Most African dictators, past and present, shot to preeminence through reality-bending personality cults. Kenya’s Moi was “teacher, farmer, and everything number 1.” Bokassa became “Emperor of Central Africa” (see picture). Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia “cures AIDS” on Thursdays and plans to soon crown himself “King of the Gambia.” Francisco Macias Nguema, first president of Equatorial Guinea and card-carrying crackpot dictator, named himself the “Implacable Apostle of Freedom” and “The Sole Miracle of Equatorial Guinea.”
I remember as a child drinking “Nyayo” school milk, pledging allegiance to the president and “the Nyayo philosophy of peace, love and unity” and seeing the president at the beginning of every newscast. On most Sundays the KBC newscaster would announce that the president went to church at the African Inland Church in Milimani, Nairobi.
Abandoned footnotes tries to elaborate on the logic of personality cults.
To be sure, in order for a cult of personality to work, you must start small, and you must be willing to both reward (those who denounce) and punish (those who do not praise) with sufficient predictability, which presents a problem if control is initially lacking; there must be a group committed to enforcement at the beginning, and capable of slowly increasing the threshold “signal” of support required of citizens. (So some dictators fail at this: consider, e.g., Mobutu’s failures in this respect, partly from inability to monitor what was being said about him or to punish deviations with any certainty). But once the cult of personality is in full swing, it practically runs itself, turning every person into a sycophant and basically destroying everyone’s dignity in the process. It creates an equilibrium of lies that can be hard to disrupt unless people get a credible signal that others basically hate the dictator as much as they do and are willing to do something about that.
The only bright spot in all this is that dictators can become unmoored from reality – they come to believe their own propaganda – in which case they can be surprised by eruptions of protest (e.g., Ceausescu).