In 1951 General Douglas MacArthur, a week after President Truman fired him for publicly criticizing his Commander in Chief’s orders, was invited to address a joint session of Congress, where he famously said “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” quoting a popular song of the era. It is different for dictators, though many of them were soldiers before they became dictators. They seldom fade away, and it usually requires death or a revolution to get rid of them, though little may change if they have managed to engineer succession by a favored son or daughter.
Denis Sassou Nguesso, the long-serving dictator of the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), just got himself reelected on March 20th, making him one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders. Apart from a brief interlude from 1992 to 1997 following his defeat at the polls in a genuinely democratic election, a result he – with French backing – subsequently plunged Congo into civil war to overturn, Mr Sassou Nguesso has presided over his country since 1979.This time he had to rewrite the Constitution to allow him to run for a third term (his four previous terms don’t count, since they occurred under a different Constitution), but that was a minor inconvenience. The October 2016 referendum to change the Constitution passed with 92.96% of the votes, the opposition having called for a boycott after the police brutally suppressed an anti-reform rally in Brazzaville, killing at least four protesters.
Rarely betting on an event whose outcome has not already been determined in advance, Sassou Nguesso took no chances when it came to this month’s election, which he won with 60% of the vote, against 16.8% for the runner-up. As an opposition blog in neighboring Gabon, Gabon Enervant (annoying Gabon) pointed out, Sassou Nguesso followed a classic recipe for victory by a dictator trying to cloak himself in democratic legitimacy:
- “He started by changing the constitution.
- He imposed a total communications blackout (internet and phone) during the voting process [restoring services only after the results were announced and the streets secured].
- He proclaimed the results of the election late at night, after midnight.
- He was proclaimed winner in the first round and all public demonstrations were banned.
- He immediately put the army in the streets.”
It is not clear whether Sassou Nguesso, now 73, plans to run again in 2023, but if he chooses to step aside at that point, or dies before then, his son, Denis-Christel Sassou Nguesso, now in his late 30s, is ready to assume the burden of office, having been groomed by his father for just that eventuality. Sassou fils is visibly his father’s son in both physiognomy and comportment. Now Deputy Director General of the national petroleum company, SNPC, he shares his father’s taste for the good things in life. In 2006, when Sassou père was in New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly, he and his entourage occupied 44 rooms at the Waldorf Astoria, at a cost of about $200,000, and on checkout were presented with a bill for about $20,000 in room service they racked up during the five-night stay. The British NGO Global Witness published documents in 2008, including credit card bills, which showed that in 2006 Denis-Christel had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on shopping sprees in Paris, Dubai, and Marbella. Other documents, which came to light and that his wife and son had bought separate apartments on the same street near the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris for a total of around $5 million. Denis-Christel and his lawyers sued to suppress publication, but judges in London and Hong Kong both declined.
It’s not easy being a dictator. It’s not all Champagne, Ferraris, and houses on the Côte d’Azur. Because you get to be a dictator chiefly by overthrowing another leader – dictator, King, elected President – you keep looking over your shoulder, wondering which of your associates may be plotting right this instant to overthrow you. So you expend a tremendous amount of energy compiling dossiers on every potential rival, a group that may expand to cover everyone in the country and not a few beyond its borders, amassing information that can be used to manufacture trumped-up charges to toss them in jail, buying off one, threatening another, forcing a third into exile, playing off one rival against another. How can you relax and enjoy your glass of Dom Perignon when an enemy may have bribed someone on your domestic staff to put poison into that very glass from which you have just sipped?
I have long thought that dictators, accustomed to deceiving their own people and outside critics, also excel in self-deception and come to believe that the masses of people genuinely love them, in spite of all those enemies. They tend to react with disbelief and anger when the people express a different view. I don’t doubt that Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, as they were chased from power and then hunted down by their enemies, often reflected bitterly on their peoples’ ingratitude “after all I have done for them.” I would have preferred to see Qaddafi and Saddam brought to justice and a full accounting of their crimes rather than shot down in the street (Qaddafi) or tried and executed by a kangaroo court (Saddam). But better that than seeing them and those like them die peacefully in their beds, secure in the knowledge that the family business will remain in safe hands.