Sunday, February 3, 2008

Verging on Delusions: Inside the mind of a Dictator

Dr Murad Moosa Khan

Delusion: a firm, fixed belief held with great conviction despite evidence to the contrary. Delusion is a symptom of psychosis- mental disorders in which a person loses contact with reality.

In the last eight years of misrule this country has been subjected to, two pictures stand out for me. In August 1999 soon after the Nawaz Sharif government was overthrown, Brig. Rashid Qureishi, the spokesman for the military government came on television and declared 'We don't want sham democracy, we want real democracy. We want a government that is of the people, by the people, for the people'. I found it surreal for a man in military uniform using Abraham Lincoln's (without even acknowledging him) hallowed words and having no qualms about it.

The second picture is of an interview a few weeks ago. Mushahid Hussain, secretary general of PML (Q) was asked whether General Musharraf would give up his uniform. "Yes, he would", he said, adding "General Musharraf looks dashing in uniform and Mr. Musharraf would look dashing in a designer suit".

Although eight years apart the two statements give us an insight of how the minds of dictators and those around him, work. It is important to understand this if we are to break out of this impasse and save the sinking ship of this country.

Today, millions of Pakistanis live in abject poverty teasing out a living for mere existence. Millions are unemployed or underemployed. Millions remain without health care and education. Millions are subjected to the indignity of being treated in government hospitals. They have no security. They have no laws to protect them. Where there are laws it is only to protect the rich and powerful.

In many parts of the country, people are selling their kidneys to pay off their debts. Millions suffer the daily humiliation of hanging from buses to get to work. Millions live and breathe the air whilst surrounded by filth, garbage and overflowing gutters.

What goes through the mind of dictators and the people who hold the real power in Pakistan, as they see the abysmal state of affairs? Quite clearly they see the situation very differently from the way the man in street sees it. From their perspective, the existence of the country is being severely threatened (which everyone sees too) but they feel they are the only ones who know how to save it. They see the politicians as tried and failed, corrupt, greedy people who only have lust for wealth and power. They have examples of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir's experiments in front of them and that feeds their way of thinking.

What are we to make of our rulers who tell us that only they know what is good for the country? That the rest of us- academicians, economists, scholars, lawyers, judges, doctors, engineers, teachers, students, retired senior military officers and other members of the civil society are ignorant mortals who know nothing about the dangers facing this country or how to tackle them? That democracy is not good for us? That they know how much the people love them? And that they will know when the time is right for them to step down?

Or is it that they are suffering from delusions?

A dictator's thinking is severely restricted and he suffers from selective listening. He has a very narrow vision. He cannot live with dissent. Dictators tend to be liberal as long as you agree with them. Any serious opposition and they crush it, never mind the democratic intent. They do not trust anyone beyond a small close group of people who feed them only with the information they want to hear. Their whole perspective is based on this narrow line of information. Hence our (ret) General's reply in the BBC interview recently, when asked if he would resign, 'I will go when I realize the people don't want me'. When asked how would be know that, he replied 'I have my sources of information'. These sources of information are his close aides who feed him the information he wants to hear. He has no idea how unpopular he is and that the vast majority do not want him. But it is important to understand he actually means it when he says the things he does. He is not making them up.

This type of thinking is verging on a 'delusion'. Many dictators also suffer from paranoia- a feeling (beyond the normal opposition one encounters) that others are against them and out to get them and must be eliminated. Hitler showed many traits of paranoia, as did Stalin and Saddam Hussein. It makes them more and more isolated and insular and as they near their demise they become more and more bizarre- both in their thinking and behavior. We have countless examples in history of such dictators and their strange behaviors- Idi Amin of Uganda, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Duvalier of Haiti, Marcos of Philippines.

One can see it in the General's (ret) responses in interviews recently. Hosing down of Benazir's assassination site was 'inefficiency', Benazir was 'unpopular with the Army', 'I am very popular with the people', the West is 'obsessed with democracy' and the ex-servicemen opposing me are those 'I threw out of the military'. The latest we hear is the statement against the London based senior journalist where he had no misgivings in letting him 'have a couple to fix him' because the journalist dared to ask uncomfortable questions. These are statements of a man whose rational thinking is fast eroding.

A dictator's military background and particularly if he has had commando training makes it difficult for him to think otherwise. It makes him rigid in his approach with a 'never surrender' attitude. To him every encounter is a battle and the enemy must be vanquished. The frequent use of terms such as 'tactical', 'strategic' and 'campaign' while discussing issues that have nothing to do with the military are indicative of this. You can take a man out of the army, you can never take the army out of the man!

Even his physical appearance is important to consider. Observe his walk, with chest out, tummy tucked in, dyed hair, purposeful stride. He tries to look much younger than his 64 years. This also contributes to his self-image and ego. Imagine if he stopped dyeing his hair- a white haired General (ret), which he actually is, would look very different and his whole image and persona- both for himself and others would undergo a drastic change. Mushahid's Hussain statement is a rare glimpse of how the 'yes men' praise the master, making him even more self-centred and in the process, more reckless.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to change this line of flawed thinking as dictators do not think there is anything wrong with their way of thinking. Hence most dictators are forcibly removed- either violently or forced out. This is what history teaches us. Let there be no doubt about it.

The important question is: How much further damage would be inflicted on this hapless country before 'the dashing man' in 'designer suit' departs?

The author is a Professor of Psychiatry at Aga Khan University. He can be contacted on

1 comment:

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