Seeing as we appear to be in ‘Dictator Season’, I want to jump into the fray as I did a few weeks ago. However, I have grown less interested in the neo-imperialism vs humanitarian intervention that is now fairly tedious.
I am interested in something a bit broader: do we give dictators too much credit for staying in power? Not in a moral sense of course, but in terms of the ‘talent’, it supposedly takes to stay in power for so long.
As Gadaffi struggles to stay in power, we hear the same thing about him as we have heard about countless other dictators. He has stayed in power because ‘he knows how to divide his enemies and keep them from uniting against him.’ There is plenty of talk about how he plays off people against each other to stay in power.
It was a line that was also repeatedly trotted out during the Zimbabwean elections when experts marveled at Robert Mugabe’s ability to stay in power by playing those around him like chess pieces and having the long-term vision to repeatedly make and break alliances with enough skill to keep his position as head of state.
The dictator who launched these ‘chess grandmaster’ metaphors was probably Mobutu Se Seko, whose alleged skill in this regard was made to sound almost supernatural in some quarters.
But I wonder how much of this is an accurate reflection of things. We assume the only way such people can stay in power is by dividing those around them and hence being able to see two steps beyond everyone else.
It is a bit hard for me to believe. After all, most of these dictators came to power in coups- a method that isn’t exactly cerebral in its execution. Instead of having a grand vision of divide and rule, it seems more likely to me that these men were basically just making things up as they go along.
Even in countries where coups were a symptom of the instability -which meant it was vulnerable to more coups-it seems to me that it takes a lot less to sustain such a regime.
The perpetuation of these regimes required much less ‘forward-thinking’ than many have claimed. Indeed, in many ways, totalitarian dictatorships-especially those arising from coups- are a triumph of improvisation.
And ultimately, even if we agree that ‘divide and rule’ is a factor in a dictator staying in power for so long, the dual factors of brutality and bribery are much more significant.
It is noteworthy that the brutality of such governments is more vicious in the first few years in power. Once the dictator in question has revealed what he is willing to do to stay in power, the deterrence effect is enough to prevent him constantly making visible shows of force to remind people he is in complete control. And when he uses bribery and mild forms of coercion, one doesn’t need to reach for the chessboard metaphor.
If people around him are amply rewarded, then they are as invested in the system as he is and furthermore, they are kept happy and diverted from thornier moral issues. This approach is striking in its simplicity. It’s effective obviously, but it doesn’t take a special vantage point as a tyrant to devise these methods.
As such, ‘divide and rule’- and any other grand vision- loses its overarching importance. The solution, it turns out, is much simpler.