Saddam Goes to Hollywood (airing on SBS on Boxing Day) is a seriously fascinating documentary about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, British thespian/hell-raiser Oliver Reed, and the movie that never was. In the early days of the Iran- Iraq war, Hussein thought to distract attention from his day job as a bloody, murderous despot by paying a film company to make a flick about the glory days of his nation. As you do. What transpires is an alternately funny and terrifying account of a time in the early 80’s when a group of jobbing actors were caught up in a conflict on the other side of the world, playing make-believe while the country was blown to smithereens around them.
But Hussein wasn’t the only dictator who sought to divert attention away from his evils by random acts of eccentricity. Come, walk with me through the crazy world of some of history’s most dangerously crazy men… and may we remember (as we head into the wild unknowns of 2017) that if it looks like a duck and tweets like a duck, it’s possibly trying to distract from the fact it’s actually an insanely dangerous duck.
Abdala Bucaram: the self-described “Elvis” of Ecuador
This dictator wasn’t inherently evil so much as he was incompetent. It seems his main motivation to be President was to build his profile in order to launch a music career. He even cut a record while in office and made a habit of handing it out when meeting with other world leaders! To each their own, right? Some world leaders slow jam the news while others… do this:
But while that’s pretty pathetic, it’s not the worst thing you could say about Bucaram, who was ousted after six months on the grounds of “mental incapacity” and fled to Panama seeking asylum where he still lives today and runs this twitter account. No, the worst thing was that he drove the country into such deep economic collapse they were forced to drop their currency and adopt the US Dollar. Before that, the bloke who sported a dashing Hitler ‘tash and actually called himself “The Madman” made the most of the power at his disposal by doing such amazing things as offering Diego Maradona $1million to play a single soccer game with him and throwing a presidential banquet in honour of Lorena Bobbitt who became famous in the 90’s for cutting off her husband’s penis.
Bokassa: The Cannibal Dictator
In the 1970’s, President Bokassa of the Central African Republic decided being President wasn’t enough: he wanted to be Emperor. Just like that, he changed the name of the country to be the Central African Empire and began planning for his lavish coronation. The event took a year to organise and from the food to the costumes to the entertainment, it cost the country’s entire GDP, in a nation where more than half the population survives on less than a dollar a day. Take a gander at some of the footage from it here:
The Emperor reigned for about three years until he was overthrown by a nation fed up with his iron fist approach to leadership. Considering this approach included torturing and killing political rivals before cooking and serving them to visiting foreign dignitaries or- worse- to the crocodiles he kept in his own personal zoo, it seems like the people of the CAE had a fair gripe. He also- apparently- had a fridge containing the bodies of schoolchildren.
So when you think about it, a lavish coronation really wasn’t so bad.
Niyazov of Turkmenistan
The self-appointed “President for Life” of Turkmenistan ruled from 1990- 2006 and was another one of those stock-standard douche-bag Presidents who almost certainly committed some pretty heinous acts but unfortunately will be remembered instead for being kooky and just generally incompetent. (Not unlike a certain US President-elect…) Exhibit a: he had a habit of naming things after himself and his family (*cough* Trump! *cough*) He named months after himself, bread after his mother (yes, really) and wrote a book which he demanded be memorized by all the population. Being able to quote it on demand was compulsory before being accepted into many professions and even before you were given a drivers license. Not content with that soaring (and strange) abuse of power he decided to go a bit further, banning make-up, gold teeth (?) and lip syncing at concerts because I guess he figured if he’s gonna cough up $300+ for Adele tickets he wants the full freaking Adele experience, dammit.
Kim Jong Il and the Lizard Man
No list of crazy and terrifying dictators would be complete without resident North Korean Crackpot, Kim Jong Il. Now, obviously it’s easy to joke about the many, many ridiculous things Kim Jong Il did during his time in power- and in doing so gloss over the heinous human rights abuses that happened concurrently- but there have been endless articles, listicles and think pieces dedicated to Jong Il and his arseholery. So let’s just list some of the most insane:
- He traveled with a “pleasure squad” of beautiful women
- He claimed he created the universe (along with his father, which is, well, biologically impossible)
- Claimed he invented the hamburger
- Attempted to rid Pyongyang of “short people”
- Ensured that school children are taught- among other things- that he never defecates
These are all completely bonkers but the most lustrous piece of insanity in the pile? He had two South Korean directors kidnapped and forced them to make a Communist remake of Godzilla… He apparently saw it as an attempt to kick-start North Korea’s film industry. Everyone else saw it as extortion and an attempt to ruin Godzilla more than Roland Emmerich did.
Until he was assassinated in 2011, Qaddafi ruled Libya for forty years. Qaddafi’s crimes against humanity are well-known- everything from murdering dissidents to his links to terror attacks like the 1989 Lockerbie bombing. He also expelled all Jews from Libya along with all Italians, something he saw as revenge for Italian colonization of the country during WW2.
In Qaddafi’s case, the serious abuses of power were masked by his various eccentricities: lobbying the UN to dissolve the nation of Switzerland, claiming Israel was responsible for JFK’s assassination, expressing support for Somali Pirates, wearing elaborate costumes and headgear and travelling with a security team consisting of nothing but stiletto-wearing female virgins.
Mobutu Sese Seko
Africa’s longest- ruling dictator, Mobutu Sese- Seko seized power in a coup in the 1960’s and held it until the mid-90’s, enforcing a regime of terror, torture and shocking human rights abuses. Like Qaddafi, his made a name for himself as something of an eccentric, masking to the international community the true abuses of his power. He’s probably best known for the fact that he spent $10 million to pay Muhammad Ali and George Forman to come “rumble in the jungle” in an attempt to put Zaire on the map, but that wasn’t the full extent of his crazy. He insisted that the evening news begin each night with an image of himself descending from the clouds. He also enjoyed banning things, including prohibiting anyone else from wearing leopard print hats or from sporting non- African names. He himself changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga which roughly translates to “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”. Catchy, I know, but very tough to learn to spell in primary school.
This guy. I mean, you think Trump is overcompensating for small appendages by constructing giant buildings? Check out the palace built by Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. Seen from space, it’s the third largest building in the world after the Aztec pyramid of Teotihuacan and the Cape Canaveral rocket hanger and was constructed by razing the Bucharest city centre and displacing almost 40,000 people. Nicolae was another one of those fellers who enjoyed promoting friends and family to cushy positions- like demanding that his nearly illiterate wife be made part of the New York Academy of Sciences- and insisting that all researchers in Romania had to include his name in any research papers. As communism came to an end around the world in the late 80’s, Ceausescu and his wife were overthrown and executed, but the giant palace remains, now housing the Romanian parliament but it’s so huge that only 30% of it is actually in use.
How bout with his self- bestowed title: "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular."
It’s still up for discussion (it really isn’t) whether Uganda ever actually conquered England, but we definitely know from that movie with James McAvoy that Amin thought he was the Last King of Scotland. He apparently wrote frequent love letters to Queen Elizabeth who- surprisingly enough- didn’t return his affection. You can’t joke about Amin’s eccentricities without remembering the outrageous human rights abuses they were masking: Amin became known as the “Butcher of Uganda”, with an estimated 300,000 people killed during his presidency, usually for opposing what Amin claimed as a divine right to rule.
Saddam Goes to Hollywood is on SBS, December 26th at 9:35pm.