Dictators’ problems

I read that the besieged ex-president of Ivory Coast sent three generals out to negotiate terms. Perhaps these were the last ones he could trust.  Dictators, like other managers, can’t always get or deploy the staff the way they want.  If I was a ghostly nightmare management consultant, what would I whisper to a typical tyrant in his sleep?

Trust whom?

If you have staff problems, Your Despotism, they won’t include recruitment. That’s easy. In your benighted country there are hordes of people angling for a place on your headcount. And why not?  A state job is a great way to indulge in a little diversion of foreign aid, embezzledofficial funds, strip-mine state assets, solicit bribes and even enjoy the odd spot of torturing opponents.  It’s a ticket to opportunity for such people. Their only problems are life assurance (they can’t get any), importunate relatives and the need to be fully plugged in to what is going on.  That is not always easy.

No, many of your problems, O Father of your People, essentially boil down to whom to appoint to what, higher up the chain. Some positions you have found easy enough to fill: Head of the Army, for instance, and the heads of security and the Republican Guard (the equivalents of the trio now white-flagging in Abidjan). You also have a general to run the almost non-existent air force and an admiral to encourage offshore piracy in your country’s waters. Several of these dark-glassed, uniformed criminals are relatives of yours, and don’t you know it.  You order them to stay out of trouble.  Sometimes they comply.

Good governance

Let’s sample some of the others at the top of your heap. Your Minister of the Interior is typically a plug-ugly sadist whose main role is to keep the International Red Cross and foreign media away from the prisons.  He also runs the extortion scheme at the airport officially known as ‘Immigration and Customs.’  His office taps people’s phones, but the equipment for that is not as good as what the Office of State Security uses, and you both know it.

Your Foreign Minister is a blustering biddable nonentity whose role is limited to fending off inquisitive western democracies; you yourself deal with the other, non-democratic ones.  But let’s be fair.  Some of your appointments have been successful. The head of the national bank is very helpful with laundering money from arms sales and arranging your private bank accounts on various islands.  Unknown to your subjects, a very clever foreign graduate of a well-known international business school is hidden away in your palace and does all that tedious paperwork you leave to him (be careful).  Best of all, the chair of the national medical association is also your personal doctor.  You are not to know that the medication he is currently giving you, bought in the local market, is date-expired.

But all is not well, is it, Your Heroicness?  Some people are nothing but trouble for you and your ministers.  They include, in ascending order of awkwardness, students, doctors, teachers, judges, clergy and women.


Students have been comparatively easy to deal with: shooting three or four is a good way to cut off demonstrations.  So far!  Doctors are generally cowed but are far too willing to talk to foreign journalists with ‘complaints’.  Trouble is, you need them.  Teachers, on the other hand, are a real pain.  They are always on about democracy and don’t shut up even when exiled to remote provinces.  Judges are simply obstructive and are notoriously reluctant to toe the line, even after you thought you had packed the bench in your favour.

More enraging still are the clergy. The mullahs are all right but the Christian ones, especially the Archbishop, with their constant moaning about ‘human rights’ and ‘starvation’ and even commandeering army trucks to carry food aid up-country, deserve to be put down, but you know you can’t do that. Killing priests causes no end of difficulties.

Talking of religion, at least you don’t have any Jewish people around to worry about.   But then, how are you to know that a so-called ‘geophysical mapping team’ currently roaming your country is in fact a Mossad unit, and they’re not telling you what they’re up to?

Which brings us to the Women.  They divide roughly into three, all of them trouble.  When it’s not ministerial wives drawing unwelcome attention to their high-spending, high-profile shopping razzles in foreign capitals, it’s mistresses demanding privileges and jobs.  Then there are the others: respectable married women who demonstrate outside your palace, shouting about their missing husbands and sons and waving huge pictures of them for foreign TV cameras.  You know you can’t disperse them, and it doesn’t help that the popular new reformist president of the country next door to yours is, unbelievably, a woman.  It wouldn’t have happened in the old days, eh?

But those days are over.  This little fictional sketch is over.  La commedia é finita.  The Big Man in his bunker is visibly shrinking.  The guards are disappearing over the back wall.  He knows, now, that none of the three generals will be coming back.  He knows, too late, what absolute singularity at the peak of his victim-country entails: there will be no-one there for him at the end.  Like a dying medieval monarch he is helpless, watching while the servants strip his palace to its bones.

He has no heir to fight for him.  But heirs for men like him don’t usually amount to much.  Thinking about that, I am left with a vignette by Nancy Mitford – the despot Louis XIV on his deathbed staring silently as a little four-year old boy, his orphaned great-grandson, still clutching the hand of his nanny, is lifted onto the great bed to stare back, not knowing that he will be King of France before evening.

About rimboval

Writer, thinker and proud grandfather
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