Hear the words “crazy dictatorship” and most of us picture one country: North Korea. Under Kim Jong Un, the Communist throwback has scaled new heights of insanity that are somewhere between hilarious and terrifying. On the hilarious side, there’s stuff like Kim ordering every government vehicle, no matter how small, to be fitted with a toilet in case he needs a poop while driving. On the terrifying side, there’s stuff like the army detonating a hydrogen bomb and saying they plan to nuke the mainland United States.
But as bizarre and evil as North Korea clearly is, it’s not the first dictatorship in history to scale such insane heights. Compared to some of the regimes below, the Hermit Kingdom is practically a poster boy for sanity.
10. Albania Under Enver Hoxha
Even by the standards of your typical Communist stooge, Enver Hoxha (rhymes with ‘lodger’) was something else. A hardcore Stalinist, he turned his back on Russia when Stalin’s successor Khrushchev declared maybe – just maybe – killing millions of innocent people hadn’t been in the nation’s best interests. Aligned instead with Mao’s China, Hoxha turned his back on them, too, when the Cultural Revolution ended. That’s right, the guy was so extreme even the most extreme Communist nations weren’t extreme enough for him.
Which might explain why his Albania was so simultaneously creepy and crazy. For his over four decade reign, the nation was kept on a permanent nuclear war footing. Gigantic concrete bunkers were built all over the country so Hoxha could get to one in seconds, no matter where he was, on the off chance that the Russians might launch a nuclear strike. The borders were closed. No Albanians could leave (on pain of death), and no one could enter. All this allowed Hoxha to do some truly weird-ass stuff, like banning beards, and opening gulags to liquidate people with facial hair. We’re gonna assume he just really hated hipsters.
9. Romania Under Ceausescu
Hoxha may have been the craziest of the Communists in Europe, but Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu was almost certainly the weirdest. A puffed up, pompous ass of a man, he had a vanity complex so big it dwarfed those of other dictators.
In this case, we mean that literally: one of his maddest acts was to construct the gigantic People’s Palace in Bucharest, bulldozing most of the historic center and flattening two mountains to provide stone for it. Notoriously short, he had all the steps in the palace cut to fit his tiny feet, meaning ordinary people kept falling over whenever they visited. Oh, and he built this monstrosity while malnutrition was increasing.
For the Romanian population, this was all less than amusing. Ceausescu’s feared secret police are thought to have had up to a third of the population on their payroll at one point or another. Anyone deemed subversive could be disappeared, or have their children taken away and raised in brutal ‘orphanages’ that basically worked to starve children to death. Eventually, Romanians got so fed up with him that they launched a massive rebellion. Along with his wife, Ceausescu was executed by firing squad on Christmas Day of 1989.
8. Myanmar Under the Military Dictatorship
As you read this, Myanmar (also known as Burma) is undergoing a profound change. After over five decades of military dictatorship, the country is finally experimenting with democracy. How it will go is anyone’s guess, but it probably won’t be worse than what came before. For 50-plus years, Myanmar was one of the nastiest, most repressive states in the world.
Only a few years ago, ordinary Burmese were forbidden from travelling to other towns or villages without a passport and special permission. Even if you got these, rampant corruption meant you might still be shaken down by guards, or even shot dead. Brutal concentration camps sprang up across the country, with people detained in them for ‘crimes’ as harmless as telling jokes (the junta seemed to think laughter undermined their authority).
At a government level, things were even worse. The military was engaged in an on again, off again civil war against numerous groups that lasted over 50 years, vying with Colombia’s war on the FARC for the world’s longest-running conflict (Myanmar’s lasted longer, but with short breaks of a year or two. Colombia’s has been continuous). All in all, not a very nice place to live.
7. Equatorial Guinea Under Francisco Macias Nguema
If Myanmar was as deadly as North Korea, Equatorial Guinea, under genuine madman Francisco Macias Nguema, was at least as crazy. An extreme paranoiac, Nguema was what you’d get if you asked a child to design a ‘wacky dictator’ for a sitcom.
Terrified of assassination, he refused to enter the capital of Malabo except in emergencies, preferring instead of live in a tiny hut with the national treasury hidden under his bed. This sort of sucked for those living in Malabo, as the electricity only got switched on when Nguema was in town. As a result, most citizens lived in semi-permanent darkness, when they lived at all. Nguema had a habit of hacking his enemies to death with machetes and feeding their remains to sharks, possibly in an attempt to land the title of ‘real life Bond villain.’
We’re not even done yet. At one point Nguema randomly decreed anyone wearing glasses would be put to death, resulting in a staggering bout of bloodletting. On the plus side, he did the decent thing and died in 1979, only 11 years after taking power. On the downside, his equally crazy nephew immediately took over.
6. Zaire Under Mobutu Sese Seko
The former president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Mobutu Sese Seko had one simple dream: to be the most corrupt leader in Africa and to look utterly pimptastic while doing so. Even as his citizens sank deeper into dire poverty, Seko blew the country’s natural resources on stuff like a collection of ridiculous leopard skin hats he insisted on wearing at virtually all times.
He was also utterly obsessed with wiping out any trace of colonialism from his country’s past. Fair enough, you might think, but Seko followed this passion to a ridiculous degree. Citizens with European-sounding names were forced to adopt new, African-sounding ones. Cities, places, and concepts were likewise renamed, and all public sector workers forced to dress in Chairman Mao-style depressing jackets.
Despite apparently adoring Mao’s fashion choices, Seko was fervently anti-Communist, so Western governments tended to support him no matter what he did. He was finally deposed of in a coup in 1997, and his country renamed.
5. The Central African Republic Under Emperor Bokassa
When your international reputation is as the ‘cannibal dictator,’ you know you’re one bad dude. Meet that dude: Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a self-styled Emperor and a guy suspected of literally eating schoolchildren. During his 14-year reign, he kept a fleet of wild animals to throw his enemies to, and was rumored to have his political opponents cooked and served to visiting foreign dignitaries. When a magazine once did a shoot around his opulent palace, they accidentally photographed a fridge full of dismembered children.
Speaking of children, Bokassa seemed to really, really hate them. One of his weirdest acts was to insist all school uniforms included a gigantic picture of his face. He then charged insane amounts for these uniforms, bankrupting thousands of families too poor to buy them. During one protest organized by a group of kids, he had his army open fire, gunning down dozens of pre-pubescent tweens.
The craziest part? That all of that wasn’t even the craziest part. In 1976, Bokassa decided to become emperor and threw a lavish ceremony for himself, at which he paraded around in a ridiculous pimp hat. The ceremony cost his country’s entire GDP. No wonder they overthrew the guy three years later.
4. Togo Under Gnassingbe Eyadema
Gnassingbe Eyadema was one of the longest serving dictators in Africa, having notched up an impressive 38 years. The ruler of Togo, his longevity came thanks to a mixture of ruthlessness, pragmatism, and one of the craziest personality cults the continent has known.
Over the course of his reign, Eyadema amassed ridiculous plaudits like they were going out of fashion. He surrounded himself with 1,000 dancing women, who followed him around, singing his praises. Radio stations were required to start every announcement with a jingle declaring he’d been appointed by God. Shopkeepers were forced to hang framed portraits of him, and sell comics that featured Eyadema as a Superman-like hero who could fly and deflect bullets. The day of a failed assassination attempt against him became officially known as the Feast of Victory Over Forces of Evil.
Incredibly, Eyadema’s reign isn’t something from the distant past. He was still head of state in 2005, when he finally had the decency to die of a heart attack.
3. Nigeria’s Endless Coups
Nigeria has suffered so many coups, counter-coups, dictatorships, military juntas, and authoritarian regimes that it’s basically pointless to single any one of them out as especially bad. The vast majority of them outright sucked, while a handful were more benign. However, it’s the sheer number that fulfill the craziness quota, making it seem at times like overthrowing the government was once the national Nigerian sport.
In some instances, new governments would last less than a week before being ousted again. In 1993, Chief Moshood Abiola declared himself the new president after winning 19 states in a national vote with a less than 30 percent turnout. Before 72 hours had elapsed, the incumbent President Babangida had annulled the result, ending Abiola’s reign. Unbelievably, that wasn’t even the shortest government Nigeria experienced in the 20th century. In 1990, a military coup seized power. They were ousted in a counter coup on the exact same day.
At points, this endless tumult became especially farcical. In 1994, General Sani Abacha took power and announced he would hold elections in 1998. When 1998 finally rolled round, only five parties were allowed to participate. All five chose General Abacha as their presidential candidate. Thankfully, by 1999, the country was all coup-ed out. Abacha’s successor, General Abubakar, ushered in democracy, and today Nigeria is a democratic nation.
2. Yemen Under Ali Abdullah Saleh
The Middle East isn’t exactly known as a bastion of democracy, so it can seem kind of unfair to single out one dictator amongst all the others. Until, that is, you start reading about Yemen’s former ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Not content with being a despot and acting like a dick, he decided to do something so crazy even Kim Jong Un wouldn’t contemplate it. He deliberately seceded a large chunk of Yemeni territory to al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, by the way, are the guys who launched the deadly assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices in January 2015. They were also sworn enemies of Saleh and wanted to kill him. So why did Saleh hand them an enormous slice of strategic territory? The answer is as simple as it is Machiavellian. At the time, pro-democracy protests were shaking Yemen. After seeing what had happened to people like Egypt’s Mubarak in the Arab Spring, Saleh decided he needed the West on his side. So he convinced Western governments the protests were organized by al-Qaida by letting the terror group run wild.
Although Saleh is no longer dictator of Yemen, his legacy still lingers. Al-Qaida are still causing massive problems, and Saleh has now backed Houthis rebels (who also previously wanted to kill him) in an effort to destroy his successor and portray himself as the only man capable of bringing peace to Yemen. It would almost be impressive – in a House of Cards sort of way – if it wasn’t so clearly, utterly evil.
1. Belarus Under Lukashenko
It seems hard to believe a dictatorship such as Alexander Lukashenko’s ever existed, let alone in Europe. A brutal regime that executed random people to keep the population on their toes, assassinated the wives of political opponents, banned theater groups and the local language, and once even bombed its own population to whip up public fear of terrorists. Know what’s even less believable? It still exists today.
By all rights, the post-Communist dictatorship of Belarus should have collapsed years ago. In a kinder world, it would fit right in on a list of ‘bygone’ regimes. Sadly, we’re not living in that world.
Under Lukashenko, the secret police are so powerful that they routinely visit people every single night, and possibly several times every single night, depriving them of sleep and leaving them in a state of constant paranoia. Children have been moved back into the Chernobyl radioactive zone (although the explosion was in Ukraine, a lot of the radiation was dumped on Belarus), and are now dying at crazy rates from cancer. The regime even staged a terrorist attack on the Minsk metro, killing 15 and wounding 195, purely to create a smokescreen to hide Lukashenko’s political travails behind. Think we’re largely living in a post-crazy-dictator world? Belarus proves otherwise.