How dictators stay in power

Dictators who have emerged all over the world in modern times use such similar tactics to stay in power that one can be forgiven for thinking they have a secret ‘dictator’s book’ with instructions on how to establish and consolidate despotic rule. Either such a book exists – the Prince by Machiavelli maybe – or the autocratic behaviour of dictators constitutes a case of isomorphic mimicry of the earliest people in the ‘trade.’

Firmly in power? ... President Robert Mugabe

Firmly in power? … President Robert Mugabe

Their most common tactic is that of conjuring up ‘enemies of the people’ or fictitious threats in a bid to rally their people against an imaginary foe while distracting them from the real enemy – the dictator himself. For Hitler it was the Jews, for Idi Amin, the Asians; for other African dictators, the west.

On top of being ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘threats to national security’ these imagined foes also double as scapegoats for every single thing that goes wrong in the dictator’s country.
Through the skilful use of propaganda, all the woes bedevilling the dictator’s nation are repeatedly and consistently ascribed to the imagined foe till a considerable section of the country believes it and sees nothing wrong with the dictator continuing in power. After all to them he/she has done nothing wrong – all the problems facing the country are a result of the west’s sanctions or their sponsorship of ‘undesirable elements,’ never mind that the dictator is mismanaging the economy, causing poverty or creating unemployment.
A tactic so often used by autocrats that it has almost become synonymous with the word dictator is force. Where other types of leaders would invite you for talks or negotiations, the dictator will pummel you into submission. Some of the dictators that have stayed in power the longest – like Stalin and Mao who were both in power for over thirty years – were the most repressive and orchestrated the highest levels of violence against their own citizens.
Another tactic which citizens living in a dictatorship should be wary of – especially the opposition – is co-optation. This is where the dictator somehow incorporates the opposition in his/her regime through negotiated settlements or even Parliament. This prolongs the stay of the dictator in power. Through co-optation, the fate of the dictator and those who have been co-opted becomes intertwined. Where you would ordinarily blame the dictator alone it becomes not only his/her fault but also that of those who have been co-opted.
Lest they lose their sitting allowances in Parliament or their Ford Rangers, those who have been co-opted are not so eager to dismantle the regime that has co-opted them. Even if they wanted to, the dictator’s carrot and stick approach ensures that they stay in line.
Usually used hand in hand with co-optation is obtainment of cooperation from key sectors. By way of policy concessions or patronage, the dictator gains favour from those without whose support it would basically be impossible to govern. By doing this, the dictator is able to maintain a solid grip on power. King Hussein of Jordan, for example, offered the moderate Islamic group Muslim Brotherhood influence over educational and social policies in exchange for cooperation with the regime and this helped him to remain in control.
Lastly there is what is called legitimation. In the social sciences, legitimation refers to the process whereby an act, process, ideology, or in this case, the dictator becomes legitimate by his/her attachment to norms and values widely shared within the country. A strong anti-gay stance in a nation that is predominantly Christian and frowns upon that sort of thing can move mountains for a dictator in as far as the legitimation process is concerned. The same applies for inclination towards socialist policies in a country where the majority are workers and not owners of capital.
Simply put, by strongly standing and pushing for principles, agendas and ideologies that resonate with the masses the dictator legitimizes himself and could stay in power longer as a direct result of the legitimation process. Ordinarily, legitimation comes through winning free, fair and credible elections. Most dictators however, fail to do this hence the need for an alternative means of legitimation.
All the tactics mentioned above form the basic kit or bag of tricks for most dictators. It is thus imperative for those living in dictatorships to examine these tactics with the aim of developing counter strategies that will result in the eventual fall of the dictator and lasting solutions to ensure that such tactics will not be used by future governments.
Zivai Mhetu
(University of Zimbabwe student from the Department of Political Science and Administrative Studies)

Post published in: Featured
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