The fall of Colonel Gaddafi is a disaster for all of us who savor the phenomenon of the Mad Dictator. He was the tops, the ne plus ultra of Mad Dictators, holding the undisputed World No. 1 spot ever since the fall of Idi Amin in 1978. Or, to give Amin the full title he insisted upon: His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Dr. Idi Amin Dada, Lord of the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, VC, DSO, MC, CBE.
Rather like Amin, Gaddafi had a penchant for wearing vast numbers of medals, many of which he invented solely for himself. An obsession with orders and decorations is almost a prerequisite for any self-respecting Mad Dictator. Gaddafi has no fewer than eight rows of medals, starting of course with Libya’s highest decoration, the Medal of the Great El Fatah (1st Degree), even though he never so much as fought in a single battle throughout his military career. And while the Burmese generals are undoubtedly dictators who love medals, none has quite exhibited the personality or individualism to succeed Gaddafi in the No. 1 spot.
Fidel Castro’s occasional five-hour speeches to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba are a thing of the past now, so he is out of the running, and his brother, Raul, is positively mousy by comparison. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is always a strong contender, especially for his memorable March 2003 remark: “I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his own people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people, and their right to their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler 10-fold.” Yet even this is not really in the same league as Idi Amin’s quite inspired declaration of himself as “the rightful King of Scotland.” We need madness of that caliber.
The former Soviet republics have produced several fine contenders, though none can rival President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov, Leader of Turkmens, who ruled Turkmenistan between the death of the Soviet Union in 1990 and his own in 2006. He renamed the months of the year after books and poets he liked, made his mother’s birthday a national holiday, and built an ice palace near the capital of his (largely desert) republic before banning beards, outlawing gold teeth, and preventing female journalists from wearing makeup “because they were already beautiful enough without it.”
The splendors of a Gaddafi lunacy take years to mature; one needs a good track record. So a single act of madness is not enough: for example, the decision of Ne Win, the dictator of Burma from 1962 to 1981, to change the denominations of the country’s bank notes to 15, 35, 45, 75, and 90 because his numerologist told him they were his lucky numbers; or that of His Imperial Majesty Bokassa the First, “Emperor of Central Africa by the will of the Central African people, united within the national political party, the Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa,” to spend a third of his country’s annual budget on a coronation based on that of Napoleon; or of Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti, who ordered all black dogs to be killed because he believed an opposition leader had turned into one; or of Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, who banned the naming of any living individual on Zaire’s TV except himself.
If it’s true that Kim Jong-il believes that he can alter the weather of North Korea through the untrammeled exercise of his willpower, then he will be in a strong position to grasp the post-Gaddafi prize. But at present our frontrunners have to be Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who in 2006 told the U.N. General Assembly that President Bush was “Satan” and “It smells of sulfur still today,” and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, whose quest for a nuclear weapon in the face of global opposition is a surefire mark of a real top-rank Mad Dictator. But they have a long, long way to go before they catch up with the Colonel.
Roberts is author of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.