Dictatorships: Why Are They So Common?

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Imagine having to tune in to the radio at 6 a.m. every morning to listen for your own name. That's how my wife and I began each day when we lived in a West African nation during a time of revolution and turmoil.

When we first arrived in the country, it was under a military dictatorship. Six weeks after our arrival a palace coup removed the head of state and replaced him with another military leader. Shortly afterwards, another branch of the military overthrew the former leaders in a bloody self-proclaimed revolution that promised sweeping changes for everyone's benefit.

Reinforcing the message that there was no turning back, all previous presidents were arrested and publicly shot.

This revolution inspired others throughout the region, some even bloodier.

A few weeks after the revolution, the 6 a.m. morning news bulletin announced that all foreign nationals had to report to the Ministry of the Interior. Once there, we stood in line with our two young children in oppressive heat along with hundreds of others. There were no toilet facilities in the building and the officials were neither cooperative nor friendly.

It came as a relief when our passports were stamped with the words: "Deported within 48 hours." The new revolutionary government, allied with radical Islamic and socialist countries, had no time for niceties like freedom of religion.

Our deportation order came around noon on Friday. Our instructions were to go immediately to another government department to apply for an exit visa, without which we could not leave the country we had just been told to leave! Making life even more difficult, there was a national shortage of gasoline, which made it difficult to go anywhere.

Eventually we did arrive at the government building where the required exit visas were to be issued, only to learn that it was closed until Monday. This meant that we would overstay our 48 hours and be in contravention of a government that in its revolutionary fervor didn't hesitate to rid the world of its enemies, both real and imagined.

A solitary soldier stood outside the building. For a small sum he offered to stamp our passports with the required exit visa. This he duly did and we departed the country two days later, on a Sunday. The relief we felt as we left was palpable. Our nerves were shattered.

We had been struggling to survive for three months in a country that had suddenly turned extremely violent and whose people were now frequently hostile to foreigners. An angry mob had tried to stab my wife through our vehicle window and then attempted to overturn the vehicle with us in it. The mob was a demonstration against American and British "imperialism," the two primary Western powers blamed, as always, for all ills.

We had also been shot at during the revolution itself. A helicopter had fired at us as it flew over our home. My car had been forced to stop at gunpoint where soldiers were taking the opportunity to confiscate people's property for themselves. But God was with us. We had waited six months for a car in a nation where vehicles were difficult to obtain. I silently prayed, asking God for help at that moment. My prayer was answered. Seeing my 2-year-old daughter asleep in the rear seat, the soldier hesitated. At that moment, another car approached along the deserted road. He seized that one instead.

Our water and electricity were cut off for days during the period of fighting that engulfed the capital. The food we had in our freezer rotted, the very food we would so desperately need during the coming months as the new government's crazy economic policies caused an immediate famine. A few days after the coup, even the government-controlled newspaper could not avoid running the truthful headline: NO FOOD.

In a sincere but misguided attempt to help the poor, the new administration had introduced strict but unrealistic price controls that led to immediate shortages of everything. People lived on coconuts and oranges those first few weeks.

It was quite a relief to arrive in England. Five weeks later there was yet another change of government in the small African nation and we were able to return to continue the work we had been doing. We were granted two years of relative peace before going through similar experiences again.

Why the difference?

It's difficult for people in stable Western democracies to understand the nature of dictatorships. Those who have been brought up in countries like the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada have little appreciation for their own political systems, which have contributed greatly to the peace and economic progress of their peoples. Without political stability there cannot be economic progress.

This has been a major problem in Africa and other parts of the world. Many in the West feel that poverty is the root cause of political instability. But the reality is more the opposite—political instability is a major cause of poverty.

Few nations have developed a political system that allows for peaceful change from one administration to another. As a group of African Christian pastors said to me recently: "The only way to remove an African president is to shoot him." They weren't advocating this; they were simply lamenting the fact that this has been the case in post-colonial Africa.

Lessons from Ghana

Ghana was the first sub-Saharan British colony to be given independence. On March 6, 1957, the former colony of the Gold Coast became the new nation of Ghana.

Blessed with the best-educated citizenry in the region and with ample reserves of foreign currency in its central bank, Ghanaians had enjoyed a standard of living higher than that of some of the peoples of Europe. They had benefited greatly from a long period of political stability. With a new democratically elected government, it seemed Ghana had a great future and would pave the way for the whole of Africa.

Sadly, it did—but not in the right way. Only two years after independence, fundamental changes were made to the constitution that led to a dictatorship. In turn, the dictatorship bankrupted the country. Forty years later it still hasn't fully recovered. In the interim the nation has often experienced dictatorship—different factions seizing power at the barrel of a gun.

Today Ghana is a functioning democracy once again. Its economy is improving and its citizens hope it will last. The test will come when the electorate votes for a change of government. Will it be a peaceful transition, or will there be another power struggle?

A radical idea on government from Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ came proclaiming a dramatically different vision of leadership and government. Though born to be a king, He never sought self-exaltation at the expense of others. Indeed, His approach was just the opposite. Unusual as it may sound, though, even Christ's disciples weren't immune to political power struggles like those endemic in today's world. We read of an incident involving an attempt to seek preeminence at the expense of the others in Matthew 20.

"Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Him [Jesus] with her sons [James and John], kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, 'What do you wish?' She said to Him, 'Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your Kingdom'" (verses 20-21). This was a clear request that her two sons would have the top two governing positions under Him in His Kingdom.

The other disciples were naturally indignant at this—perhaps because they hadn't thought of it first. "And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers" (verse 24). The implication is that the brothers had put their mother up to making this request on their behalf.

Jesus, sensing a power struggle going on, took the opportunity to explain a fundamental leadership principle to them. Calling them to Himself, He said: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them" (verse 25).

The disciples certainly understood what He meant. At the time, the province of Judea was under Roman rule and had been for almost a century. The only government the disciples had seen was a despotic gentile government that could be cruel and oppressive. Looking at Rome, or even at their own puppet king in Judea, they constantly witnessed the kinds of power struggles that accompanied gentile government. The Roman emperors of the first century were some of the most paranoid and despotic rulers in history, even down to having their closest relatives killed so as to remove the threat of a coup.

Jesus added: "Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:26-28, emphasis added throughout).

Here Jesus Christ took the opportunity to teach a new concept of governance—one built on a solid foundation of serving others. Rather than trying to get the top position to benefit one's self, the approach that is all too common in the world today, Jesus' emphasis was the opposite: Realize that the higher your position in society, the greater the opportunity you have to serve and help others. He emphasized that true leadership was based on giving rather than on getting.

One of the lessons learned living in a dictatorship is that absolute rulers are generally corrupt. When they assume power, they typically have had little or no governmental or administrative experience and are often from the lower ranks of society. Then when they seize office, they put on the pounds very quickly as they begin to enjoy the advantages of their newfound power.

The biblical book of Ecclesiastes warns of this: "Woe to you, O land, when your king is [like] a child, and your princes feast in the morning! Blessed are you, O land, when your king is the son of nobles [educated, well brought up], and your princes feast at the proper time—for strength and not for drunkenness!" (10:16-17).

Ancient lessons on leadership

The prophet Daniel is one of the most interesting personalities in the Bible. The son of Jewish nobles (Daniel 1:3-4), he was taken captive by the conquering Babylonians and spent the last 70 years of his life under two different gentile empires. His experiences contain valuable lessons on leadership for us today.

Babylon's King Nebuchadnezzar was the foremost leader in the world of his day, with absolute power over the greatest empire of the time. Nebuchadnezzar is a classic example of what the 19th-century British historian Lord Acton wrote of rulers: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Note Nebuchadnezzar's expression of his own self-importance: "Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?" (Daniel 4:30). The king had no excuse for boasting—the prophet Daniel had earlier showed him that he owed his mighty position to God (2:37-38).

Dictators are used to giving orders. They often are surrounded by sycophants, underlings afraid to criticize or even to make any suggestions. When the man in charge has absolute power over life and death, it's natural that nobody wants to upset him. (Analysts have speculated that in the recent Iraq war, a major contributing factor in the Iraqi military's collapse, particularly around Baghdad, was that commanders were afraid to tell Saddam Hussein the truth about their precarious situation lest they be tortured or shot.)

Of course, this means that dictators are often out of touch with reality. In turn, this can lead to greater oppression because the only way to maintain power is to lord it over everyone (Matthew 20:25). Afraid of being overthrown, they then start diverting the contents of the national treasury into foreign bank accounts, planning an escape route in the case of a coup or popular uprising.

Yelena Bonner, wife of the late Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, put it well when she said of the communist leadership of the former Soviet Union: "The Bolsheviks [communists] are like a bunch of squatters who have taken over a house and are waiting for the police to arrive." By this she meant that, having seized power violently, those in charge had a constant fear of being overthrown in the same manner. The problem, though, is that they controlled the police!

In such circumstances, the only hope for many people is an international force being sent in to remove their oppressor. Dictators yield only to a force stronger than themselves. The unrealized difficulty here is that most of the nations that might be a part of such a force are themselves dictatorships. They certainly don't want to encourage international intervention to remove a despot, as they themselves might be next.

Today many nations giving lip service to democracy are far from being democratic. Having a parliament does not make a country a democracy. Often elected parliamentary delegates have little or no power, with the president or king having the say in all matters of importance. These countries are dictatorships in all but name.

Abuses of power by leaders

Nebuchadnezzar's vanity led to the kind of incredible abuses of power that we regularly read about to this day. In Daniel 2 we read that the Babylonian monarch had a dream that left him deeply troubled. In a society that attached a great deal of importance to dreams, Nebuchadnezzar sent for his magicians, astrologers and sorcerers (verse 2).

He demanded that the interpreters tell him not only the meaning of his dream, but its content—which he refused to reveal. He then gave them an incentive: ". . . If you do not make known the dream to me, and its interpretation, you shall be cut in pieces, and your houses shall be made an ash heap" (verse 5).

Later we read that Daniel was able to describe the dream and give its interpretation, both of which were divinely revealed to him by Almighty God (verse 28).

Absolute power even affected the nation's religious observance.

In Daniel 3 we read that Nebuchadnezzar made a golden image "whose height was sixty cubits and its width six cubits" (verse 1), some 90 feet high and nine feet wide. The people were instructed to "fall down and worship the gold image" that the king had set up, and any who refused to do so would "be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace" (verses 5-6). The remainder of the chapter relates how three young Jewish men refused to participate in such idolatry and were punished as the king had commanded—only to be miraculously delivered by God.

Babylon was later overthrown by Persia, another gentile empire with a similar form of government. In Daniel 6 we read of Daniel's success as a governor under the Persian king Darius. Other officials were jealous of Daniel but could find no fault in him, except that his religion was different from that of the majority. They finally concluded, "We shall not find any charge against this Daniel unless we find it against him concerning the law of his God" (Daniel 6:5).

Without mentioning Daniel, they deceived the king by appealing to his vanity. They persuaded the monarch to issue a decree effectively banning all religious devotions for a period of 30 days, during which time the king alone could be worshiped. The punishment for offenders was to be cast into a den of lions (verse 7). As had happened earlier, the punishment was indeed carried out—and again God miraculously delivered His servant.

Absolute power certainly does corrupt. Leaders can start to see themselves as gods whose actions and words are beyond question.

God's preventative solution for arrogant rule

To avert such problems among the Israelites, God instructed all the kings of Israel to write with their own hands their own personal copy of the Scriptures, to read them daily and to base their rule on the laws and principles they found there.

"When you come to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, and possess it and dwell in it, and say, 'I will set a king over me like all the nations that are around me,' . . . it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book . . . And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren . . ." (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

Interestingly, the most successful democracies in the world are those that were greatly influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition in their formative years. We see, for example, that the King James Version of the Bible, translated and first published in Britain in 1611 by order of the king, contributed greatly to the development of constitutional government in Britain in subsequent years. Parliamentary institutions were set up throughout the colonies, including the original 13 American ones that later became the United States.

Why democracy doesn't work in some countries

African nations have had a tumultuous history in the four or five decades since independence from the colonial powers. This has left them poorer than under colonialism.

Many have tried democracy but have experienced the overthrow of constitutional government as a result of corruption and abuse of power. Typically, military governments attempt to end the corruption but continue the abuse. In a short time, corruption itself is back as the new leaders simply continue the tradition of the old. When the peoples' hostility to military rulers becomes too great, often a new constitution is drawn up and an election held, repeating the cycle again and again.

This is true not only of Africa. The British introduced parliamentary democracy to Iraq in the years following World War I. When they left, the country was not able to maintain its democratic institutions.

America now hopes to establish another democratic system in Iraq. A constitution will likely be agreed to by the various parties involved, an election held and a new government given power. Washington's hope is that the success of a democratic Iraqi government will lead to the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East. Because democracies are less likely than dictatorships to fight and invade their neighbors, the hope is that this development will lead to stability and peace in the region.

However, this view overlooks the cultural differences that limit the potential for any democratic system set up in the Mideast, Africa or Asia, areas of the world with little or no democratic traditions.

Those Western nations that were heavily influenced by the Protestant Reformation have a tradition of individualism. John Wycliffe, one of the fathers of the Reformation and, in the 14th century, the first man to translate the Bible into English, emphasized the responsibility of each individual to "work out [his] own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). This was in total contrast to the religious teachings of the time, which taught submission to the church and the state, no matter how corrupt or morally decadent their leaders might be.

The established church had failed to appreciate Jeremiah's words: "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick . . ." (Jeremiah 17:9, New American Standard Bible). Without restraints on power, all human beings can fall into this trap.

A solid foundation of individualism was built on an increased understanding of the Scriptures. The religious reformers emphasized the importance of Scripture as the final authority in every person's life. This influence continued right up until the end of the Victorian era at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then it has waned. One consequence of this is a lack of awareness of the differences in cultures due to different religious and political traditions.

Cultural differences inhibit democracy

While the Western democracies were built on individualism, most other societies are communal in nature. In these societies people are taught to follow the decisions of the elders without question. There is a long tradition of submission to authority, of unquestioning obedience to the individual
at the top.

This might suggest that there would be no revolutions or coups. However, a major contributory cause of these upheavals is tribalism or clan loyalty. The primary loyalty of the peoples of Africa is to their tribes, not to the political entities within which they live, typically countries artificially created by the colonial powers.

Each African president comes from a particular tribe. Usually he will surround himself with other members of the same tribe, thereby causing resentment to grow among those who feel left out. Generally the pattern is that tensions build until eventually there is a violent overthrow of the national leader. In most cases, a man from a different tribe becomes president, surrounds himself with his family members and cronies, and the cycle repeats itself.

This helps explain why millions of people will take to the streets to celebrate the overthrow of one dictator, only to return to the streets months later in enthusiastic support of the next one, always hopeful that the next strongman will usher in a utopia.

Perhaps these factors help us now see why so much of the world naturally tends toward dictatorship and why the efforts of the major Western powers to instill democracy ultimately prove futile.

Of course, democracy isn't perfect, either. When other cultures look at the United States and Britain, they see many aspects of culture they certainly would not want to emulate. Criticisms leveled against the two dominant Western nations include the feeling that there is too much freedom today, which has led to widespread immorality, epidemics of sexually transmissible diseases, pornography, filthy entertainment and millions upon millions of abortions, divorces and ruined lives. Quite sensibly, they do not want to copy that.

Jesus Christ's good news: Good government will come

Good government on earth will not come until the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Odd as it may sound, good government was at the heart of Jesus Christ's gospel, His message of the coming Kingdom of God to be established on earth (Mark 1:14-15).

Daniel was repeatedly encouraged during his captivity by the promise of this coming world-ruling Kingdom, the Kingdom of God. In Daniel 7 we read of his vision of a series of gentile empires, pictured as wild beasts, that would dominate much of the world up to the return of Jesus Christ.

But in the days of the last of these kingdoms—of a renewed Roman Empire that even now is coalescing in Europe—Daniel saw "One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! . . . Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7:13-14). With Jesus Christ at its head, this divinely instituted Kingdom—the Kingdom of God —will at last bring good, godly government to the entire world.

Isaiah 9:6-7 describes so well this joyful time of Christ's rule: ". . . And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end . . . to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever." GN