December 11, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Fred and Barney

By |2018-03-21T18:43:31+01:00February 22nd, 2011|Essays|
Bokassa's 1976 coronation.

hen Muammar Qaddafi is toppled, and it’s only a matter of time, who will stand larger-than-life on a planet of increasingly homogeneous leadership? Which despots will assert eccentric primacy? Who will be left to call bizarre?

Maybe Hugo Chavez, the lambent Venezuelan who grins when he rants and gesticulates with glee. Yes, Chavez might qualify.

A few years ago Saparmurat Niyazov would have headed any such list, if only anyone knew of his existence: Turkmenistan’s chunky Caesar named calendar months after his family members and murdered those who didn’t memorize his sequence. But he died in 2006, four days before Christmas.

There’s Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but he dragoons in name alone, answering behind the scenes to generals and Islamic priests, his rhetoric pre-hatched.

Though Africa still maintains its share of despots, few are related to the mean carnivore elite of the 1970s and 80s, a contingent once led by the Central African Republic’s Jéan-Bedel Bokassa, French-trained and viciously hungry, or Uganda’s Idi Amin, British-schooled and colorfully cruel (consider the final line of The Guardian‘s guilt-ridden 2003 obituary: “Amin brought bloody tragedy and economic ruin to his country, during a selfish life that had no redeeming qualities.”)

In Burma, or Myanmar, dull generals have manned the country’s sad wheelhouse for decades. Junta boss Than Swe showed passing promise; his wife at least kept exotic pets. But both wife and pets fled.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-il is lastingly sick (his rotund son ascendant); Zimbabwe’s 87-year-old Robert Mugabe has lost his plumage; Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir is laconically wicked but eats no one. At least not in public.

Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki, in charge since 1991, pushed toward the bizarre in 2008, when he announced that national elections would be postponed “three or four decades” because they “polarized society.” But his reverse quaintness ended there.

Qaddafi is in fact irreplaceable.

Who else travels abroad, tent in tow, and with a retinue of virgin bodyguards? What other megalomanic bullishly mixes military uniforms with tribal garb and emerges with a North Africa-meets-Texas kitsch replete with colored kerchiefs?

Qaddafi is a daguerreotype caricature for the late 20th century, a randy post-Che figure whose on-the-job tyranny has always courted the outlandish, no sacred stone unturned, including the calendar system. Qaddafi ignored the lunar (Muslim) and the solar (Western) and made up time of his own. He didn’t name months after family members. Niyazov had that distinction. Instead, he foraged for unique edicts, issuing his share.

The late 1970s represented chicken phase. All Libyans, he decreed, should display self-sufficiency by raising chickens at home. The government forcibly sold chickens and cages. Exasperated apartment-dwellers bought their birds but put a quick roast ahead of cackle-farming. Where the cages ended up is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps among his sons, who spewed their own eccentricity. Like those of Saddam Hussein and Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, they reveled in women and soccer. In the 1990s two of Qaddafi’s five sons brawled over a soccer referee’s call — they backed different teams. Their bodyguards joined the melee.

Saif al-Islam, Qaddafi’s Armani-clad second-born (who recently appeared on state television somewhat incoherently denouncing recent protests) is a London School of Economics graduate who once bought two Bengali tigers from a Milan zoo and had them shipped to Vienna, where he was studying at the time. He named them Fred and Barney. Unlike Than Swe’s wife and her animals, Fred and Barney have yet to flee.

Qaddafi’s mayhem always possessed a light side, particularly when he chatted amiably to the foreign press. In a 2003 interview with The New York Times he observed (charitably from his perspective) that since it was “no longer acceptable or reasonable to say that the Jews should be thrown into the sea,” Israel and Palestine should merge. “They can call it Israetine.” No one picked up the ball.

He also recommended the United States “eliminate the elections and the president and all that” and replace them with by people’s committees. “This way, the American people would have the power, and if that happened, I’m sure they wouldn’t be crazy, that they’d be good people.”

For the first time in his life, he told The Times, he had time to burn. Life was good. He could hunt. He could read.

Another proudly eccentric reader was Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who in February 1974 insisted to a French news agency that he still devoured books without glasses even at age 82. Time aplenty. Enough, the agency wrote, to stroll through his villa; to feed his lions (as Saif no doubt feeds Fred and Barney); to hold talks with advisors, if in fact they still existed. Selassie never tired of spending time with his own person, “… merely looking into [himself],” “… being [his] own dummy,” as Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinki once observed.

A rewarding past-time if it hadn’t come after the aging emperor was deposed and lived cooped up under house arrest. Whether his altered state fathomed his arrest is another matter entirely. Eccentricity dies hard, as does bizarreness. “I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela,” bellowed a besieged Qaddafi on state TV.

Of all places he chose Venezuela. Now Hugo Chavez can start shouting.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.