Where dictators go when their time's up

The abrupt end to the reigns of two autocratic ex-presidents, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, prompts that old question: where do dictators go when their time is up?

“We are not leaving, he is leaving” was the protesters’ cry at Tahrir Square. But Mubarak couldn’t countenance that. At some point, if you listened hard enough, the only coherent message coming from Mubarak was: “I don’t want to go the way of Ben Ali.”

Ben Ali was deposed on January 14 and fled to Saudi Arabia after street protesters overwhelmed his policemen.
Mubarak, like the true patriot and proud nationalist he imagines himself to be, wanted to remain in his motherland.

“I want to die in Egypt and be buried on Egyptian soil,” Mubarak said in his first address to protesting Egyptians. His second and last speech, styled as a “father’s dialogue with his sons and daughters”, emphasised this. He repeated his desire not to leave Egypt, “a country dear to my heart. It will not part with me and I will not part with it until my passing.”

That speech, thankfully, was his last. The army forced him from office into a kind of exile—not the exile of his fears, but something eerily similar. Sharm el-Sheikh, the ex-president’s new location, isn’t quite Egypt—it’s rather like going to Victoria Falls and saying you have been to Zimbabwe (Victoria Falls is something of a republic in itself).

According to a Reuters news report, the Red Sea resort town “looks more like a Florida suburb than the teeming, polluted industrial cities and crumbling rural villages where most ordinary Egyptians live”.

In many ways a retirement home in Sharm el-Sheikh is suitable for the ageing autocrat. His breezy villa is on the Sinai peninsula where, as a young pilot, he fought the Israelis, redeeming some of the losses of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. But there is a feeling that his presence in Egypt is disruptive and there is talk of exile in Germany or, if that fails, Doha. Lucky Mubarak, he has a few decent alternatives.

‘Father of the nation’
Not so for Mobutu Sese Seko, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s former president from 1965 until he was kicked out in 1996. In his time in office the “Father of the Nation” helped himself to $5-billion of the DRC’s money—the kind of money that could get you a palatial retirement home in the south of France, Florida or some other such location.

But when Mobutu’s time was up, he couldn’t go to Belgium, France or the United States (his former benefactors). Instead, after a short stay in Togo, he was forced to go to Morocco, ruled by a monarch. He died in exile and is buried in Rabat, Morocco.

When the situation in Tunisia was becoming uncontainable, one imagines Ben Ali busy on the phone, trying to find out which country would accommodate him. France was a possible destination. After all, France’s foreign minister, Michéle Alliot-Marie, had holidayed in Tunisia in December last year and her parents had signed a land deal with a businessperson allied to Ben Ali.

When the protests started, Alliot-Marie, ever helpful, offered France’s expertise in dealing with the riots because the “skills, recognised around the world, of our security forces allow us to resolve security situations of this type”.

Yet when the end came, the French government wouldn’t allow him on their soil. Instead, he went to be a guest of Saudi Arabia. Over the decades, the Saudis have acquired a great deal of experience in hospitality and tourist packages for ex-dictators. They hosted former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif for eight years. They also gave sanctuary to the Ugandan soldier-president, Idi Amin, responsible for the death of 400 000 people and the expulsion of Indians from Uganda. Amin died in 2003 in Saudi Arabia.

Amin’s compatriot, brutal strongman Milton Obote, Uganda’s first president in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s, lived out the final two decades of his life in Zambia.

Zimbabwe is home to Ethiopian former soldier-president Mengistu Haile Mariam, who has lived in a villa in the appropriately named Harare suburb of Gunhill since 1991. Responsible for “the Red Terror”, a campaign in which thousands of people disappeared, he was sentenced to death in absentia by an Ethiopian court for genocide.

So it seems most ex-dictators become the guests of kings or fellow autocrats and do not go to resort locations where they own villas fit for presidents.

Percy Zvomuya

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