Book Review: ‘Psychoses of Power: African Personal Dictatorships’ by Samuel Decalo

(This book review first appeared in The New York City Tribune on March 6, 1989.)


Tales of Three African Dictators That Spin a Cautionary Lesson
Richard Sincere

Psychoses of Power: African Personal Dictatorships, by Samuel Decalo, Westview Press, 197 pp., $29.95.

“Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” were the words Thomas Hobbes used to describe life in the “state of nature,” which he also called a “war of all against all.” Hobbes, writing in the 17th century, was probably remembering the not-so-distant history of Europe in the Middle Ages. In the absence of strong central government, anarchy ruled the land. Feudal barons, ready to feed their own venal appetites, warred against each other, against the king, against the Church. Each generation experienced at least one war that, through battle or disease, cut down large fractions of the population.

Africa-GreenThat is all in the past. Or is it? Psychoses of Power, three frightening case studies by Samuel Decalo, currently visiting professor of comparative African government at the University of Natal, reveals that the 20th century does not lack Hobbesian anarchy. Neither are the subjects of his study – Francisco Macias Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, Idi Amin of Uganda, and Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic – necessarily anomalies. The germ of economic decay and political disarray that grew into their monstrous personal dictatorships exists in other African countries, ready to sprout under the right conditions.

These personal dictatorships differ substantially from merely authoritarian or autocratic regimes elsewhere in Africa (and elsewhere in the Third World, as well). Authoritarian dictators see fit to delegate power when necessary. Although they may be corrupt and dispense patronage for their own financial benefit, they do allow others to make policy decisions and exercise the authority granted them by the dictator. Personal dictators like Nguema, Amin, and Bokassa insist on excercising total authority, making all decisions, and dispensing all patronage. Chaos results.

In the case of Nguema and Amin, and partially in the case of Bokassa, men fundamentally unprepared to hold responsible public office became leaders of strife-ridden former colonies. Amin was totally illiterate and found policy discussions among Cabinet ministers boring and irrelevant. Nguema was a sycophant and drug addict who hated knowledge and success. Bokassa, although by all accounts a courageous and competent soldier, was greedy and lacked judiciousness.

Although the rise to power of these three men was largely accidental, the parallels are startling.

Amin started as a cook’s assistant in the Ugandan colonial army; the British, anxious to Africanize the services, on several occasions overlooked bad reviews of Amin’s suitability and promoted him. He eventually became chief of staff, the post that allowed him to lead the coup that ousted Milton Obote when Obote’s economic policies failed and he began to lose political legitimacy.

Nguema began as a petty local bureaucrat. The Spanish colonial rulers and Spanish expatriate businessmen liked him, because unlike his fellow Fang tribesmen, he supported Spanish interests. With the support of his relatives, he became the most bloodthirsty dictator in recent African history.

Bokassa, as noted, was a brave soldier. He fought in the French army in Vietnam and was decorated for valor. The French authorities respected Bokassa and named him to head the Central African Republic’s army upon independence. Economic and social confusion under the president of the CAR made it apparent that a new regime might sack Bokassa. To forestall that, he led a coup on New Year’s Eve in 1965, and installed himself as dictator.

Although the least known of the three, Nguema was probably the bloodiest. He exterminated all of his subjects who had better than a third-grade education. Refugees from Equatorial Guinea flooded neighboring countries. Nguema personally ruined the country’s economy, keeping all foreign (and much domestic) currency in suitcases in his bedroom. He retreated into sorcery, threatening any opposition that upon his death he would return as a vicious tiger to destroy them.

Amin’s story is better known, perhaps because he became an international joke. His buffoonery, however, resulted in genocide. Because he lacked interest in public policy, no genuine policies were made during his reign. One significant decision, however, did have substantial impact on Uganda’s future. In 1973, he expelled all Asians from the country. In one fell swoop, Uganda’s entrepreneurial class left. Shops, factories, and services ended, as did exports and imports. Although politically popular for racist reasons, this decision destroyed the Ugandan economy, and recovery is unlikely in our lifetimes.

Bokassa made world headlines in 1977 when he proclaimed himself emperor of the Central African Empire. Modeling his coronation after Napoleon’s, he crowned himself when the Pope declined to do the job. At first the French supported him, but even they could no longer be relied upon after Bokassa himself clubbed to death schoolchildren who in 1979 protested the mandatory wearing of school uniforms with Bokassa’s image on them. French paratroopers moved in, deposing Bokassa. Several thousand French troops remain today, making the Central African Republic a virtual French colony, despite the rhetoric of independence.

Life has not improved for the residents of these African countries since their dictators were deposed. In Equatorial Guinea and Uganda, new dictators came to power. In Equatorial Guinea, Nguema’s own henchmen ousted him when he became too unpredictable. They remain in power and continue the terror. In Uganda, Milton Obote returned and after presiding over the genocide of as many as 400,000 Ugandans, he was again overthrown. Tyranny has been tempered by the French presence in the CAR, but there is little hope for the future.

The lessons of these three case studies are not clear. Certainly the three dictators were idiosyncratic, maladjusted, and just plain mad. But other dictators remain in Africa, even if slightly more benign: Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, Kamuzu Banda in Malawi. Yet it is frightening to note that while heads of state, Nguema, Amin, and Bokassa each retained a measure of respectability within the international community.

Their crimes were ignored for raison d’etat. An eerily similar respectability was granted Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin in their time, and the international community pays little attention to what goes on in places like Zambia, Zaire, and Malawi today.

Psychoses of Power deserves whatever attention it gets from policymakers, human rights activists, and international bureaucrats. I fear that too many readers will look at it as an interesting case study of political freaks with little to say about the present or future. They should look more carefully at current conditions in the Third World and ask themselves: Are these personal dictatorships really so strange?


When this review first appeared, Richard Sincere was a research associate at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.