HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES (Part 7)

Welcome to part 7 of my 7-part series on dictators, an irreverent guide to some of history’s worst people and part of my effort to bring geopolitics and history to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but are too lazy to read The Economist.

I’ll be releasing a new segment of this essay each week. If you’d like the entire essay now, please join my mailing list and I’ll send it to you. It’s that easy!

Missed part 1? Read it here.

You also missed part 2? Read it here.

Damn, you also missed part 3? What’s up with that? Read it here.

Seriously, you never read part 4? That’s messed up. Read it here.

Part 5, too? What the fuck is wrong with you? Read it here.

For fuck’s sake, read part 6 here.

Want more laughs? Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror. One reader “thought it would be funnier,” but agreed it was “still a very enjoyable book.” I hope you’ll check it out. In the meantime, enjoy learning about dictators!

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES

OR

DICTATORS

(Part 7)

On the other side of the world, South America’s most “charismatic leader” (aka dictator) was the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Chavez tried to take over the country in a coup in 1992 but failed. So he turned to the electoral system instead, and oddly enough, it worked.

Chavez was less interested in spending his country’s money on himself than in running its economy into the ground while shouting about imperialist pigs (that’s us). The United States was responsible for everything bad. Not sunny on Margarita Island today? Blame the United States. Venezuela takes narco money even though it has tons of oil? Blame the United States. Opposition leaders talking shit about you? Jail them for planning a coup backed by the United States. Chavez even blamed the United States when he got cancer. Basically, anything wrong in the world is the fault of the United States.

He was rather poetic, a manner he skillfully employed as the spiritual leader of La Revolución Bolivariana, promoting a blend of populism and socialism that also required that he have mythical status.

He cultivated this image by always being on television. He was on television for hours a day. I’m not sure he ever took a pee break. By some estimates, he spent 40 hours a week on TV. His ministers were required to attend the broadcast, and sometimes El Presidente made policy on the show. Once on TV he ordered troops to the border with Colombia (a move that was necessary because of, you guessed it, U.S. domination in Colombia), like if Nene Leakes used her reality show platform to bomb Kim Zolciak (for liking the United States).

I’m not sure how Chavez ran the country when he was so busy being both Hoda and Kathie Lee and his ministers were like Oprah’s audience waiting for their favorite things. But it worked, if by “worked” you mean the country ran out of everything.

Even though Venezuela has lots of oil and sold most of it to the United States (we may be imperialist pigs, but even a socialist has a soft spot for greenbacks), Venezuela has excelled at lacking enough dollars to purchase anything on the international market, which is particularly awesome when you factor in the fact that Venezuela produces very little of its own. Soon, store shelves were empty. The people Chavez was fighting so hard for were in deep shit, literally, because they had no toilet paper. And you know whose fault that was? Ours, the imperialist pigs, the only ones buying oil and providing any cash to the country.

Admittedly, being a Chavista can be complicated.

So instead of allowing his people to think logically, Chavez appealed to their need for spiritual fulfillment and took on the role of religious icon overseeing the revolution. He also had really cool friends like Sean Penn.

sean-penn-chavez

Sean Penn explains how Hugo Chavez had the Venezuelan people by the balls.

Venezuelans ate up this legend Chavez created, maybe because they didn’t have any food. When he exhumed the body of Simón Bolivar, the popular revolutionary leader who led the fight for independence of much of South America from the Spanish, in a clear attempt to ride the dead socialist’s coattails, Chavez live-tweeted the somber ceremony, telling his adoring followers, “That glorious skeleton must be Bolivar, because his flame can be felt. Bolivar lives!”

Bolivar still lives, now in the form of Chavez’s ghost, which shows itself at politically expedient times. After Chavez succumbed to the cancer rays the United States shot at him, he appeared to his anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, as a little bird. You know what the little bird told Maduro to tell the people? That they should vote for Maduro or risk being cursed. And like hell if the people were going to take that risk, considering all the other deep shit they were in already, and not listen to the little talking bird. Maduro won the election.

Maduro also said that Chavez went to Heaven and told Jesus to pick a South American Pope. Chavez really has some pull.

Who can blame Maduro for turning to miracles? This bus-driver-turned-politician has, after all, been running the economy on a wing and a prayer. Maduro has cracked down on the shop owners who create long lines outside their stores by refusing to stock their shelves with the products they can no longer buy because their currency is worth less, literally, than toilet paper.

Venezuela has even had to start importing oil, despite its vast supply, from the imperialist pigs up north. When even Cubans look at your country and wince, it may be time to rethink your life choices.

Often dressed in a bright yellow, blue, and red zip up sweatshirt that makes him look like a member of the Romanian Olympic gymnastics team, Maduro lacks the charisma of a dictator and I’m guessing he won’t last as long as Chavez did. As a wise Venezuelan once told me, the problem isn’t that Maduro is a former bus driver; it’s that he doesn’t know how to drive.

maduro

Nicolas Maduro, after perfectly landing a triple back flip with a twist for the Romanian Olympic gymnastics team.

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES (Part 6)

Welcome to part 6 of my 7-part series on dictators, an irreverent guide to some of history’s worst people and part of my effort to bring geopolitics and history to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but are too lazy to read The Economist.

I’ll be releasing a new segment of this essay each week. If you’d like the entire essay now, please join my mailing list and I’ll send it to you. It’s that easy!

Missed part 1? Read it here.

You also missed part 2? Read it here.

Damn, you also missed part 3? What’s up with that? Read it here.

Seriously, you never read part 4? That’s messed up. Read it here.

Part 5, too? What the fuck is wrong with you? Read it here.

Want more laughs? Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror. One reader “thought it would be funnier,” but agreed it was “still a very enjoyable book.” I hope you’ll check it out. In the meantime, enjoy learning about dictators!

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES

OR

DICTATORS

(Part 6)

Although Africa has proven fertile ground for dictators, some of the most colorful autocrats have called elsewhere home.

Saparmurat Niyazov was better known as Turkmenbashi, and fortunately he ruled Turkmenistan, because with a name like Turkmenbashi it would have been really awkward if he had been dictator of Uzbekistan. He stepped off the authoritarian stage once and for all in 2006, and I imagine Sacha Baron Cohen will play him one day in a biographical movie, combining his personas in the movies The Dictator and Borat.

Turkmenbashi spent a lot of time building gold statues of himself. To keep his subjects from getting lonely, he placed them throughout the country. One rotated 360 degrees every 24 hours, a subtle symbol for the world revolving around him. He renamed days of the week and months of the year after himself and his family members. Some reports even claim he named a meteorite after himself. In fact, it’s a good thing he died because he was on track to name pretty much everything after himself and that would have been confusing at some point.

turkmenbashi

Niyazov had no idea when he came home with his jacket casually thrown over his shoulder that an artist was waiting to sculpt him.

He is one of those lucky dictators who managed to live up to the title President for Life. But despite running unopposed, he won his election with only 99.9 percent of the vote. My guess is the holdout was a sibling who really wanted Saturday to be named for him but who got hump day instead.

Most dictators never face that kind of dissent. Saddam Hussein, for example, was loved by 100 percent of his electorate.

Not currently loved by 100 percent of his electorate is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. When the Arab Spring began spreading through the region, Assad seemed to have a very difficult time seeing what was going on right in front of him, which was rather ironic for a former ophthalmologist. Looking like the Muppet Beaker with Justin Bieber facial hair, Assad surfed iTunes while his country fell into a brutal civil war. Then he insisted that the Syrian people support the government, which makes me think maybe civil war doesn’t mean what he thinks it does.

Assad’s British-born wife, Asma, has used the civil war as an opportunity to get some online shopping done, since the local malls are all so crowded these days (with rubble). She also appeared to be staying fit, volunteering at a soup kitchen wearing a new fit band (and likely giving someone in Nike’s marketing department a massive headache).

beaker-speaking

Bashar al-Assad giving a TED Talk on “The Power of Delusion” to fellow dictators. He’ll be releasing his own iTunes playlist, “Songs to Enjoy an Arab Spring,” this month.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un is greatly loved. He’s one of those leaders who got 100 percent of the votes in his election. The Brilliant Comrade became the country’s leader after his darling dad perished in December 2011. Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il had ruled for 17 years, with his blown out hair and a penchant for kidnapping filmmakers to help build his country’s film industry. The tiny tyrant wore platform shoes to appear taller and groomed his doughy son to take over.

Kim Jong-Un, who is, intriguingly, the only fat person in North Korea, has made great strides in filling his father’s high-heeled shoes. He quickly purged his top ranks and set about releasing menacing photos designed to show off North Korea’s military might but which succeeded only in proving that North Korea is still working with some early version of Photoshop.

And do you remember a while back when Jennifer Lawrence cut her hair and CNN had a Breaking News Alert to tell us about it? Well, Kim Jong-Un is the JLaw of dictators, because he set the Internet on fire in early 2015 with his new haircut, which looked like it was straight off the practice mannequin of a 1990s hair gel factory. The Chia Pet of Pyongyang also revealed his newly shaped eyebrows, which were shaved to look like small caterpillars nestling on an increasingly fluffy face. I guess someone managed to smuggle a 1991 Vogue into the Hermit Kingdom.

kim-jong-un

A paintbrush dressed as Kim Jong-Un.

Next week: The “Populist” Dictator

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES (Part 5)

Welcome to part 5 of my 7-part series on dictators, an irreverent guide to some of history’s worst people and part of my effort to bring geopolitics and history to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but are too lazy to read The Economist.

I’ll be releasing a new segment of this essay each week. If you’d like the entire essay now, please join my mailing list and I’ll send it to you. It’s that easy!

Missed part 1? Read it here.

You also missed part 2? Read it here.

Damn, you also missed part 3? What’s up with that? Read it here.

Seriously, you never read part 4? That’s messed up. Read it here.

Want more laughs? Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror. One reader “thought it would be funnier,” but agreed it was “still a very enjoyable book.” I hope you’ll check it out. In the meantime, enjoy learning about dictators!

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES

OR

DICTATORS

(Part 5)

Last week we discussed Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, the man bold enough to hold the title of Africa’s longest serving dictator.

Hot on Obiang’s tail for the top title is Robert Mugabe, the 92-year-old president of Zimbabwe. Oddly, Mugabe was actually elected, in 1980. He then declared a one-party system, consolidated power, and never looked back.

Mugabe at first received accolades from around the world. Queen Elizabeth II made him an honorary knight in 1994 and numerous western universities bestowed him with honorary degrees.

But then he must have done something to piss people off. On the advice of her foreign minister, the Queen revoked Mugabe’s knight title and all those universities started taking back their diplomas.

It might have been Mugabe’s proud reference to himself as “the Hitler of the time,” or an evenhanded policy called Operation Drive Out Rubbish, in which hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans awoke to the realization that the rubbish being referred to was them and their homes.

Or maybe it was his visionary economic reforms, which included kicking out of southern Africa’s breadbasket nearly every single person who knew anything about farming and led to enviable inflation, which reached 231,000,000 percent in 2008. You needed a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a loaf of bread. The Zimbabwean dollar was suspended the following year, presumably because the country had run out of zeroes.

But Mugabe has been keen to say he never worried about having his fancy titles taken away. And anyway, in January 2015, he got himself a new fancy title, when he was named chairman of the Africa Union, which aims to promote democratic principles on the continent, principles like freedom of the press.

The timing was serendipitous, because a few days later, while giving a speech in Harare, Mugabe tripped and fell. Only he didn’t, according to his Information Minister, who told the state-run Zimbabwe Herald, “Nobody has shown any evidence of the president having fallen down because that did not happen.”

Except that everyone saw it and captured it on film. So while he tried to stop people from discussing his frailty (He was 91! It happens! And even his Information Minister, while denying the fall, said “even Jesus” would have tripped on the badly laid carpet), he instead drew way more attention to it, and soon a meme was traversing the Internet, in which Mugabe’s fall was made to look like he was playing football, surfing, skateboarding, riding a dragon, and my personal favorite, dancing on Dancing with the Stars.

mugabe-dancing-w-the-stars

Robert Mugabe on Dancing with the Stars, where he captured 99.9 percent of the vote. He hopes the show won’t revoke his Mirror Ball trophy.

 

In my view, Mugabe’s Information Minister missed a great opportunity to explain to the world that Mugabe was simply demonstrating that he invented gravity.

But if his fall and his age have you worried about Zimbabwe’s future, don’t be. Mugabe seems to have a succession plan in place, and her name is Grace. Or DisGrace. Or Gucci Grace. Depends on who you ask. She is a prominent player in Zimbabwe’s leading (only) political party, Zanu-PF. Oh, and I should probably mention: She is Mugabe’s wife.

Grace Mugabe is 42 years younger than her light-footed husband, and she’s no slouch. Despite dropping out of school after failing a correspondence course at the University of London, Grace has shown astounding academic acumen. She earned a PhD in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe in September 2014, just two months after enrolling. Her thesis is so mind blowing that the university refuses to release it because we mere mortals can’t be trusted with that kind of information.

It should be noted that the chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe just happens to be one Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe.

Dr. Grace Mugabe built two palaces. She bought the land for the first one at an 80 percent discount, using a government-housing scheme meant to help low-paid civil servants. To be fair, Grace did start out as Mugabe’s secretary. And she claimed she used her salary as a secretary to build the half-a-million-British-pound home. She later sold it to the Godfather of African Dictators, curly-haired Qaddafi, and pocketed a two-and-a-half-million-pound profit. For that, they should give her a PhD in economics.

She used the profits to build a second palace, called Graceland, because apparently she was hoping to do drugs and gain weight. Graceland served as the backdrop for the three-million-pound wedding of the Mugabes’ daughter. Zimbabweans pushing their wheelbarrows to the bakery must have been thrilled to hear the Mugabes paid for the wedding straight out of the national treasury.

Understandably, Grace seems to think that state-run diamond mines are her own piggy bank. Who else would that money be for? It’s not like the Zimbabwean people should get paid. They obviously don’t have jobs, otherwise they wouldn’t be homeless.

And she is the First Shopper, after all. While her people have their homes bulldozed and search for food on the farms that are no longer producing because all the Mugabes’ best friends are now living there, Grace shops, with trips to London and Paris. Not because she wants to, but because she has “narrow feet” and thus needs special shoes, like those made by Ferragamo.

However, due to U.S. and European Union sanctions on her, Grace now shops in Hong Kong.

Next week: It’s not just Africa…

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES (Part 4)

Welcome to part 4 of my 7-part series on dictators, an irreverent guide to some of history’s worst people and part of my effort to bring geopolitics and history to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but are too lazy to read The Economist.

I’ll be releasing a new segment of this essay each week. If you’d like the entire essay now, please join my mailing list and I’ll send it to you. It’s that easy!

Missed part 1? Read it here.

You also missed part 2? Read it here.

Damn, you also missed part 3? What’s up with that? Read it here.

Want more laughs? Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror. One reader “thought it would be funnier,” but agreed it was “still a very enjoyable book.” I hope you’ll check it out. In the meantime, enjoy learning about dictators!

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES

OR

DICTATORS

(Part 4)

After Mummer Qaddafi died, it was time to name a new Longest Ruling Dictator.

Enter Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, who has not undertaken this burden lightly.

Obiang came to power in this tiny oil-rich nation in 1979 in a very original way: he ousted his uncle in a coup d’état. For some reason, six whole years passed before Obiang generously took full control of the national treasury in order to protect his civil servants from the terrible temptation of corruption.

Lucky for the people of Equatorial Guinea, Obiang and his family are immune from such temptation, likely because Obiang is in permanent contact with the Almighty, according to the very objective state-run radio station. That’s why everybody was totally cool with Obiang putting more than half a billion dollars of the country’s money into U.S. bank accounts controlled by him and his family.

You read that right: U.S. bank accounts. Not every dictator relies on numbered accounts in Switzerland. Indeed, Obiang’s son, also named Teodoro, adores the United States. He attended Pepperdine University and fell in love with Malibu, where he purchased a beachfront mansion so he would have a place to show off his Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a crystal-covered glove and crystal-covered socks, and to park his many Lamborghini after driving home from his private Gulfstream G-V jet.

Teodoro Obiang.png

Teodoro Obiang the Younger attempts an awkward moonwalk in his palace.

He also owned not one but two fifty-foot speedboats, each with a $2 million price tag, and one of which he had shipped to Hawaii for a vacation, where he promptly capsized it and had to pay $400,000 to salvage it. And just in case this evil-dictator’s-playboy-son-cliché wasn’t complete, Obiang Junior dated, of course, a Danish beauty queen.

(On a side note: that same beauty queen, Christina Mikkelsen, won the title Miss Denmark 2016 and will compete in the 2016 Miss Universe contest, which is supposed to be held in the Philippines, which has its own dictator angle in Rodrigo Duterte.)

According to a Department of Justice lawsuit, Obiang the Younger spent around $315 million on properties and luxury goods between 2004 and 2011. For some reason, the number crunchers at Justice couldn’t figure out how he had managed to do that when his official salary was only around $100,000 a year. But I say don’t castigate the guy. He should get kudos for working so hard, because it takes real effort to spend about $45 million a year on someone’s used socks.

Up next: How to go from Breadbasket to Hell in a Hand Basket.

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES (Part 3)

Welcome to part 3 of my 7-part series on dictators, an irreverent guide to some of history’s worst people and part of my effort to bring geopolitics and history to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but are too lazy to read The Economist.

I’ll be releasing a new segment of this essay each week. If you’d like the entire essay now, please join my mailing list and I’ll send it to you. It’s that easy!

Missed part 1? Read it here.

You also missed part 2? Read it here.

Want more laughs? Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror. One reader “thought it would be funnier,” but agreed it was “still a very enjoyable book.” I hope you’ll check it out. In the meantime, enjoy learning about dictators!

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES

OR

DICTATORS

(Part 3)

The Godfather of Africa’s dictators was easily Muammar Qaddafi, the yardstick by which everyone measured every other dictator. Other dictators became “the longest serving dictator after Qaddafi” because the guy ruled Libya for 42 years.

Much like U.S. politicians who like to remind voters they come from hard-working families with modest backgrounds and were raised castrating pigs, Qaddafi informed his people that his father was a Bedouin goat herder and thus he was a pull-yourself-up-by-the-goat-skin-boots kind of guy, a self-made autocrat who had successfully ousted a monarchy in a coup. After kicking out the king, he then insisted on being called King of Kings, which his people must have found hilariously ironic.

Like many sons of goat herders who become absolute rulers, Qaddafi was lavish. He started with crisp military uniforms laden down with more medals than Michael Phelps and later moved on to the colorful flowing robes of a Bedouin as he nurtured his pan-Africanist movement. He reinforced his Bedouin image by pitching a tent in capital cities across the globe during his international travel. He often parked a camel just outside for full desert effect. Never one to take his security lightly, the tent was bulletproof. The camel was not.

qaddafi-medals

Qaddafi had to earn his medals. Being King of Kings helped.

 

Also not bulletproof were the women in Qaddafi’s Amazonian Guard, badass female bodyguards in lipstick and heels who swore an oath of chastity and were officially known as the Revolutionary Nuns. He also had nurses, plenty of them and mostly from Ukraine, one of whom was described in a WikiLeaks cable as “a voluptuous blonde.”

But all the chaste love and Ukrainian caregiving couldn’t save Qaddafi, who also, unfortunately, was not bulletproof. He and his loyal companions discovered this in a drainpipe in Sirte, Libya, where rebels shot the King of Kings.

Fittingly, some reports state he died wearing a wig. While in retrospect it is easy to say that maybe he should have worried more about quashing a rebellion than taking time to place faux tresses on that big squishy head of his, cultivating an image of a spritely leader had always been part of his winning strategy (up to that point, at least).

Usually, he was very good about prioritizing his looks with other necessities. Once, in the middle of a procedure to pump his stomach fat into the wrinkles on his face, he got up to eat a hamburger, briefly setting aside his vanity to concentrate on his hunger.

qaddafi-hands-up

At the United Nations, Qaddafi makes an impassioned plea for hamburgers for everybody.

But on October 20, 2011, both he and his wig succumbed, finally giving someone else the chance to be Africa’s longest ruling dictator.

Next week: Africa’s Newest Longest Ruling Dictator

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES (Part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of my 7-part series on dictators, an irreverent guide to some of history’s worst people and part of my effort to bring geopolitics and history to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but are too lazy to read The Economist.

I’ll be releasing a new segment of this essay each week. If you’d like the entire essay now, please join my mailing list and I’ll send it to you. It’s that easy!

Missed part 1? Read it here.

Want more laughs? Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror. One reader “thought it would be funnier,” but agreed it was “still a very enjoyable book.” I hope you’ll check it out. In the meantime, enjoy learning about dictators!

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES

OR

DICTATORS

(Part 2)

As I mentioned last week, Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko never named himself President for Life, which worked out okay for him, because he died in exile.

In an embarrassing twist for Mobutu’s neighbor to the north, Central Africa Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa did name himself President for Life but came nowhere close to fulfilling that promise. Bokassa took control of the country in a coup d’état in 1966, overthrowing President David Dacko (who also happened to be his cousin), and declared himself President for Life in 1972.

Four years later, Bokassa toyed with the idea of being a great Islamic leader, converting to Islam in the hope of securing foreign aid from Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi (more on him later). In another demonstration of his humility, he took the name Saleh Eddine Ahmed Bokassa, after basically one of the most revered Muslim warriors in history.

But a few months later, he saw the light, the “light” being the fact that Qaddafi was not going to come through with the cash. He converted back to Catholicism and, like so many failures before him, turned to his backup plan: Crowning himself emperor.

In a chintzy move, Emperor Bokassa I spent only about one-third of Central Africa’s annual budget on the ceremony to crown himself emperor, leaving the other two-thirds for his regular travel to Paris, because who the hell wants to spend any time in a country that’s completely crumbling? The $20 million party nearly bankrupted the country, excuse me, empire, but Bokassa received financial help from France, which needed the uranium that was so abundant in Bokassa’s new fiefdom.

The ceremony lasted two days, with troops in fancy dress uniforms and a mini-Bokassa, the new emperor’s four-year-old son (from his sixth out of, like, 19 wives; people eventually stopped counting) and heir apparent, in a tiny white military uniform with gold trimmings, riding in a horse-drawn carriage. You can see it on YouTube. It’s actually quite adorable, this toddler tyrant who can’t get into the carriage on his own and who yawns while attendants fawn over him. The future of the empire was in strong but tiny white-gloved hands.

Bokassa spent much of the ceremony sitting on a two-ton solid gold eagle-shaped throne, a symbol that he was full of solid gold shit. And he wore an ornate, diamond-encrusted crown, made in Paris, of course.

bokassa

Even this bird wanted to get away from Bokassa.

But as any college exchange student knows, French lovers can be so fickle. They inevitably go back to their wife, even if you are atomically well endowed. The French government backed deposed President Dacko in a coup to oust Bokassa in 1979. To prove there were no hard feelings, they eventually allowed Bokassa to live in a chateau outside Paris before he chose to return to his homeland in 1986. He served some prison time in Central Africa but was ultimately released and died at home in the capital, Bangui, in 1996.

Oh, and rumors that Bokassa was a cannibal were never proven. The fact that I even have to mention this should worry you.

Next week: The Godfather of African Dictators

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES (Part 1)

Welcome to my 7-part series on dictators, an irreverent guide to some of history’s worst people and part of my effort to bring geopolitics and history to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but are too lazy to read The Economist.

I’ll be releasing a new segment of this essay each week. If you’d like the entire essay now, please join my mailing list and I’ll send it to you. It’s that easy!

Want more laughs? Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror. One reader “thought it would be funnier,” but agreed it was “still a very enjoyable book.” I hope you’ll check it out. In the meantime, enjoy learning about dictators!

HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES

OR

DICTATORS

(Part 1)

I love dictators.

Before you jump all over me and remind me in righteous tones about how horrible dictators are, I know: Dictators are just the worst. But I’ll remind you that, despite this, many of our freedom-loving governments have had no problem kissing up to dictators when it serves their national interest. I believe Henry Kissinger called that Realpolitik.

I will also point out that some countries thrived better under their dictators than they do now under all the freedom and democracy we have so generously spread. But I will leave that for the historians to debate and the politicians to distort. Because when it comes to dictators, I am a sucker for the cult of personality.

My favorite dictator, hands down, is Mobutu Sese Seko. For 32 years that went by like a blink for most of his adoring people, he ruled Congo, a country he renamed Zaire and that is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (side note: the word “Democratic” is often used rather loosely in naming countries; this is a good example).

A brief history of the Congo: At the end of the 19th century, Belgium’s King Leopold II was jealous that he didn’t have his own colony like his European neighbors, so he declared the Congo—which he had never actually seen in person and which he never did see in person (in fact, he never once went anywhere in Africa)—was his property. He then got all the other white people to agree to this arrangement.

He named it Congo Free State (again, “Free” was used rather loosely) and proceeded to use the country’s vast resources to stuff his own wallet while he did horrendous things to the Congolese people.

leopold-ii

Having beaten other European leaders in a beard-growing competition, Belgium’s King Leopold II won a colony in Africa.

Mobutu must have studied history, because after he took power in 1965 in a coup d’état, he pretty much did the same thing. Mobutu was extremely motivated to be the most solid personification of a kleptocracy ever. Using state funds, he built an elaborate Chinese pagoda in the most logical place imaginable: the middle of the African rainforest—an overgrown garden oasis in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, which must have really lowered construction costs. He then imported fish from China to fill the pond in the yard.

He also razed enough trees to be able to build an extra long runway to accommodate a Concorde, which he chartered from Air France and used for shopping trips to Paris, because really, how much time can one spend in one’s pagoda? It’s in the middle of an inhospitable rainforest, for fuck’s sake.

In case using state coffers as his own wasn’t enough to endear him to his people, Mobutu knew a strong name would certainly convince them to love him. So shortly after taking power, the former Josephe-Desire Mobutu changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko, which means, “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”

It’s a great name.

If you come across someone named Leopold, you’re probably in a sandbox and you want to throw mud at him. But the all-powerful warrior who leaves fire in his wake? I will follow this guy to hell and back. Which is kind of what Mobutu’s people did, except they made it to hell and the country pretty much stayed there for Mobutu’s entire rule.

In another wonderful parallel to Europeans who deeply understood their people’s needs, Mobutu’s first wife was named Marie Antoinette, making a fantastic companion for sipping pink Champagne in that jungle pagoda while asking her people why don’t they just eat if they’re so hungry?

After she died, Mobutu took his mistress as his second wife. That meant he needed a new mistress, and for that, he chose his new wife’s identical twin sister. That’s either really weird or incredibly genius. It’s kind of like wanting to spruce up your wardrobe but buying the same leopard-skin hat you already have so you never have to apologize to the first hat because you thought it was her all along.

One thing Mobutu didn’t manage to do, besides lift his country out of devastating poverty, was get himself named President for Life, which is too bad because he almost was. In May 1997, Laurent Kabila, with a little help from the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, overthrew Mobutu in a new coup. Mobutu fled the country and died later that year in exile in Morocco.

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Mobutu tries to figure out if the person he is looking at is his wife or his mistress.

Next week: Which chintzy dictator skimped on his coronation?