The grammar of dictators

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / August 20, 2008
Monologue of Deceit

On August 7, 2008, Zenawi gave an interview to Time Magazine in which he flatly denied the existence of famine in Ethiopia: “We have pockets of severe malnutrition in some districts in the south and an emergency situation in the Somali region,” he explained, “but it is a manageable problem.” Zenawi said Ethiopia has not seen famine during his 17 years at the helm of power: “Famine has wreaked havoc in Ethiopia for so long, it would be stupid not to be sensitive to the risk of such things occurring. But there has not been a famine on our watch - emergencies, but no famines.” In March, 2008, Zenawi dismissively assured his rubber-stamp parliament that international reports of drought-related deaths in Ethiopia were “false”. He singled out UNICEF’s assessment of “famine” in the country as “patently false.” It was a case of “out-of-sight, out-of-mind,” for Zenawi. The Economist in its June 13th (2008) edition reported: “The government has banned photographs of the starving and has told field workers not to give information to foreign journalists.” The Economist concluded:

After several good harvests since the last big famine, in 2003, Ethiopia had a chance to progress. Instead, it dithered over reforms to promote private business and overhaul the country’s sclerotic banking system and mobile-phone sector. …. Ethiopia is one of Africa’s very few countries that still has virtually no serious private business - and thus few jobs—outside the state sector. Almost three-quarters of the population may be under- or unemployed. (Italics added.)

In April 2008, in a Newsweek interview Zenawi triumphantly declared that his new press law would be among the “best in the world”. He boasted, “We are now processing a new press law that we very much hope will put our legislation on par with the best in the world. So we have continuously been addressing any shortcomings with the institutions in our country.” But two years earlier in April 2006, Zenawi told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that his government and the private press have been in a confrontational relationship after the 2005 elections because the press “went beyond their normal bias and went for the jugular. They became part and parcel of the day-to-day preparation for the insurrection after the elections.” It seems the “new press law” is designed to make sure the independent press would never become “confrontational” or “go for the jugular” again. The CPJ roundly criticized the this so-called law as “flawed” because it “does not fully incorporate public input, including that of local journalists and legal experts.” Not to belabor the point, Zenawi has been credited for being “Africa’s leading jailer of journalists throughout much of the 1990s,” and for “driving scores of reporters and editors into exile.”

In the recent Time magazine interview, Zenawi accused opposition leaders as misguided insurrectionists who obtained their release from prison by “realizing their mistakes” and asking for pardons. Zenawi explained, “It's very obvious now that the opposition tried to change the outcome of the election by unconstitutional means. We felt we had to clamp down. We detained them and we took them to court…The leaders of the opposition have realized they made a mistake. And they asked for a pardon, and the government has pardoned them all.” Only in Zenawi’s kangaroo court system is it possible to jail and “pardon” a person for “making a mistake”. Zenawi does not seem to be aware of the part of his constitution which guarantees due process of law for those accused of crimes; but then again, the opposition leaders are not entitled to due process since they are accused of “making mistakes."

In January 2007, a triumphant Zenawi declared that his forces would remain in Somalia “for a few weeks” while the “interim government stabilized the situation in that country”. He promised to be out of Somalia in another few weeks, and leave it “up to the international community to deploy a peacekeeping force in Somali without delay to avoid a vacuum and the resurgence of extremists and terrorists.” In September 2007, Zenawi told Time Magazine: “Before we intervened, about a year ago now, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) were on the verge of collapse and the Islamic Courts Union were on the verge of taking complete and full control of Somalia. That is no longer on the cards. That is a tremendous change.” Zenawi is still in Somalia, but over 1 million Somalians are not; and thousands of Somalis have been killed by Zenawi’s mercenaries.

There is “not a shred” of evidence that significant human rights violations have taken place in Ethiopia, according to Zenawi. In September 2007, he said: “We are supposed to have burned villages [in the Ogaden]. I can tell you, not a single village, and as far as I know not a single hut has been burned. We have been accused of dislocating thousands of people from their villages and keeping them in camps. Nobody has come up with a shred of evidence.” In November 2007, Zenawi made a slight admission by noting that some bad dudes may have been roughed up a little bit, but no major human rights violations: “This is a counterinsurgency. I am not going to tell you there hasn't been anyone beaten up. I am absolutely confident that there has not been any widespread violation of human rights.”

In October 2006, Zenawi denied the existence of political prisoners: “There are no political prisoners in Ethiopia at the moment. Those in prison are insurgents. So it is difficult to explain a situation of political prisoners, because there are none. However, insurgents and militants have been imprisoned because of their militant and violent acts and we will see what the court decides on that”. It seems there are three classes of offenders in Zenawi’s prisons: 1) “insurgents and militants”, 2) ordinary street criminals, and 3) people who make “mistakes”. But no political prisoners!

In May 2001, then-President of the ruling EPRDF regime, Dr Negasso Gidada said, “corruption has riddled state enterprises to the core.” He promised the regime would show “an iron fist against corruption and graft as the illicit practices had now become endemic”. By 2005, Dr. Gidada seemed to have had a stunning revelation, an “aha!” moment, about corruption as the lifeblood of his party’s dictatorship. He said “we are living in a dictatorship and we are aware of this now.” In 2007, Ethiopia was ranked at the top of the Corruption Index, 138 out of 179 countries.

It is fascinating to study the grammar of dictators, how they use political language to naturalize their cruelties and barbarism; or as George Orwell put it, to use “political language to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Yet the choice of words and phraseology by dictators is often calculated and purposeful. By calling famine “severe malnutrition”, one can name the event without calling up mental images of children with distended bellies and skeletal figures on a parched landscape. The verbal sanitization and makeup covers the ugly truth of the word “famine” and creates mental dissociation from the victims, while at the same time deadening the nerves and the conscience of the listener with the understated phrase “severe malnutrition”. On the other hand, by sugarcoating famine (no pun intended), one is also being cautious. By confessing to a lesser crime of “severe malnutrition”, one can mask and evade a far more serious offense of the crime of “death by famine” of millions.

But in all of the euphemism-fest and sugarcoating of the dismal Ethiopian reality, is Zenawi fooling us? Himself? The International Community? Or…

Through the Looking Glass Into the Minds of Dictators

What goes through the minds of dictators and those who are drunk as a skunk on power? What goes on in the minds of people who believe they are above the laws of man and God? What goes on in the minds of ruthless dictators? These are fascinating questions for political scientists, and even forensic analysts. We may begin to explore these questions from the perspective of political psychology and forensic analysis.

Political Psychology

The literature in political psychology (which encompasses multidisciplinary fields including anthropology, cognitive and personality psychology, sociology, psychiatry, economics, history, philosophy, political theory, etc.) suggests that dictators of all stripes and from every continent -- Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedung, Saddam Hussien, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Omar al-Bashir, Francois Duvalier, Ferdinand Marcos or Zenawi -- suffer from at least three common syndromes: 1) denial of reality, 2) narcissism and 3) paranoia (fear).

First, dictators have difficulty accepting reality, that is, the world as it objectively manifests itself. For instance, millions may be starving or unemployed and millions more may barely survive without the necessities of life. Dictators see a world around them that is not pretty, so they manufacture their own. Where there is widespread famine, they see “pockets of severe malnutrition”; where they are confronted with overwhelming evidence of bombed out villages in the form of satellite photos, they claim there is not a “shred of evidence” of human rights violations; where the documented facts show thousands of innocent citizens have been swept off the street and jailed without a scintilla of evidence of criminal wrongdoing, they conveniently reclassify them as “insurgents and militants”; where the world sees political prisoners, they see sinners who need absolution for “making mistakes”; and when they are rejected in the polls, they “clampdown on the opposition” in the name of defending the “constitution”.

Dictators see only what they want to see; and to avoid what they don’t want to see, they create their own convenient world of illusions out of the whole cloth of their personal beliefs, opinions and fantasies. As they continue to abuse power without any legal restraints and convince themselves that they are above the law and accountable to no one but themselves, they transform their world of illusion into a world of delusion. In their delusional world, they become both the “lone ranger” of the old American West “cleaning up bad towns and riff-raff” and the only custodians of the Holy Grail, with miraculous powers to save their nation. In their delusional world, there is room only for themselves and their cronies. They distrust and passionately detest intellectuals -- academicians, economists, scholars, journalists, scientists, researchers, lawyers, judges, doctors, engineers, teachers, and even students – and view them as enemies. Whether it is Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution, Lenin’s mass arrest and deportation of the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets), or Zenawi’s purge of the universities, the story is basically the same. Dictators believe only they know what is good for the country and the people. For instance, Mao had little knowledge about technology or economics, but he convinced himself that in the Great Leap Forward of 1959-61, China in five or ten years could be transformed into a mighty industrial power and overtake the United States, Europe and the Soviet Union. In the process, he created the worst famine and natural disaster of the 20th Century.

The second “dictators’ syndrome” is narcissism. They are the center of the universe and everything revolves around them. In their delusional world, that does happen. Because they are narcissistic, they are limited in their thinking, selective in their views, narrow in their vision, intolerant of dissent, solicitous of praise and adulation often surrounding themselves with yes-men, distrustful of everyone (except those in the small close group of people who feed them only the information they want to hear), and paranoid of all opposition, even peaceful ones. Because they are detached from reality, they remain rigid and inflexible; and their approach and attitude towards others is never to compromise or negotiate. Mao was told repeatedly about the devastating impact of the Great Famine of 1959-61 by top party officials, but he refused to budge. He simply could not admit that he had been wrong since that would have vaporized his utopian fantasies and potentially shifted power to others in the party. So, he let 30 million people die in the famine. The mantra, philosophy and mindset of all dictators are “my way, the highway or you-are-on-your-way-to-jail!” To their way of thinking, conciliation and reconciliation with their opposition is humiliation, and a deep wound on their pride.

The third dictators’ syndrome is fear. Dictators rule by fear, but paradoxically, they are also ruled by their own fears while feeling omnipotent and invincible at the same. They are afraid all the time. They are afraid of their own shadows. They are afraid of criticism (and love to jail those pesky journalists) and become defensive when they are challenged. That is because dictators are thugs at heart. They see the world as a place where they get their way by threat, intimidation, cheating, lying and robbing; rarely by persuasive logic or compelling arguments and evidence. Because they are afraid, they are also isolated and friendless. Mao, Stalin and Saddam would go into deep depressions when they feared conspiracies were brewing among their opponents. The biographers of these dictators have written with extraordinary detail how they would spend days alone ruminating the dismissal, imprisonment or killing of their opponents. Dictators fear not only for their physical safety, but they are also afraid of facing the truth about themselves and betrayal from those closest to them. That is the major reason why they keep their own counsel and communicate only with a few individuals in their inner circle (the “state within the state”, the “knights of the roundtable”). When they consult the few in the inner circle, they often find out that their trusted members have little real understanding of the outside world or the complex domestic issues and problems. Even when there are a few in the inner circle who might have some sophisticated understanding, they are often afraid to tell the dictators the truth.

Dictators make their most catastrophic decisions in their isolation. Saddam Hussein, for instance, decided to invade Kuwait on his own within weeks of the actual invasion date. He thought he could grab the tiny nation of Kuwait and solve his financial problems from the war with Iran and consolidate its regional authority. Even when he was given a chance to withdraw before the Americans unleashed Operation Desert Storm, he continued to live in his delusional world, believing that America would not attack him because “Americans can’t take casualties.” Back in January 2007 Zenawi boasted “We’ll be out of Somalia in a couple of weeks,” after cleaning the Somali House. Well, he is still there.

All Dictators are Criminals: The Forensics of Dictatorship

Let’s clearly understand what we mean when we say dictators are criminals. Simply stated, we mean that dictators gain power by force or stolen elections. They hold and abuse an extraordinary amount of personal power and are unaccountable to anyone. They have the unchallenged power to make and unmake laws, and often their word is law. They order massive violations of human rights by arbitrary arrests, detentions, tortures; they declare states of emergency at a whim, jail or release political opponents at will and head a one-party state that thrives on public corruption. Whether it is Stalin, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussien, al-Bashir or Zenawi, all dictators use violence to maintain their grip on power. Dictators always rule by force, never by consent. Dictators will seek to keep their grip on power by any means necessary.

Dictators, like street criminals, operate outside the boundaries of the law and morality, and survive by committing more crimes. In a way, street criminals and dictators are a professional criminal class. They commit crimes either for a living, or to continue living. All dictators (including the so-called benign “development dictators” of Singapore and Malaysia, for instance) routinely commit any one or more of the following: crimes against human rights, crimes against humanity, war crimes. Not unlike the petty street criminal who is unconcerned about the rights of his individual victim, dictators are unconcerned about the rights of their people. “One death is a tragedy,” Stalin said coldly, “but one million deaths is a statistic.” If 4.5 million people die in “severe malnutrition”, so what! “Tough luck!”

Forensic analysis (application of multidisciplinary scientific and investigative techniques and methods in criminal or civil litigation) could be valuable in understanding dictators-cum-criminals. One technique of forensic analysis often used by litigation lawyers is “statement analysis”. It is very useful in preparing for cross-examination of deceptive witnesses, jury selection (voir dire), and in general, in attacking perjured testimony and in removing the veil of deceit to reveal the truth to the jury. This technique is based on a number of premises: 1) There are many ways and forms of lying, but every lie necessarily involves verbal choices. By examining the structure and contents of an oral or written statement, one can detect signs of deception. 2) Criminals make deceptive statements not because they want to be cautious and avoid self-incrimination, but because they want to intentionally create a fog of lies to obscure the facts. 3) Sophisticated criminals choose their words in a calculated way to avoid responsibility and evade the truth. 4) When criminals lie, they often try to maintain two story lines in their minds: the incident as it occurred and another one they have invented to cover up the real incident. This mental tension makes itself evident in the statements of the criminals; and by analyzing the statements one can systematically determine if the story is based on recollection from memory or if it is a figment of the imagination.

Consequently, professional criminals develop a lexicon (a dictionary) of deception, equivocation and obscuration. They become experts in evasive answers and find all kinds of ways to be responsive by being unresponsive. Critical and rigorous analysis of their verbal or written statements in such instruments as deposition, trial transcripts, police reports, public statements, corroborated private statements, letters, and documents and recordings often reveals the truth. Suffice it to say that there are serious forensic implications in admitting the occurrence of “famine” than “severe malnutrition”; in jailing “insurgents and militants” than admitting sweep-up of innocent citizens; or in pardoning those who “made mistakes” than “releasing political prisoners."

The Lessons of History and the Banality of Famine Denial

Choose your own word or phrase: severe malnutrition, famine, food deficit, whatever. If you don’t want to face the truth you could even call it “prolonged involuntary no calories diet” (PINCD). You can scare foreign reporters with deportation unless they call the famine victims “people who urgently need food aid”. You can threaten them to call the famine a “grain shortage,” or “food insecurity” caused by “poor rains and rising food prices”. But the data is irrefutable. Between 4.5 million (regime estimate of people facing “severe malnutrition) and 10 million (estimates of international organizations) people are in a state of famine in Ethiopia today. But famine denial, like Holocaust denial (denial or minimization of Nazi genocide against the Jews) is nothing new. It has been the specialty of some of the worst totalitarian regimes the world has ever seen. We can learn a lot from the “severe malnutrition” of two of the greatest forgotten famines of the last century.

The Soviet Union

The Soviet Union, particularly in the Ukraine, the Volga valley, Kazakhstan and North Caucasus, suffered a terrible famine in 1932-33. Stalin denied it was a famine. He said it was “severe malnutrition”. Even the New York Times reports of the day agreed with him. Stalin made it a crime to speak of the events of that period as famine. But it was famine. The Ukranians call it “Holodomor”. Ironically, famine was raging in the Ukraine, one of the most fertile lands in the world, and widely regarded to be a breadbasket of the Soviet Union. But Stalin weaponized the famine to crush the Ukranian peasants who had resisted communism and asserted their own nationalism. In the highly acclaimed study of that famine, Harvest of Sorrow (1986), Robert Conquest has demonstrated that the famine that killed nearly 10 million people was planned by Stalin. He argued that Stalin was aware that the excessive grain requisitions would lead to famine, but nevertheless persisted in order to destroy what he perceived to be a rejection of communism by the peasants and assertive demonstration of Ukrainian nationalism. Conquest further suggests that Stalin’s plans for rapid industrialization and modernization became a core element of the famine because grains had to be exported to generate exchange for the purchase of industrial machinery.


The pattern of devastating famine that appeared in the Soviet Union during 1932-33 resurfaced during China's Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) resulting in the deaths of 30 million people. Until the 1980s, Chinese authorities denied the occurrence of “the worst famine of the 20th Century” and called it the “Three Years of Natural Disasters”. Mao’s economic policies and mismanagement in the Great Leap Forward program were the undeniable causes of the famine. As Jasper Becker has shown in his authoritative book, Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (1996), a whole series of “policy failures, including collectivization, prevention of private plots, diversion of agricultural labor coincided with adverse weather patterns including droughts and floods to cause the Great Famine of 1958-61”. Becker persuasively argues that the Great Leap Forward program (“leap” into the modern industrial age) wreaked havoc on the agricultural sector by displacing the peasantry through mass industrial mobilization for steel production.


Famine, starvation and population displacement are not necessarily the twin destinies of Ethiopia, and Ethiopia’s “public manmade death” is completely avoidable. That is the conclusion of Patrick Webb and Joachim von Braun book Famine and Food Security in Ethiopia (1994). The authors argue that Ethiopia can be self-sufficient in food production and eradicate the root causes of famine if there existed “good governance, sound growth policies and active preparedness”. Simply stated, good governance means accountability which is “the essential basis for participatory interaction between government and its constituents, namely rural smallholders.” Sound economic growth policies do not mean production of cash crops for export but “growth that removes the roots of chronic food security.” Active preparedness means the state is “preparing for a crisis while simultaneously working to prevent it.” The authors argue that the mechanisms already exist to avert future famines; but why they are not functional to save Ethiopians from hunger is anybody’s guess.

Need for Open Discussion

There is a need for critical and systematic policy analysis of the causes and consequences of the recurrent famines in Ethiopia over the past decades to 1) fix legal accountability and moral responsibility for the untold casualties of famine, and 2) develop policies that will prevent future famines in the Land of the Blue Nile. More specifically, the learned Ethiopian economists need to tell us whether the so-called agricultural development led industrialization policy of the ruling regime (like the industrialization and collectivization programs of Stalin and Mao) with its “commercialization of smallholder agriculture through product diversification; shift to higher-valued crops; promotion of niche high-value export crops; support for the development of large-scale commercial agriculture; effective integration of farmers with domestic and external markets; and tailoring interventions to address the specific needs of the country's varied agro-ecological zones” is directly or indirectly responsible for the country’s current famine, that is “severe malnutrition”. One could reasonably hypothesize that the “ecological zone” premises of this policy could well be contributing to the famine, or aggravate it. For instance, one of the elements of this policy requires that to enhance food security in “moisture stress areas”, voluntary resettlements should be undertaken to more productive areas. In other words, people from drought/famine areas would be sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry on their backs to non-drought affected areas to eke out an existence. Some economists have argued that such resettlement could compound the demographic effects of internal displacement and food supply pressures in the destination areas. (By the way, “voluntary resettlement to more productive areas” back in the days of old Joe Stalin used to be called “transfer of population” or “rectification of frontiers”.) It is not necessary wait for decades as in the case of the Soviet Union and China to determine the effects of this policy. As Conquest and Becker have done for the Soviets under Stalin and China under Mao, Ethiopian economists and researchers should do the same for Ethiopia today.

A Hungry man…

Zenawi can call famine by any other name – “pockets of severe malnutrition, an emergency situation, a manageable problem”, whatever. To have pockets of severe malnutrition is like being a little bit pregnant. No one is fooled by euphemistic sophistry, least of all the people who are starving to death. As the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “We are each entitled to our own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts.” If the history of famine teaches us anything, it is that “severe malnutrition” could be a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) in the hands of the world’s most dangerous dictators (WMDD). Calling famine “severe malnutrition” or giving it some other “famspin” does not change famine into a feast. The facts are just the facts; and the undeniable facts of famine in Ethiopia today are: A hungry man is an angry man. A hungry woman is an angry woman. A hungry child is an angry child. A hungry nation is an angry nation! P.S. One of the least appreciated effects of famine is the devastating consequences it has on children and the future of a society. Some studies of Chinese villages most severely affected by the 1959-61 famine have shown that adults born during that period showed a significantly higher risk of mental and learning disabilities. Now, that is “food for thought”!

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at