Most dictators in our modern world have either been killed, overthrown, or have fled their country before their natural death. Some have managed to cling on to power while witnessing a decay or collapse of their nation and its people. A mere few have governed with relative success. And only one has managed to become the leader of an internationally recognized and respected continental union.
Muammar al-Gaddafi’s election as chairman of the African Union (AU) last week is only one of a long list of seemingly impossible feats that Libya’s “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution” has accomplished. Within the context of his overall achievements, leading the AU is likely to be a mere footnote in any historical evaluation of the “Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’s” rule. Currently he is the longest-serving (unofficial) head of government in the world, Gaddafi’s presence is not simply remarkable because of his relatively stable domestic rule or his obvious eccentricities. Most autocrats tend to go eccentric at some point and, as is well known in despotic circles, once you go wack, you never go back.
It is hard enough to navigate the stormy waters of international politics as the leader of a relatively minor, non-western nation. Being African and Muslim does not make that situation any easier. It gets even harder if you are a tyrant in a post Cold War environment. And it becomes virtually impossible if you are responsible for terrorist attacks killing hundreds of American and British citizens in the “War on Terror” era, and have been identified by Ronald Reagan as “the mad dog of the Middle East (sic)”.
The Libyan Colonel, however, has not only managed to survive since his coup in 1969, he has actually become one of the most credible leaders of the region, with increasing support from most major international powers. In 2003, after years of international isolation, Gaddafi restarted diplomatic ties with both the US and the UK. This brought him renewed international status, respect and economic contracts from the West.
Now, at the beginning of 2009, Muammar Gaddafi is not only chairman of the AU and host to a continuous stream of international dignitaries (including the recent visit of the king of Spain), he is also the leader of apparently one of the most stable governments in the world, author, commentator in the Herald Tribune (in a recent International Herald Tribune op-ed on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict he argued for a one-state “Isratine”), major shareholder of Juventus football club, playboy, philosopher (his Green Book is either brilliantly absurd or absurdly brilliant, depending on one’s tolerance of phrases such as “it is an undisputed fact that both man and woman are human beings”), a James Bondian villain, and the self-proclaimed saviour of societies worldwide (“the Green Book presents the ultimate solution to the problem of the proper instrument of government”).
In short, Muammar Gaddafi has straddled the divide between external diplomacy and internal despotism like an Adonis. The few remaining autocrats in this world- as well as anyone aiming to be a dictator in the near future- should pay attention. Gaddafi could serve as a textbook example on how to survive the troubles and tribulations of any self-respecting brutal tyrant hoping to last well into the 21st Century.
Therefore, as a public service to this admittedly small and dwindling global constituency, it is my pleasure to present the top ten lessons to be learned from the Brotherly Leader and Guide’s experiences on how to lead a successful and rewarding life as a tyrant in the modern world:
1) Never be a dictator of a country that does not possess oil or other valuable minerals. If your current territories are not particularly wealthy in natural resources, move on. Oil revenues make-up roughly 25% of Libya’s GDP.
See also: Hugo Chávez’s tendency in Venezuela.
2) Use (some of) your wealth to satisfy the local population. Libya has build-up extensive social services and its standard of living is Africa’s highest according to the Human Development Index of the UNDP.
See also: Mobutu Sese Seko’s failure to use Zaire’s significant natural wealth to secure his internal powerbase.
3) Use the word “revolution” (never say “coup”!) to your advantage, and present yourself as a mere servant of the people. Although calling yourself “Brotherly Leader and Guide” requires advanced training in how to be a successful tyrant- not to mention serious chutzpah-, never make it seem as if you’re there out of self-interest.
See also: the difference between left-wing revolutions and right-wing coups. Would you really want to depend on the whims of Downing Street or the White House to help you out against your own people?
4) Write a book. If you’re not into writing, hold endless Castro-esque speeches. It gives you gravitas.
See also: The lack of intellectual credibility of Liberia’s Charles Taylor. Does anyone believe he has anything interesting to say in his own defence?
5) Be eccentric. Gaddafi’s tents, Amazonian Guard and other quirks make him endearing, and distract attention away from any domestic oppression or brutality.
See also: Saddam Hussein. He was simply an unpleasant, calculating and rather boring character with nothing making up for his oppression and brutality.
6) Start developing weapons of mass destruction, even if you know you will never succeed. Besides oil, Libya’s biggest asset during the renewed diplomacy offensive during this decade was the voluntary ending of its nuclear program. Used correctly, it can be a significant bargaining chip to get international recognition, money and support.
See also: North Korea.
7) Understand the weakness of the West, and its irrational obsession with terrorism. By positioning himself as an ally in the “War on Terror” (not withstanding his own past role in international terrorisms), Gaddafi has managed to present himself as a solution rather than a problem by Western leaders.
See also: Tehran’s failure (thus far) to be seen as a partner in the fight against Al Qaeda.
8) Do what economic elites do in democratic nations: identify your existence with “good causes”. By apparently standing up for oppressed groups in Libya’s surroundings, such as poorer African nations, Gaddafi creates an automatic dependence and support at an international level. His position within the AU is simply a crown to that achievement.
See also: rich American elites.
9) Don’t name direct family to succeed you. Gaddafi has emphatically denied that his son will succeed him, stating that “there is no succession in the (Libyan) republic’s regime”. This prevents internal unrest pretenders to the throne.
See also: the Roman Empire. It is no coincidence that the golden period of the “Five Good Emperors” ended with the last one (Marcus Aurelius) naming his own son (Comodus) as his successor.
10) Always look for new challenges. Whenever life becomes too easy, one can count on Gaddafi to do something erratic or provocative. Always looking to challenge himself, he periodically antagonizes some random group. Musings such as “the Palestinians are idiots and the Israelis are idiots”, his past terrorist activities against Western targets, and his continuous criticism of “Arabs” are just a few of a long list of examples.
See also: Billionaires practicing extreme sports to continue to feel any adrenaline at all.