Bokassa or Duvalier? Saddam has yet to select his exit lines
The Times, January 04, 2003
How does a dictator fall? What goes through the mind of a ruthless ruler, accustomed to being obeyed and feared, when his fortress begins to crack and the writing on the wall points to "ex"? Like many tyrants, Saddam Hussein will deny even the possibility of defeat until it stares him in the face - and may refuse to see it even then. In 1991 Colonel Mengistu, responsible for the death of half a million people during the Red Terror campaign in Ethiopia, had to be all but forced by his comrades to board a US plane for Zimbabwe when rebels closed in on Addis Ababa: he was still dreaming of an improbable Soviet rescue. Five years earlier, "Baby Doc" Duvalier, President for life of Haiti, had insisted on a last champagne party at his palace before a plane flew him, his small family and immense collection of luggage to the relative anonymity of France, where he rented a villa next to Graham Greene's.
And who could forget the last political rally of Nikolai Ceausescu and his wife at Christmas 1989, in a Bucharest that had already switched allegiance? There was the strongman greeting a screaming crowd from his balcony in the blithe assumption that his people were still deliriously supportive, his smile turning to horror and incredulity as what they were chanting sank in - "Death to Ceausescu". Moments later he was arrested; then sentenced to death. Having spent the past eight years chasing deposed dictators around the world, I have had the dubious privilege of asking them about these last moments. To judge from their experiences, if and when the Americans approach Baghdad, Saddam can choose between two options: the Idi Amin/ Duvalier/ Mengistu route or the path trodden by Milosevic/ Noriega/ Bokassa.
I met Amin in Jedda. As a "temporary guest" of the Saudi Royal Family since 1980, a former head of State and convert to Islam, Amin is entitled to a salary, local gym membership (he is a keen swimmer) and a peaceful life. If a foreigner is in town looking for him, they whisk Amin off to Mecca, where no infidel can follow.
Mengistu lives in Harare, with an escape route to his beloved North Korea if Robert Mugabe falls. And Jean-Claude Duvalier is in Paris. Since 1986 he has shed a wife, several kilos and many millions, but retains the discreet hospitality of the French Government and the support of many Parisian taxi drivers, former Tontons Macoute who followed him into exile fearing for their lives. Today "Baby Doc" studies solar energy and worships voodoo, dreaming of an impossible comeback and speaking to his countrymen through a sinister website.
Like these former dictators, Saddam could find himself a new home, miles away from international tribunals and foreign journalists. The Saudi monarchy might try to please fundamentalist dissidents by offering him asylum in the name of Islamic solidarity. Or, with the assent of Washington, Libya and Morocco are possible destinations.
The advantage of safety in exile, however, is counterbalanced by the disadvantage of silence imposed by the host government. For this means fewer opportunities to clear one's name.
So Saddam might decide to go the Milosevic/ Noriega/ Bokassa way: big public trials during which he tries to go down in history as victim or martyr and embarrass the enemy in the process. He might choose to disclose, for instance, the secret oil deals with Moscow; the commercial contracts with Western governments who were officially fighting the war against terror but were also profiting from it; or the deals with the US during the war against Iran. He could also take revenge against any Arab government that sides with the US, by revealing their support for terrorism.
This was Noriega's plan. "Pineapple Face" ruled Panama while acting as a CIA informant. Toppled by his former US employers, they then put him on trial. Noriega failed to impress the jury with revelations about the dirty Central American wars. Sentenced for money-laundering and drug-trafficking, he is, however, young enough in his mid-60s to have a future. In a letter he sent me from jail in Miami two years ago, he wrote: "I do not consider myself to be a forgotten individual, because God, who writes straight albeit with occasionally crooked lines, has not written the last words on Manuel A. Noriega!"
Even the monstrous Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the self-proclaimed Emperor of the Central African Republic (CAR) accused of cannibalism, tried to shame his former masters, the French, with accusations of "double standards and hypocrisy" - beginning with revelations about gifts of diamonds to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Ending up in a French castle with no friends and too many bills, Bokassa flew back to Africa to be sentenced to death, a sentence commuted to life imprisonment, then cut to ten years. After serving seven, in 1993 he was freed. When I met him a year later, dressed in a long white robe and holding his last possession, a silver crucifix, he claimed to be an apostle of the Catholic Church secretly appointed by the Pope: "I fought for France. I liberated France from the Nazis. I called Giscard my cousin. And they betrayed me." The road to denunciation and attempted martyrdom may be uncomfortable, but it can prove rewarding. In 1996 when Bokassa died, his reputation had been restored to the point where the CAR state radio could describe him as "illustrious".
General Jaruzelski, last Communist ruler of Poland, is under trial, and Egon Krenz, East Germany's last Communist leader, is in prison. Both claim to be victims of victors' justice. Their names, far from being hated in Warsaw or Berlin, are cloaked in an aura of nostalgia. Time heals.
And time is the most important asset for a dictator to secure on his way out of the palace. For the more time he has at his disposal, the greater the chance that he will one day be able to rebut criticism with a simple question: "Are you sure that those who followed me were better, more democratic, more honest? And that my country is better off now than when I ruled it?" It's an astute question, and one that Duvalier asked me. In order not to give him satisfaction, I refused to answer it. As Noriega says, sometimes God writes in crooked lines.
* The author's Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators is published by Secker and Warburg.