All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ - Edmund Burke

July 13, 2009

S I E R R A  H E R A L D

Vol 7 No 8

The tendency sometimes to protect perpetrators for the sake of peace...doesn't help society. Impunity should not be allowed to stand. - Kofi Annan on Waki report

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July 18, 2009

Getting to the heart of darkness

From Idi Amin to Charles Taylor, why are dictators such smooth operators?

Currently being brought to justice in The Hague, at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, is Charles Taylor, the former Liberian President. He is charged with commanding and arming the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels — many of them children — who killed, raped and mutilated thousands of civilians in neighbouring Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war. Stephen Rapp, the chief prosecutor, has characterised Taylor as “an exceptional violator of human rights”.

As is often the way with dictators, Taylor has denied the charges. Wearing an expensive grey suit and tinted glasses in court, he denounced the case as “a concoction of deception, deceit and lies”. Pleading complete innocence, he added: “I am a father of 14 children, grandchildren, have fought all my life to do what I thought was right in the interest of justice and fair play. I resent that characterisation of me. It is false, it is malicious.”

Boston-educated Taylor, 61, whose coup in Liberia deposed the no less brutal government of Samuel Doe, was given a safe exit in 2003 after his indictment by the Special Court. He was then given supposedly safe exile in Nigeria. Three years later he was turned over to Sierra Leone and transferred to The Hague the same year. If convicted, he faces life imprisonment in Britain.

The importance of Taylor’s case cannot be underestimated. He is the first African head of state to be tried by an international court. To seasoned African observers his crimes would seem indisputable, but the case must run its course. In the meantime, what is remarkable is how true to form he seems as one type of dictator. While Hastings Banda was relatively inarticulate, and Robert Mugabe remains a parade-ground ranter, Taylor is a suave performer. Like Idi Amin, he is a creature of rhetoric.

Speaking in a strong, confident voice before his prosecutors, he uses language to good effect. It is but one aspect of the performance nature of the dictator. Another is gesture. At one point during court proceedings this week, Taylor lowered his tinted glasses to show that he was crying. The phrase crocodile tears was never so apt.

So, too, with Idi Amin. A performer, an actor, a swaggerer. Though much less educated than Taylor, and speaking in broken English mixed with Swahili, he had the same way with words, especially when denying his crimes. “I’m just a simple soldier,” he would proclaim, as if amazed that anyone could accuse him of atrocities.

Colourful use of language is an important prop in the dictatorial armoury. It is one of the ways in which tyrants justify their actions. Such linguistic facility is related to narrative and the wider personal myth-making associated with charisma.

So dictators are good at story-telling. Taylor seems happy to allow it to be believed that his Massachusetts jailbreak (he was arrested there in 1984 after absconding to the US with nearly $1 million) involved him “sawing through the bars”, just as Amin liked people to think that he fought in Burma for the British during the Second World War.

The linguistic aspect of the performance continues even when the most grotesque crimes are being denied. The head of one of Taylor’s death squads, Joseph “Zigzag” Marzah, has said that he and Taylor belonged to the same secret society, in the course of whose rituals they ate human hearts together. “People have me eating human beings,” was Taylor’s response to that this week. “How could they sink so low as to think that of me? Haven’t they had their pound of flesh yet?”

The idea that someone could make a joke at such a juncture seems improbable, but Amin did the very same thing, denying that he had eaten human flesh and then saying it was salty, “even more salty than leopard meat”.

Does it make sense to talk of a dictatorial personality type? Indigenous differences tend to make nonsense of archetypal generalisations, but lines of continuity remain. Megalomania? Tick. Cult of personality? Tick. Absurd self-absorption, secret police, looting of the national treasury? Tick, tick, tick. One of the things that Taylor is accused of is stripping Sierra Leone of its mineral wealth, including the “blood diamonds”, made famous by the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. An RUF prosecution witness said that he brought Taylor a mayonnaise jar full of diamonds in return for the supply of weapons. “This never happened,” Taylor said last week, moving quickly into performance mode, “not in a mayo jar, not in a coffee jar, not in anything. I never received diamonds from the RUF . . .”

It is clear that there are psychological traits common to both Taylor and Amin. One is over-elaboration of the idea of conscience, bespeaking the lack of one. Another is constant harkening back to childhood conditions of hardship (“I enlisted only to escape hunger”). A third is wallowing in self-pity. The return to childhood seems important. Many dictators are of the adult personality type identified by the psychologist D. W. Winnicott as “frozen children”: the personality is emotionally frozen at the point of failure.

The frozenness of the dictator is also the key to his grotesque comedy, as witnessed by the recent rash of YouTube skits bathetically remashing Hitler ranting in the film Downfall. Absurdly marionette-like himself, the dictator treats others, too, as if they were puppets. As the philosopher Henri Bergson knew, such comedy has a mechanical aspect that threatens human quiddity. We laugh because we fear the individual extinction sketched out by the comedian. Grimly, joking aside, extinction is exactly the business dictators are in.

In the end, the extreme cruelty associated with Taylor’s death squads exceeds explanation. I certainly felt this watching a video featuring the one-time Taylor associate (they became bitter rivals) Prince Johnson. In the video, still readily available across West Africa, Johnson sits at a table sipping beer while his henchmen cut off Doe’s ear. It is the most chilling thing I have seen. What is more chilling, however, is that Johnson is currently a senator in the Liberian Government. Though Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the Liberian President, is no friend of Johnson’s, it’s no less grotesque that she and other, still extant, political notables in Liberia financed Taylor’s coup against Doe in 1989.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone is an important step in enforcing good governance in Africa but there is, it would seem, still a very long way to go on that front.

Giles Foden is author of The Last King of Scotland

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