Mengistu Haile-Mariam, who overthrew Emperor Haile Sellasie of Ethiopia (or ‘king of kings’ as he was known to peasants who regarded him as a demi-god), is portrayed as paralysed by confusion, living in a suburban house in Harare, Zimbabwe, under the grudging protection of Robert Mugabe (not quite ready yet himself for an interview with Orizio). During the 'Red Terror' he unleashed in his home country between 1977 and 1978 , around 500,000 people were killed, and yet Mengistu's response to this is simple: “It was a battle. All I did was fight it”. He reserves his outrage for his Soviet patrons, who supported his actions one day and then post Glasnost abandoned him. Of Gorbachev he says:
“He seemed a nice enough person, honest, devoted to the cause of socialism. He was warm and friendly towards me. Then, once he got into power in 1985, he began to talk about perestroika and glasnost. Eventually I called him from Addis Ababa to arrange an appointment. I needed to know what was going on. I went to Moscow to ask him what those two slogans meant. They were slogans that I didn't understand and, if you ask me, nor did the Soviet people. I said “Comrade Gorbachev, let's be honest with each other. If there is a change in direction, tell me, so that we can also adjust our direction. Your strength is our strength, your weakness our weakness”. But Mengistu's eagerness evoked no response from the Soviet leader. Gorbachev wanted to call an end to the Soviet Union's colonial wars…but perhaps Gorbachev did not have the stomach to explain this to the devout Mengistu. Instead, he smiled and said, “Comrade Mengistu, don't worry. I shall not shift one millimetre from Marxism-Leninism. I am proud of our Socialist achievements and I always will be”.
And so, one day a madman is a respected comrade, the next a deposed dictator. And this glad handling of despots, where useful, is not limited to the Soviet empire, or indeed to the past. Latin America has a whole catalogue of episodes worth a companion book were it not for the fact that most of the despots on that side of the world have rarely been overthrown in disgrace.
In a coda to the book, Manuel Antonio Noriega, the imprisoned former leader of Panama declines a request to be interviewed for the book, a collection of interviews with “forgotten individuals, once powerful people who have been blamed for the problems encountered by their respective countries”, on the grounds that “God, the great Creator of the Universe, He who writes straight albeit with occasionally crooked lines, has not yet written the last word on MANUEL A. NORIEGA”, and indeed, this book illustrates another dangerous and intriguing phenomena, never more pertinent than in these &ldq
uo;Regime Change” days. Orizio writes in the Epilogue to the 2004 edition:
“The sweetest moment in a dictator's life can be when democracy triumphs, he's deposed, his name becomes synonymous with misery and terror, his former subjects look forward to a prosperous country without him but with the support of the west and the United Nations, and foreign correspondents leave his wrecked country for another hotter spot. That's exactly the moment when a brutal tyrant can start heading towards rehabilitation.”
And so Idi Amin received a posthumous rehabilitation of sorts when his death triggered a debate in Uganda as to whether he should receive a state funeral, only prevented finally by the use of a Presidential veto; Former East German leader Egon Krenz is described by Orizio as receiving visits from Hollywood, including Tom Hanks (“Krenz was the last leader of Communist East Germany and the man behind the shoot-to-kill policy employed by border guards against people trying to flee to West Berlin”); and so from Charles Taylor, one of the worst ex-dictators that Africa has seen in recent times, who is safely in exile in Nigeria, through to Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic hiding in the Republica Srpska, what is apparent is that, despite rhetoric, realpolitik still reigns supreme in deciding whether a dictator is 'retired' or brought to 'justice'.
And while the world waits further details from the trial of Saddam Hussein, Orizio, who, it seems to me, after this brilliantly researched and written book, deserves to be called an expert in the area of Dictatorship, puts things into sharp perspective:
“In truth, however, most dictatorships do not stir the world's indignation. Dictators, in fact, can be useful. And a serving dictator, especially one who has shown political longevity, can become a stalwart of stability and enjoy the support of his ex-enemies. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's head man, not long ago had the same international reputation as Saddam Hussein, and his country was bombed by U.S. Airplanes in an attempt to intimidate and topple him. Things have changed. Now the West reckons that, without “the colonel,” who has been in power for thirty-four long years, Northern Africa could become a dangerous place, Libya could break up into different tribal regions, and the whole Mediterranean area would suffer”.
Talk of the Devil – Encounters with Seven Dictators , by Riccardo Orizio, is published in the United States by Walker & Company