The Return of the Dictators

“I prefer death to surrender,” said Pakistan’s former military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, on 1 April to the special court

“I prefer death to surrender,” said Pakistan’s former military dictator, Pervez Musharraf,  on 1 April to the special court that is trying him on five counts of high treason, but it’s a reasonable guess that he’d prefer exile to either of those options. The real puzzle is why he ever left his comfortable exile in England in the first place.

In theory Musharraf, who seized power in Pakistan in 1999 and finally gave it up under great pressure in 2007, could face the death penalty if he is found guilty. That probably won’t happen, but he is being humiliated by the trial, and last week the Taliban nearly got him with a roadside bomb near Islamabad. Doubtless he missed Pakistan, but what bizarre calculation could have led him to go home and put himself in the hands of his many enemies?

Musharraf said he was coming home to run in the 2013 election, which was delusional in the extreme. There was little reason to believe that many Pakistanis would want to vote for him after living under his arbitrary rule for eight years. There was no reason at all to think that he would not be disqualified from running in the election and put on trial for grave crimes.

Yet Musharraf is not alone. Other ex-dictators, far nastier than him, have succumbed to the same delusion and gone home convinced that they would be welcomed back. Another recent case is Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who took over as Haiti’s dictator when his father “Papa Doc” died in 1971 and ruled it until he was overthrown by a popular revolt in 1986.

“Baby Doc” took an alleged $120 million with him into exile in France. His Tonton Macoute militia had murdered thousands and drove hundreds of thousands into exile, but he lived on in Paris in great luxury.

Yet he went home in 2011, after a quarter-century in exile. He said he was “just coming to help,” whatever that meant, but he arrived just as the recently elected president was facing charges of election-rigging, which led some to speculate that Duvalier still had political ambitions.

He was arrested and charged with embezzlement, human rights abuses, and crimes against humanity. Three years later the courts are still pursuing him on those charges, but he is frequently seen lunching in the bistros of Petionville, and has even been welcomed at the same events as the current president, Michel Martelly. It’s safe to say that he will not die in jail.

Two things are odd about this phenomenon of ex-dictators returning to the scene of the crime. One, obviously, is their belief that they are still loved (as if they ever really were). That’s because during their time in power very few people dared to tell them anything else.

What’s more curious is the fact that the countries they misruled eventually find it necessary to forgive them. They do this not because they love the man, but because the nation’s history must not be merely a meaningless catalogue of blunders and misdeeds.

Musharraf has come back a bit too early to benefit from instant forgiveness, but he will not face the death penalty, or even serious jail time, because Pakistan’s army would not permit it. And he will be forgiven by Pakistan’s historians and myth-makers in the end, because somehow or other the history has to make sense.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.