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The story of an African dictator that was once a hero (The Mugabes and the Gaddafis') - by Fatoumatta Sanyang (YoungAfrica) 

Dictatorship is not a foreign concept in Africa. That being said, there are a lot of democracies to be admired on the continent. However, that is not what this piece is about. This piece is dedicated to a certain breed of African dictators. 

The villain was once a hero

Looking into the journeys of different African dictators, a similar pattern is followed by many of them. Most start as a heroic figure. They stand for the rights of the people, and advocate against their predecessors (be it colonial forces or previous governments and regimes that are losing popularity).The initial intentions and actions of many famous African dictators are extremely admirable. Robert Mugabe delivered freedom to the people of Zimbabwe, and spent years in jail in his fight to do so. Gaddafi brought revolution to Libya, by taking power from a royal family put in place by colonial powers, and putting power in the hands of the people. These patriotic and selfless actions are not unique to these two African dictators. Ahmed SekouToure of Guinea, was a key figure in West Africa’s fight for independence, and today is labelled as one of the worst African dictators in history. However, there is always an exception to the rule. Charles Taylor’s political beginnings were not so great. His first encounters with politics were plagued by fraud, corruption and bloodshed. However, like those mentioned above, Taylor had the support of the people during the beginning of his reign. Although many believe he won the election due to the fear people had for him, those elections are still labelled as one of the “fairest that Liberia has had”. Knowing this, how do men such as Mugabe, Gaddafi, Toure and even Taylor go from being men of the people, to becoming the enemy of the nation? 

The downward spiral

The problem seems to start when the time comes for power to be given to another. It is important to remember that these are the same men who have often put their lives on the line for their patriotic goals, and what they believe in. They are the same men that saw their countries going astray, and craved for change. Now they have found themselves in a position where they have complete control. So what happens next? Well, they make their biggest mistake. They refuse to put power back in the hands of the people. This stage is the most puzzling. At this point these leaders are not yet dictators. The majority are often revolutionists that are serving their terms in government, and have been democratically elected. So why do they choose to overstay their welcome? Perhaps the explanation for this stage cannot be generalized among all African dictators. Perhaps, some stay because the power simply “gets to their head”. Maybe, they are extremely passionate about their vision, and they trust no one else but themselves to carry out their plan. Either way at this point, the once selfless and heroic figure becomes selfish, and the downward spiral begins. 

Each African country has its unique electoral laws. It can be said a ruler becomes a dictator once he refuses to abide lawfully to these electoral regulations, or refuses to put any in place. However, a leader can be seen as really becoming a dictator once he commits his first crime to stay in power. This first act of crime is one that every dictator probably comes to regret in time. 

After these leaders that are now known to be Africa’s dictators commit their first crimes, their concerns are no longer with their country’s affairs, but more with their quest to stay in power. After this it becomes a downward spiral. It becomes murder after murder, false arrest after false arrest and cover up after cover up. The once heroic leader has now become a full blown dictator. In his head there is no longer room for policies and government budgets, it is preoccupied with paranoia and fear. At this point they may have installed fear in their people, but they know in their heart that they have lost the genuine support that they once had from their nation. At this point in time they have committed numerous atrocities against their people, and have oppressed them. They know there are two options that lay ahead for them once they lose power. They will either be investigated by the international community or brought to the mercy of their people. At this stage the dictator may have made international alliances, but it is common knowledge that these “companions”, will not want to associate themselves with them once they lose power (particularly states from the West). 

The earlier generation of African dictators that have fallen in the past, such as Edi Amin Dada, were forced into exile by their people. Other African dictators that have been over thrown have had more gruesome endings, for example Gadhafi. And others have had legal action carried out against them, for example Charles Taylor. A dictator knows that hell’s gate is opened for them once they lose power. 

The dynamic has shifted from a man WANTING to be in power to make a change to his country, to a man NEEDING to stay in power for his own good.Would it be radical to say that after a certain point many dictators don’t even WANT to be in power anymore, but are just scared to leave after a certain stage. 

The irony

Famous author Macheveilli states in his book “The Prince”, that one must be “half a man and half a beast”, in order to be a leader. Dictators lose their human side over the course of time and become what they once were fighting against, a beast.

The irony is that enthusiastic and promising youth are blocked from actively being involved in their country’s politics, by dictators that once shared their exact qualities. 

The other irony is that these dictators came into power wanting to make a change, wanting to better their county. However, over time their attention can be given to nothing but their quest to maintain power. They have time for NOTHING else. It is therefore no surprise that a country goes downhill during a dictatorship. The country is without an active leader. Forcefully maintaining power is very time and energy consuming. 

Africa and democracy

Democracy is desirable, but not ALWAYS necessary (controversial but true). Contrary to popular belief there are examples of countries outside of Africa that function adequately without democracy. Lack of a democracy does not always mean dictatorship. Often countries functioning without a democracy that are happy, are being ruled by royal families. The citizens are satisfied because they are being provided with benefits that satisfy their needs. A dictator is unable to provide much to their citizens, as they are consumed with maintaining their power. Unlike a royal family they are not guaranteed their ruler status, so they can’t afford to think about much else.  

Advice to visionaries that could be future leader

If any advice could be given to a future African leader, it would be to step down as soon as you are no longer wanted by the majority, because there will come day when you are desperate to, and it will no longer be possible for you to leave in one peace. 

Most importantly, have faith in your people! There is no doubt that the African dictators mentioned above, and many more all started with good intentions. The first mistake they make, is not trusting their people enough to put power back in their hands. If you start your leadership with faith in your people, then end your leadership with faith in your people. Don’t ever let the power delude you, or lead you to believe that you know better than anyone else that could take over from you.Know when to step down. Have faith in the people enough to give power back to them. 

Let future leaders of Africa learn from the prosperities of our genuine leaders, and learn from the mistakes of our dictators. 

Word to dictators that were once popular leaders

The first crime that leads one to that downward spiral of dictatorship can be committed easily by anyone.You most likely want to leave, and now because of your past actions you no longer can. What more can one really say?  A dictator’s mind is plagued by fear, paranoia and regret. It is not a nice place to be. But who else can they blame but themselves? 

The analogy

My mother was telling me a story not long ago. She explained how whenever she would do something she knew she would get into trouble for, she would climb a tree in front of her house, and wait for the aftermath. Without hesitation her dad would come out, stick in hand, looking for her. I believe a good leader can climb that tree of power, stay there and come down whenever he wants, and continue about his daily business. However, a dictator on the other hand, like my mother has caused too much trouble on the ground to go down with such ease. Magnify my granddad with his stick, by 10,000 in magnitude. Imagine the dictator at the top of that tree, and when he looks down, he see’s people with sticks, and rocks flying everywhere. He knows the calamity that awaits him as soon as he falls off that tree. He will stay on that tree until every branch is broken, and he’ll hold onto the last branch for dear life. They would die in that tree if they could. 

This is not the story of EVERY African dictator, but it is a path many have followed.



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