1874: John Murphy 2006: Saddam Hussein

Six Current Heads of State At Risk of Execution

December 30th, 2007 Headsman

A year after the event, with the agitprop in the past and the voyeur shock of watching the cell phone footage worn off, Saddam Hussein’s hanging sure looks anachronistic.

There was always a throwback feel about it — the way the hanged man seized the stage and dominated his killers seemed like something straight out of an old melodrama. And the new despot marching the old despot ceremoniously off to the hangman? Is that even done anymore?

Actually … yes. The 20th century, so well-equipped with all deeds sanguinary, turns out to be rich in executed heads of state.* And with a looming future of growing populations chasing dwindling resources, there’s no reason to suppose we’ve seen the last overthrown chief executive to stand on the scaffold.

Who might follow in that illustrious train? In honor of Saddam Hussein‘s deathday, Executed Today presents six currently ruling heads of state standing in most danger** of eventual execution.

Forecasting such a dramatic turn of the worm is a doubtful business, but a few common threads among past specimens suggest the risk factors.

1. Potential for violent seizure of state power. Former American presidents don’t stand in the dock no matter what they’ve done. It’s all but a necessary condition for a head of state execution that a true enemy faction — whether internal, as during the French Revolution, or external, as in Iraq — have the capability of seizing state authority. A framework of peacable power exchange between cooperative elites is entirely unhelpful.

2. The personal import of the executive. The more a faction’s power is bound up in the person of its ruler, the more logical it will seem to a rival to kill that ruler. When the Ceausescus were shot in 1989, Romanian television broadcast footage of the bodies to dispel any rumor of their survival. Their deaths fundamentally altered the political facts on the ground.

3. The executive’s youth. Saddam Hussein was 42 when he took control of Iraq and in his early fifties when he ran afoul of his erstwhile American patrons. That gave the glacial pressure of the first two factors decades of natural lifespan in which to operate. By contrast, Saudi Arabia is not without its own risk characteristics, but they’re not likely to catch up with 83-year-old King Abdullah.

Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan

Age:
Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:

64

High

High

Islamic militants and Bhutto partisans get all the ink, but the behemoth Pakistani military is the more likely threat; Musharraf has already done well to keep all these rival factions at bay. Pakistan, incidentally, has a recent precedent: Benazir Bhutto’s father was hanged there in 1979 after his ouster.

Idriss Deby, Chad

Age:
Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:

55

High

High

In 2006, Forbes named Chad the most corrupt country in the world, not long after Deby survived a coup attempt and a rebel movement’s outright assault on his capital. Chad’s recent entry into the oil game does not bode well for an imminent return to political placidity.

Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan

Age:
Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:

50

High

High

Let’s see. Two previous Moccupants of Karzai‘s office have been executed in the past 30 years. The famously execution-friendly government he deposed still has an insurgent movement brewing. The foreign power that backs him may not have its eye on the ball. And at least three different assassination attempts have taken a crack at him.

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela

Age:
Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:

53

Moderate

High

Chavez has already attempted one coup, survived another, and governed Venezuela going on ten years. He seems in less immediate danger than five years ago, but Chavez’s larger-than-life personality and the vehemence of his opposition foretell a long-running drama … in the course of which the current president could at some point be a man too dangerous to leave alive.

Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia

Age:
Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:

42

Moderate

Moderate

Relatively ensconced for the moment, Jammeh has been the strongman of mainland Africa’s smallest country for most of his adult life and it’s far from obvious that he’ll ever relinquish it agreeably. He’s been implicated in political murders, the sort of thing that accumulates bitter enemies and offers fodder for future courts. His country is also entirely surrounded by a longstanding rival, Senegal (a failed Gambian putschist found harbor there in 2006).

Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq

Age:
Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:

57

Moderate

High

Did he have a flashback to his 1980 condemnation by Saddam when he signed last year’s death warrant? Or a premonition? It’s much easier to imagine al-Maliki assassinated than paraded to the gallows in the current milieu. But Iraq seems destined to remain a flashpoint for many years to come, and there could come a time when the balance of power and vicissitudes of fate put the Shia Prime Minister in a bad way for serving the American occupation his power depends upon.

Worthy of Note: Pierre Nkurunziza governs a country (Burundi) with a passel of murdered former executives, the Tutsi-Hutu conflict, and the lowest per-capita GDP in Africa … King Gyanendra of Nepal would have made this list a couple years ago, but has weathered his country’s crisis and appears set to peacefully end the monarchy … Rene Preval is the president of Haiti, but he’s also (in 2001) the only man to ever leave that office peacefully at the natural expiration of its term … 42-year-old second-choice Syrian heir Bashar al-Assad has yet to establish that he can hold down his treacherous job for the long haul.

Update: Welcome, Head of State Update readers!

* Yes, this is conflating “head of state” and “head of government.” Which is technically inaccurate, but considerably less clunky.

** None of these men, naturally, are likely to be executed. Even Saddam Hussein, even at the moment of the American invasion, was much more likely to have been killed by a military strike or by assassination than by execution. These are simply a few for whom the long odds of execution are a bit shorter than their colleagues.

On this day..

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