HomeNewsHow dictators respond to public pressure

How dictators respond to public pressure

If there is one interesting phenomenon in political history, it is that of the proverbial autocratic government that hangs on to power till the very bitter end even when those spearheading it can clearly see that their days are numbered. Also of interest is how governments of that nature, through propaganda, portray an image of being in control when they are not and how they often appear invincible, both in the eyes of the public and their own, right up until the day they fall.

by Zivai Mhetu

“I don’t believe in black majority rule ever in Rhodesia — not in a thousand years.” When Ian Douglas Smith said those words, using hyperbole to emphasize his point, he certainly believed his white supremacist government was invincible — that it would rule Rhodesia forever. He is not the only head of an autocratic government to erroneously believe in the ability of his despotic administration to weather every political storm that would threaten his choke-hold on power.   

When circumstances changed however, and he didn’t yield as much control as he did in the past, Smith, unlike many other heads of authoritarian regimes, recognised the futility of continuously waging a war which he knew he was eventually going to lose. In the face of prolonged pressure from liberation struggle fighters, he capitulated to a myriad of their demands in the form of concessions made by his administration at the Lancaster House Conference to pave way for a new government.

Not all authoritarian governments fall in that manner; the majority of them are led by people who decide to ignore public pressure of any sort, be it peaceful demonstrations or other forms of civil unrest, till they totally lose control and have to run away to Jeddah. Apparently, it is the “promised land” for all autocrats fleeing their people. The dictator Idi Amin lived the rest of his life there and more recently, deposed Tunisian despot Zine El Albadine Ben Ali was welcomed with open arms by King Abdullah in 2011 after he fled his country in the wake of a popular uprising.

However, not all dictators make it out of their countries before their location is discovered and they are dragged, kicking and screaming, out of whatever hovels they will be hiding in.  

It is comical how authoritarian regimes reeling from public pressure always have their chief propagandists writing articles, broadcasting on radio or appearing on television saying that they are in total control when they are not.
At times the heads of autocratic regimes take it upon themselves to deliver messages aimed at maintaining a false image of control to the public and the international community.

It is said of Idi Amin that right up until the time he escaped Uganda for Libya he was making radio broadcasts of his “victory” in which he made use of such high sounding statements as “we have cut the enemy from the rear” at a time when he was on the run and knew that his defeat was imminent. 

What is most amusing about claims of total control by disintegrating dictatorships is how the frequency and intensity of such claims seem to increase with the proximity of an autocratic regime to its fall.

When thousands of Ugandans were assembled in front of the Parliament of Uganda celebrating his fall on April 12 1979, Amin told the papers, “We have got our soldiers controlling the country.”  That quote appeared in a story in the press the following day.

The same story also reported that numerous eyewitnesses had observed Amin’s troops fleeing towards the Kenyan border, reportedly harassing local residents, looting and stealing cars along the way.   

What this serves to prove is that as long as they have a way of communicating to the public, when they are on the verge of falling, most autocratic regimes always portray the picture that they are in total control when they are not.
Zivai Mhetu is a student in the department of Political Science and Administrative Studies at the University of Zimbabwe

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading