"The Monster," by Odilon Redon

Becoming Monsters: How Does Power Transform Leaders?

Leadership uses power and influence to affect societal change. While socialized power is used by elected officials to benefit the majority of the people, personalized power is used for personal gain. In general, power can encourage leaders to act with assertion and confidence to make decisions, but it can also encourage leaders to focus on their own egocentric desires the more they become “intoxicated” with it. Historically, many countries have seen dictators, tyrants, and totalitarian or authoritarian rulers. But what encourages some leaders to fall into this power-hunger behavior pattern while others do not?

Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss — the abyss gazes also into you.

Friedrich W. Nietzsche

Perhaps they gaze into the abyss too intensely. Perhaps they fight the monsters for too long. Or maybe they simply are the abyss and the monster from the beginning and nobody, but they, know it. Whatever the reason, some freedom fighters, rebels, national heroes all of a sudden become monsters.

When in September 2019 former President Robert Mugabe died aged 95, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s President at the time and Mugabe’s former ally and later his opponent said: “It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe’s founding father (…). He was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten. May his soul rest in eternal peace.” 

Many Zimbabweans would probably fiercely disagree with Mnangagwa’s wish hoping that Mugabe would burn in hell and that he would never be able to find peace after turning from Zimbabwe’s savior to a genocidal dictator.

A former teacher, Mugabe spoke excellent English, had seven university degrees, most of them obtained through correspondence courses during his 11-year prison sentence imposed by the white minority government of Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was called at that time. And although he lived the first 60 years of his life as a respectable citizen, it was only a short time after he was sworn into office as Prime Minister that his descent into the chasm began. He started to see himself as God’s gift to his people. Nobody could replace him. He was Zimbabwe’s founding father who fought for his country and who believed and claimed that a gun was mightier than a pen.

Can an ordinary, decent person turn into a homicidal despot?

Mugabe was an anglophile who secretly played cricket in his mansion and admired Margaret Thatcher, the Queen, and Elton John, but publicly proclaimed his loathing for British Imperialism and, until his last breath, nursed his personal grudge against Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Bedecked with medals, dressed in expensive suits and ties and later in a colorful African-themed attire, Mugabe fostered and enjoyed the personality cult that grew around his figure for more than thirty years — an aspect common to all dictators.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe

So, was Mugabe bad from the start or was power the corrupting factor? Was he hard-wired into becoming a genocidal monster or did his hunger gather momentum as his influence and bank accounts grew? Can an ordinary, decent person turn into a homicidal despot? Ohio State University psychologist Richard Petty says that power increases people’s confidence in the beliefs they already hold. And the Stanford Prison Experiment, a 1971 study initiated by investigator Philip G. Zimbardo in which college students became prisoners or guards in a simulated prison environment seems to show that there sits within us a potential dictator. The experiment, funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research was to measure the effect of role-playing, labeling, and social expectations on behavior over a period of two weeks. But it was suspended after only 6 days because the “guards” took on their role so eagerly that their mistreatment of the prisoners just fell short of psychological and physical torture.

But then, why do some rebels, such as Nelson Mandela or Gandhi, never turn into monsters but other former freedom fighters do?

Daniel Ortega was once considered a modern-day Che Guevara, a romantic insurgent who overthrew US-backed dictator Anastasio Somosa in 1979 and who fought the Nicaraguan counter-revolutionary Contras in the 1980s. But since he returned to office as a democratically elected president in 2007, Ortega has concentrated power, curtailed Nicaraguans’ liberties, and turned into a dictator from a rebel, similar to the one he fought so hard to oust. Likened to a real-life “House of Cards,” Ortega and his family control the presidency, the congress, the military, the police, and the courts. He has been Nicaragua’s president for 22 years now; for the last five, he’s been accompanied by Rosario Murillo as his vice president, who is his wife and a revolutionary poet. He has already announced he will be running for President again in 2021.

Papa Doc Duvalier, the Haitian dictator, started his professional life as a doctor in local hospitals and in 1943 he was recruited into a US-financed fight against yaws, a tropical skin disease that had plagued Haiti for centuries. For many years he travelled up and down the island on foot inoculating peasants and won a reputation as a kind and hard-working country doctor. And that is how he got his nickname: Papa Doc, the Fatherly Doctor. But instead of following along the path of righteousness, he heeded Machiavelli’s advice: “It is better to be feared than to be loved.”

Within weeks of winning the 1957 presidential election, hundreds of his political enemies were thrown into jail or disappeared. He realized that if he wanted to hold on to power in a country where nearly all presidents were killed before they could complete a full term (one was actually fed to pigs) he had to be utterly ruthless. From then on, Duvalier was protected by his personal bodyguards, the fearsome Tontons Macoutes, and personally oversaw executions and torture. In 1964, he changed the constitution to receive an amazing “approval” of 99.99% of the Haitian population and made himself President for Life.

 “As a revolutionary,” he said, “I have no right to disregard the voice of the people.”

A few years later, he named his son, Jean Baptiste Baby Doc Duvalier, his heir thus establishing the Duvalier dynasty.

There are certain commonalities between Haiti, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe, apart from the shared traits of their rulers´ personalities. The three countries had and still have few institutional restraints on their executive bodies, making it easy for leaders to behave as they wish. This feeling of impunity tells them and their circle of supporters that they can do anything without fearing consequences. And when the economies of their countries fail because of their ineptitude, when everything falls apart, when inflation runs rampant, they refuse to take responsibility and instead insist on conspiracy theories about foreign powers and their meddlesome interference.

Duvalier and Mugabe, surrounded by an entourage of yes-men, both shared grandiose self-images. Their appetite for power was all-encompassing. Their portraits were in every office and in every school and their names displayed in lights at meetings and rallies. And, in Papa Doc’s case, even a prayer was said in his honor:

“Our doc

Who art in the National Palace for life,

Hallowed be Thy name by present and future generations.

Thy will be done at Port-au-Prince and the Provinces.

Give us this day our new Haiti

And never forgive the trespasses of the antipatriots…”

“The Murderer,” by Edvard Munch

Mugabe’s initial good standing with the international community also meant that the role of Zimbabwe’s leader was not sufficient — he pictured himself as a Pan-African spearhead, on the same footing with Nelson Mandela whom he wanted to emulate but whom he could never reach. It was a constant thorn in his heart that Mandela, together with Frederik de Klerk, former South African President, were awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize meanwhile he was branded a dictator. It should have been he and not Mandela to be the prototype for venerated statues in African countries that emerged from colonial rule.

When in 2005 his former sympathizers, millions of poor city dwellers tired by raging unemployment and failing economy voted against him, he punished them with the “Operation Murambatsvina” (Clear the Filth). For two months the police burnt, bulldozed, and destroyed tens of thousands of properties around the country leading to mass evictions and to the closure of various informal sector businesses. Mugabe watched without batting an eyelid, while his second wife, “Gucci Grace” shopped in London’s Harrods spending thousands of pounds on luxury goods.

According to the United Nations, some 700,000 people — nearly 6 percent of the Zimbabwe’s population — were forcibly evicted from their homes. And although Mugabe claimed the action was aimed at clearing areas for future urban development and improving housing conditions, the evictions were an act of retribution against those who voted for the opposition.

In 2008, when his grip on power got more tenuous, with an annual inflation of 231 million per cent, Mugabe said: “If you lose an election and are rejected by the people, it is time to leave politics” all the while plotting to hold on to his position at all costs. The man who only 30 years before fought for one-man, one-vote policy, introduced a requirement that potential voters prove their residence with utility bills meaning that the homeless and the unemployed — in other words, his opponents — would not be able to vote.

And when he came second to Morgan Tsvangirai, he said that “only God” could remove him from office and declared the election void. Following the statement, he unleashed violence on his adversaries to show he was still in control. Tsvangirai, to save the lives of his supporters, pulled out of the second round and Mugabe was once again proclaimed president. Faced with a weak opposition, he even won the next election, in 2013, but it was clear that his downfall was inevitable. In 2017, he fired Emmerson Mnangagwa, his former ally and vice president at the time to pave the way for “Gucci Grace” to take up that position. Days after, tanks rolled onto the streets of Harare and military men announced on television that Mugabe was safe but no longer President.

So, what happened to one of Africa’s most promising statesmen? He could have had streets named after him, like Mandela. Instead, he is remembered as a dictator who ordered the genocide of the people he said he would defend. In 1980, in his inaugural speech, praised for the spirt of reconciliation, he told his people:

“If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend and ally…If yesterday you hated me, you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me, and me to you. The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten.”

Wilfred Mhanda, member of the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front and Mugabe’s opponent once said: “Mugabe’s obsession was with power. A lot of people say Mugabe has changed, especially since 2000. But Mugabe has never changed. In fact, he is the most consistent man I have ever known. What changed was the circumstances. His grip on power was under threat. So, he had to take the gloves off.”


J.B. Polk is Polish by birth, citizen of the world by choice. First short story was short-listed for the Hennessy Awards, Ireland in 1996. She became a regular contributor to Women’s Quality Fiction, Books Ireland, and IncoGnito. She was also the co-founder of Virginia House Writers, Dublin and helped establish the OKI Literary Awards.   

Her creative writing was interrupted as she moved to Latin America and started contributing to magazines and newspapers and then writing textbooks for different Latam Ministries of Education.

Since she went back to fiction writing last year, three of her stories have been accepted for anthologies and magazines in Australia, UK, and Canada.

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