large portions of Ruhnama by heart.

More ominously, failing to praise the book is a crime against the state, to say nothing of the punishments awaiting anyone who might dare to actually criticize the book as the rantings of a senile dictator. Niazov is so enamored of his epic, he's erected statues - even buildings - in its likeness. When prominent Muslims in Turkmenistan complained about being compelled to put his book next to the Koran, Niazov simply had them thrown in jail and ordered their mosques bulldozed. Perhaps these old fashioned Muslims can be appeased by Niazov's entirely straightfaced declaration that anyone who reads Ruhnama three times will "automatically" be admitted to heaven. That sure beats blowing yourself up on a bus in Tel Aviv, doesn't it?

While officially downplaying the extent of his personality cult, Niazov has seen fit to allow several golden statues of his likeness to remain standing, including a marvelous statue that rotates to face the direction of the sun. It is, perhaps, his crushing ubiquity in Turkmenistan that has provided him to pass some of the world's stupidest laws without his people raising an eyebrow in surprise. These laws include, but are by no means limited to:

  • Outlawing gold teeth in favor of promoting "chewing bones"
  • Banning female newscasters from wearing cosmetics
  • Bans on karaoke and car stereos
  • Replacing the Hippocratic Oath with an oath of allegience to Niazov
It's not known for sure if Niazov's bizarre presidental decrees are serious, or merely an effort to deflect attention from his country's appalling human rights record and lousy economy. Whatever the case may be, Turkmenistan is unencumbered by serious political opposition to his rule, much less military threats from at home or abroad. As long as he keeps pumping natural gas to Europe, the rest of the world will be content to paint him as the eccentric ruler of a charming backwater, more than happy to ignore the less amusing aspects of his totalitarian rule.
Still, one has to admire Niazov's sense of style, and his eagerness to set himself apart from the other grey stuffed Soviet suits that took over other former Soviet Republics. Ever seen anything about Heider Aliev, Islam Karimov, or Nursultan Nazarbayev in the insufferable "wacky news of the day" section of your local newspaper?

Didn't think so.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Last King of Scotland

No, not James I, but the late, unlamented Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, is the focus of the new film The Last King of Scotland.

While the movie is clearly fiction, the real life and times of one of Africa's most notorious big men are brought to life in the movie, beginning with the overthrow of Uganda's previous dictator, to the economically disastrous expulsion of Uganda's "Asian" business class, to the militarily diastrous decision to provide assistance to Palestinian hijackers at Entebbe, the film reconstructs the timeline of Amin's bloody tyranny through the eyes of a Scottish doctor who manages to ingratiate himself to Amin.

Amin, of course, was no stranger to film during his lifetime, having appeared as himself in the bizarre documentary Idi Amin Dada, where he plays the accordion, mounts a mock invasion of the Golan Heights, and terrifies his subordinates, all while playing the role of a large, jolly man who feels wounded at being "misunderstood" at being portrayed as a bloodthirsty buffoon an unsympathetic Western press. Amin certainly didn't help his own cause, however, by murdering his political opponents, launching ill advised military actions against Uganda's neighbors. What's more, Amin's penchant for self-aggrandizing made him a popular target for Western reporters looking to portray him as an ignorant lout. Consider his modest, self-described title:

His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, King of Scotland, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular
His service in the King's African Rifles notwithstanding, Idi Amin's chances of being awarded the Victoria Cross were roughly equivalent to my chances of being Miss Venezuela. It was Amin's bufoonish side and boyish charm that unnervingly contrasted with his explosive temper, total paranoia and bloodthirsty appetite for revenge, making him equal only to Mobutu Sese Seko as the most notorious of Africa's big men.

So what did I think of the movie? As a dictator-phile, I was pleasantly surprised by Forest Whitaker's portrayal of Amin, delighted that he paid such close attention to Amin's own mannerisms and body language from Idi Amin Dada. I was less enthralled with the Scottish doctor as narrative device, the romantic and espionage subplots, et al., and look forward to the day when Hollywood is ready to tackle the dictator biopic with the seriousness and breadth of vision it deserves.