There are at least 40 dictators around the world today, and approximately 1.9 billion people- close to a third of the global population, live under the grip of the 23 autocrats on this list alone. There are plenty of coconuts to go around.
The cost of all that despotism has been stultifying. Millions of lives have been lost, economies have collapsed, and whole states have failed under brutal repression. And what has made it worse is that the world is in denial. The end of the Cold War was also supposed to be the "End of History" -- when democracy swept the world and repression went the way of the dinosaurs. Instead, Freedom House reports that only 60 percent of the world's countries are democratic -- far more than the 28 percent in 1950, but still not much more than a majority. And many of those aren't real democracies at all, ruled instead by despots in disguise while the world takes their freedom for granted. As for the rest, they're just left to languish.
Although all dictators are bad in their own way, there's one insidious aspect of despotism that is most infuriating and galling to me: the disturbing frequency with which many despots, as in Kyrgyzstan and Rwanda, began their careers as erstwhile "freedom fighters" who were supposed to have liberated their people. Back in 2005, Bakiyev rode the crest of the so-called Tulip Revolution to oust the previous dictator. So familiar are Africans with this phenomenon that we have another saying: "We struggle very hard to remove one cockroach from power, and the next rat comes to do the same thing. Haba!" Darn!
I call these revolutionaries-turned-tyrants "crocodile liberators," joining the ranks of other fine specimens: the Swiss bank socialists who force the people to pay for economic losses while stashing personal gains abroad, the quack revolutionaries who betray the ideals that brought them to power, and the briefcase bandits who simply pillage and steal. Here's my list of the world's worst dictators. I have ranked them based on ignoble qualities of perfidy, cultural betrayal, and economic devastation. If this account of their evils makes you cringe, just imagine living under their rule.
1. Kim Jong of North Korea: A personality-cult-cultivating isolationist with a taste for fine French cognac, Kim has pauperized his people, allowed famine to run rampant, and thrown hundreds of thousands in prison camps (where as many as 200,000 languish today) all while spending his country's precious few resources on a nuclear program.
Years in power: 16
2. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe: A liberation "hero" in the struggle for independence who has since transformed himself into a murderous despot, Mugabe has arrested and tortured the opposition, squeezed his economy into astounding negative growth and billion-percent inflation, and funneled off a juicy cut for himself using currency manipulation and offshore accounts.
Years in power: 30
3. Than Shwe of Burma: A heartless military coconut head whose sole consuming preoccupation is power, Shwe has decimated the opposition with arrests and detentions, denied humanitarian aid to his people after 2008's devastating Cyclone Nargis, and thrived off a black market economy of natural gas exports. This vainglorious general bubbling with swagger sports a uniform festooned with self-awarded medals, but he is too cowardly to face an honest ballot box.
Years in power: 18
4. Omar Hassan Al-Bashir of Sudan: A megalomaniac zealot who has quashed all opposition, Bashir is responsible for the deaths of millions of Sudanese and has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Bashir's Arab militias, the janjaweed, may have halted their massacres in Darfur, but they continue to traffic black Sudanese as slaves (Bashir himself has been accused of having had several at one point).
Years in power: 21
5. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan: Succeeding the eccentric tyrant Saparmurat Niyazov (who even renamed the months of the year after himself and his family), this obscure dentist has kept on keeping on with his late predecessor's repressive policies, explaining that, after all, he bears an "uncanny resemblance to Niyazov."
Years in power: 4
6. Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea: A crocodile liberator, Afwerki has turned his country into a national prison in which independent media are shut down, elections are categorically rejected, indefinite military service is mandatory, and the government would rather support Somali militants than its own people.
Years in power: 17
7. Islam Karimanov of Uzbekistan: A ruthless thug ruling since Soviet times, Karimov has banned opposition parties, tossed as many as 6,500 political prisoners into jail, and labels anyone who challenges him an "Islamic terrorist." What does he do with "terrorists" once they are in his hands? Torture them: Karimov's regime earned notoriety for boiling two people alive and torturing many others. Outside the prisons, the president's troops are equally indiscriminate, massacring hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in 2005 after a minor uprising in the city of Andijan.
Years in power: 20
8. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran: Inflammatory, obstinate, and a traitor to the liberation philosophy of the Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad has pursued a nuclear program in defiance of international law and the West. Responsible for countless injustices during his five years in power, the president's latest egregious offense was leading his paramilitary goons, the Basij, to violently repress protesters after June 2009's disputed presidential election, which many believe he firmly lost.
Years in power: 5
9. Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia: Worse than the former Marxist dictator he ousted nearly two decades ago, Zenawi has clamped down on the opposition, stifled all dissent, and rigged elections. Like a true Marxist revolutionary, Zenawi has stashed millions in foreign banks and acquired mansions in Maryland and London in his wife's name, according to the opposition -- even as his barbaric regime collects a whopping $1 billion in foreign aid each year.
Years in power: 19
This story first appeared in the Foreign Policy Magazine, and will continue next week