Having spent a great part of my life charting the decline of civilisation, I am not at all surprised at the goings-on in Tunisia, especially as I never considered the place to be civilised. How apt that the arch crook dictator Ben Ali (Baba) slithered away to Saudi Arabia, itself a beacon of democracy and human rights — especially for women — instead of embarrassing my little community of Saanen and landing here in good old Helvetia. Mind you, Saanen airport can only take very small jets, something a crook like Ben Ali Baba would never deign to escape in.
But it’s nice that crooks and dictators help each other. Imagine if Robert Mugabe had not taken in that arch Ethiopian murderer Mengistu. He’d probably be living in a place like Athens or even Rome. When King Farouk fled Egypt in 1952, he left in style, on board the royal yacht, and headed straight for Capri. Farouk may have been useless as a king, but he was a gentleman.
Unlike the Emperor Bokassa, of the Central African Republic, who kept dead children for midnight snacks in his fridge. He was eventually overthrown by the French, who were too embarrassed by charges of cannibalism against the ‘emperor’ to keep him in power, but let the monster live in one of the chateaux he had purchased in France.
Then, rather inexplicably, Bokassa returned to the Central African Republic, which immediately put him on trial for cannibalism, whereupon he was found guilty on all counts. But his successor was a softie and announced that the CAR was a civilised place that didn’t execute people for eating children. He was sentenced to solitary confinement for life, but pardoned after five years. He died with 17 wives and nearly 50 of his children surrounding his deathbed, none of whom he tried to eat, his weakened condition not permitting it.
Charles Taylor liked to chop off his predecessor’s ears while filming the process — or am I mixing up my Liberian strongmen? It could have been Prince Johnson — who fled to Nigeria on his private jet and is now in The Hague standing trial for crimes that would make Genghis Khan blush, but never mind. European taxpayers are picking up his bills while he lives in a suite and is allowed conjugal visits. I wonder if the ex-Liberian president Sergeant Doe was allowed a conjugal visit before Prince Johnson or Charles Taylor cut off his ears?
These Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan presidents play rough. We Europeans, on the other hand, are very civilised with our dictators. Both Franco and Salazar died in their beds, and rightly so, as both strongmen saved their countries while keeping them out of the disastrous second world war. Il Duce died in an undignified manner, caught wearing a German officer’s top coat and then, after being machine gunned to death, was hung from his feet in a Milanese piazza for all to see. (What I never understood was why his mistress was also put to death. A girl has to make a living.)
South American caudillos, apart from being great dressers — I loved their jackboots, Buster Brown belts and beautifully waisted uniforms — all died peacefully in bed or in neighbouring countries. Stroessner, Peron, Galtieri, Pinochet, RIP. The only North American dictator, FDR, died in the saddle cuddling his mistress in Hot Springs. Greek dictators have also fared well. Pangalos, Plastiras, Metaxas died at home, George Papadopoulos in a prison hospital. Tony Blair and George Brown, two quasi Scottish dictators, are walking around free giving speeches and making lotsa moolah. The Brits are very civilised, if a tad stupid.
The Libyan dictator plans to pass his omnipotent powers to one of his sons. Gaddafi has been in power since 1 September 1969, which must make his dictatorial rule one of the longest ever. The Libyans don’t seem to mind. They are a great people, a warrior race, the only ones the glorious Italian armies defeated back in the Thirties. So admirable was the Italian victory over this Spartan-like race, some of Mussolini’s ministers took Libyan names for their titles. I am thinking of my childhood friend Giovanni Volpi, whose father was Il Duce’s finance minister, and who took the title Count Volpi of Misurata when Benito more or less ordered the King to grant him a handle. (Misurata is an area somewhere in the Libyan desert.)
And so it goes. Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban strongman, lived out his days in Spain after Castro drove him out, but his eldest son, Rubén, had no such luck. He ended up in the same house as yours truly at boarding school. The overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala by the CIA in the Fifties cost me a beautiful girl. Bella Arbenz hated the Yanks in general and the spooks in particular. Like a fool I defended them one night in Paris just as she had agreed to play house with me. How was I supposed to know she was the deposed president’s daughter? She not only threw me out, she also flung some yellow liquid as I stood underneath her window begging to be allowed back in.
My favourite strongman was President Abboud of the Sudan. He was a popular and decent general who was invited to assume power in 1956. His only bad habit was picking his nose just before shaking my hand when I visited him once a week to hand him an envelope from my father.