The Worst Dictators You’ve (Probably!) Never Heard Of


Herod. Hitler. Hussein. History is full of notorious baddies — and those are just the H’s we can think of off the top of our heads. We asked Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, author of the newly-published The Desktop Digest of Despots & Dictators: An A-Z of Tyranny , to compile a list of the worst of the worst for us, focusing on the names that the average person wouldn’t have heard of before now. We think you’ll be amazed and/or horrified by what he came up with. Enjoy!

Oswaldo Lopez Arellano (1921–2010) Honduras

Honduran strongman who, in 1969, led his forces into battle against next-door El Salvador in the brief and bloody “Football War” triggered by a referee’s decision at a soccer match. He lost. In 1975, the US Securities and Exchange Commission discovered that the United Brands Company had offered a $2½ million bribe to President López if he would agree to reduce banana export tariffs. As a result of the ensuing uproar, trading of United Brands stock was halted and López was ousted in a military coup. This scandal is known in Honduras as “Bananagate.”

Aurangzeb (1618–1707) India Abul Muzaffar Muhy-ud-Din Muhammadr Aurangzeb, whose honorary title Almagir — or “World Dominator” — indicated his penchant for expanding the reach of his realm, was the sixth Mogul emperor, with a reign that lasted for half a century. His ambition to occupy the Peacock Throne drove him to fratricide; his aims as an evangelist for Islam drove him to similar excesses. A puritanical Moslem fanatic, he executed persons who refused to convert, outlawed music, and proscribed portraiture on the basis that viewing it amounts to idolatry — all while ruling over a quarter of the world’s population.

Ibrahim Babangida (1941–) Nigeria Convivial and ever-smiling military dictator who ruled Nigeria with a rod of iron and dubbed himself the “evil genius.” He once defused a coup in progress by disarming the ringleader with his bare hands; he would brook no opposition and went so far as to execute his closest friends if they dared to criticize him. His name became proverbial for fiscal malpractice: He is blamed for depreciating the value of Nigeria’s currency through gross economic negligence and for misappropriating billions of dollars in oil revenues generated during the Gulf War. Babangida institutionalized corruption. He awarded fat contracts to foreign business interests and arranged embarrassingly bloated deals with his compatriots, prompting one commentator to observe, “If God were a Nigerian, Babangida would have attempted to bribe him.”

Chang Hsien-Chung (1606–1647) Western China

Bloodiest butcher of the ages who killed more than 40,000,000 people in 5 years including 32,300 students, 27,000 Buddhist priests, 280 of his own wives, 400,000 women accompanying his army, 600,000 inhabitants of Chengtu, and 38,000,000 inhabitants of Szechuan, where he destroyed every building in the country. Chang pronounced himself emperor of the Daxi Dynasty. When scholars rebuked his claim, he slaughtered them en masse. Next, he ploughed through the women, merchants, and all the officials. Then he commanded his soldiers to kill each other and to cut off the feet of the officers’ wives and stack them in a pile. Chang was obsessed with ears and feet and instructed his guards to collect the ears and feet of all those killed in outlying areas so that he could tally the number of victims. When he had finished his rampage, he erected a stele bearing the inscription: Heaven brings forth innumerable things to help man Man has nothing with which to recompense Heaven. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. In one area devastated by Chang, the population dropped from 3,102,073 to 18,090; in another area, the number of inhabitants was reduced from 400,000 to 20.

Gnassingbe Eyadema (1937–2005) Togo

President of Togo from 1967 until his death in 2005. He participated in two successful military coups, became President after the second, and emerged victorious in three uncontested elections. Assassination attempts plagued his presidency. He was the sole survivor of a plane crash in the northern region of Togo where he later built a lavish memorial at the site of the accident. Following another attempt on his life by a bodyguard, he wore the extracted bullet as an amulet. In a subsequent incident, an army base where he was staying was assaulted, and several people, including his chief of staff, were killed, yet Eyadema himself escaped unharmed. When he appeared in public, a retinue of 1,000 dancing girls accompanied him, singing his praises as he passed. Special edition wristwatches were fitted with dials that flashed his portrait at fifteen-second intervals and comic books presented him as an invincible being with superhuman strength. The date of the plane crash from which he alone had walked away was officially remembered each year as the Triumphant Celebration of the Defeat of Evil. Eyadema didn’t meet his end in the fateful plane crash but, during a medical emergency, as he was hurriedly being evacuated to the nearest hospital, he died on an airplane, after all.

Xerxees. Illustration by Steve Krakow

Galba (3 BC–69 AD) Rome

Son of a hunchback, Servius Sulpicius Galba had a lifelong sexual predilection for markedly older men and, as Emperor of Rome, it was a curious preference he could well afford to indulge. He had ample opportunity but before he could run though more than a handful of elderly toyboys, he was caught in the toils of the constantly broiling soap opera that was the game of the imperial succession, and he was murdered and replaced on the throne by the ever-scheming Otho, protégé of one of his former lovers.

Juan Vicente Gomez (1864–1933) Venezuela

An indigene from the mountains of Venezuela, Gomez began life inauspiciously as a barely literate cowboy living on a ranch in the Andes region. In manhood, he rapidly grew in stature, exchanging the role of a regional strongman for the occupancy of the presidential palace. Never married, he sired close to 100 children. He was called “The Catfish” on account of the resemblance of the stringy tips of his moustache to the barbels of the aforementioned aquatic animal. He ran Venezuela as a personal playpen; suspending congress and adopting extraconstitutional powers, he built up the country and made a fortune in the process. A fierce chieftain who ruled with an iron fist, he kept rivals and enemies in a perpetual state of fear. There were spontaneous outbreaks of jubilation in the streets upon the announcement of his death.

Sargon (2340 BC–2305 BC) Akkad

One of the earliest empire builders in recorded history. Sargon was a mighty conqueror who projected his dominion in the Mesopotamian region over an unprecedented extent. He ferried booty on barges, led captive monarchs in dog collars, commanded his soldiers to cleanse their swords in the sea to prove the geographical reach of his empire, and, according to ancient records, marched on cities and left them in a heap of ruins “so that there was not left even so much as a perch for a bird.”

Ali Soilih (1937–1978) Comoros

Hired a French mercenary to help him overthrow the Comorian President so he could take his place. Having succeeded in this endeavor, he immediately set about implementing reforms. He abolished the Anda, or Grand Wedding, along with traditional funerary rituals which were adjudged overly opulent. He lowered the voting age to fourteen and elevated teenagers to positions of authority, legalized the use of cannabis, and did away with the compulsory use of the veil by women. Soilih created the Moissy, a young revolutionary militia trained by Tanzanian military advisers. Patterned after Mao Tse-tung’s Red Guards, their modus operandi was similar to that of their Chinese counterparts. Moissy units terrorized villages and specialized in violent attacks against conservative elders, formerly revered old men. The teenage Moissy were perceived as a repressive political police, and their intimidation tactics and unpredictable behavior sparked widespread resentment among the general population. Humiliation of Comorians at the hands of the Moissy deeply alienated and sharply offended the traditional leaders of the Comoros who resented the erosion of their authority and the subversion of age-old traditions. Soilih appointed a fifteen-year-old boy to run the police department, torched government records, and, when a witch doctor told him he would be killed by a white man with a black dog, destroyed every black dog on the island. Burgeoning dissatisfaction spawned repeated coup attempts against the regime. In 1978, Soilih was unseated by a European mercenary team having only fifty participants. Colonel Bob Denard, the leader of the assault, landed quietly at night and proceeded to the palace to find Soilih in bed with three girls watching a pornographic movie. He shot him, and the next morning drove through the town with Soilih’s body draped over the hood of his Jeep. Denard also had with him a black German shepherd dog.

Xerxes (519 BC–465 BC) Persia

King Xerxes of Persia, halting at the seashore in the presence of his entourage and an entire army, instructed his soldiers to horsewhip the obstreperous ocean because it made too much noise.