As a younger man, I thought being dictator of a small-to-medium-sized African country would be a great gig.
You get to live in a palace. African leaders never live in houses or mansions — always palaces. People are always nice to you, at least to your face. It's Africa, so the music's great and the weather's usually nice, if a tad on the hot side. You're close to the pyramids, Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti and some nice beaches. And if you decide your couch would look nice with leopard-print upholstery, you're likely only a short drive away from actual leopards.
In recent years, however, I've changed my mind. The more I learn, the more I realize dictating isn't all it's cracked up to be. African despots seem to misplace their marbles at a much higher rate than the general population.
Witness Uganda's Idi Amin. If you thought Forrest Whitaker's Academy Award-winning portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland was over the top, watch a couple minutes of Barbet Schroeder's freaky 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada on YouTube — the portion of the film where he shows how his military planned to conquer Israel (about 2,000 miles away) is particularly engrossing.
Amin's contemporary Jean Bédel Bokassa, ruler of the Central African Republic, was even worse. I could go on for pages about Bokassa's excesses, but one fact neatly summarizes him: When you Google the words "cannibal emperor," his name is the first thing that pops up.
The latest African despot to lose his mind very publicly and very destructively is 82-year-old Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
The warning lights on Mugabe's mental dashboard have been flashing for years.
In 2000, after two decades of ruling Zimbabwe as a mere run-of-the-mill tyrant, Mugabe initiated what he called a land reform program but what, in reality, was a slow death sentence for Zimbabwe's poorest people.
Mugabe's goon squads chased white farmers off land they'd had since the colonial era. But instead of handing the land to black farmers, Mugabe gave it to his cronies and his goons who don't know how to farm.
Almost instantly, Zimbabwe was transformed from a food-exporting nation to a starving nation. Zimbabweans have the fourth-lowest life expectancy in the world (39.7 years). The economy, which depends almost entirely on agriculture, collapsed. Six-digit inflation has made Zimbabwe's currency more valuable as a bookmark or kindling than it is as money. Mugabe justifies his actions with bizarre declarations blaming Western powers for interfering with Zimbabwe. Never mind that, thanks to Mugabe's own decisions, millions of Zimbabweans are reliant on Western food aid to stay alive.
Mugabe turned his crazymaker up to 11 this year with Zimbabwe's presidential and parliamentary elections on March 29.
In what may be an unprecedented event in the history of dictatorship, Mugabe rigged the election but still lost. Despite savage physical attacks on the opposition, and despite controlling the ballot boxes, the vote counting and the media, the opposition still had more votes when Mugabe grudgingly announced the results a few weeks after the election.
According to Mugabe, neither his party nor the opposition got a majority, so Zimbabwe will hold a presidential run-off election June 27.
What will the result be?
Well, it's clear that if the election was free and fair Mugabe and his party would lose badly. To try to make sure that doesn't happen, Mugabe has launched an unprecedented campaign of violence against the opposition. Opposition party members are being beaten and killed. Mugabe's forces have also confiscated international food aid intended for parts of the country thought to be opposition strongholds.
Will the efforts of Mugabe and his underlings secure a "win" in the June 27 poll? Possibly, but he's not taking any chances.
On June 16, he informed Zimbabweans that, regardless of the election results, he isn't going to surrender power. "We shed a lot of blood for this country," he said. "We are not going to give up our country for a mere X on a ballot."