It’s a sickness as old as human history. When the first people got together and began to move away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle towards an agricultural life conducive to sedentary living, rules had to be drawn out. Decisions had to be made on the social structure of the group, how the food would be divided up, and who would wield political power. In the beginning, in the very first settlement, there was almost certainly – for lack of a better word – a douchebag. This individual, hereinafter referred to simply as ‘Big D’, would weasel his (or her!) way into a position in the hierarchy where they would have real political power over the other members of the group and promptly begin mucking everything up for their own personal gain.
The problem with people like the Big D is that they have no regard for the benefits of the group as a whole; they’re just interested in pushing themselves and their associates up the social and political ladder – sometimes at the direct expense of the ordinary members of the group. This borderline-sociopathic behavior is, basically, the essence of corruption. Corruption occurs when anyone in a position of power abuses it for his or her own personal gain or the gain of particular individuals at the expense of the group. In ancient times corruption was a much more straightforward affair as empires and kingdoms were ruled by small groups (sometimes a single person) who would rule as they chose to rule, without the consent or recommendations of the others.
On the surface our modern society has done away with that monopoly on power. Most of us in the West live in free, democratically elected states based on the principles of a free market economy. President Obama can’t declare himself dictator perpetuo (ruler for life) and begin an all-out assault on the north to annex Canada. It would certainly be quite the plot twist, but nothing in his elected role gives him that kind of power. Blatant abuse of power is out of style; subtle corruption is all the rage. Through backroom deals and secret arrangements, political leaders from all over the world wring their dirty little hands together and eagerly await kickbacks for completing favors for various nefarious characters. Of course, to be fair, this doesn’t describe all politicians – just most of them.
It’s easy to be a corrupt congressman or local politician, but it gets hard when you try to take that same amount of corruption and apply it at the head of state level. That takes skill, issues with empathy, and unabashed disdain for the population you’ve sworn to serve. Let’s take a look at some examples of what corruption looks like at the highest political level.
#5 Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi may no longer be the Italian prime minister, but his tax evasion, general corruption and sex with an underage prostitute made it a very memorable run. Before entering politics, Berlusconi built his business empire – allegedly with seed funding from the Italian mafia. He made his money first through the construction industry, and then later amassed a huge fortune through buying up Italian media companies and the world famous soccer team A.C. Milan. Berlusconi is currently the 141st richest man in the world, with a fortune of $9 billion USD. He first became the Italian head of state in 1994, but was removed 8 months later in 1995 after Forza Italia’s (his political party) alliance with the secessionist party Lega Nord fell apart over allegations Berlusconi was luring MPs to his party with the promise of lucrative deals. He laid low for awhile, and then became prime minister again in 2001. His second tenure ended in 2006, but he was reelected yet again just 2 years later in 2008, where he held office until 2011 before resigning at the height of the Italian debt crisis and various personal scandals. After the completion of his 3rd and final term, Berlusconi was the longest serving prime minister in post-Mussolini Italy. He was subsequently convicted of tax evasion and barred from serving in public office for 6 years, and is serving community service instead of jail time as Italian law prohibits anyone over the age of 70 from being incarcerated.
#4 Islam Karimov
Islam Karimov is the first and, thus far, only president in the history of Uzbekistan. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan achieved independence for the first time since 1924. Karimov, who was leader of the territory while it was still under Soviet occupation, achieved a landslide victory in the general election, taking home 86% of the popular vote. That figure is highly contested, as there were widespread allegations of electoral fraud throughout all of Uzbekistan. Since taking power 23 years ago, Karimov has systematically suppressed the rise of any other political parties and extended his term limits well beyond their initial duration. He regularly places his friends and family members in administrative positions that they are profoundly unqualified for, and his greed and nepotism has kept Uzbekistan poor and downtrodden.
#3 Hamid Karzai
Afghanistan’s first and (thus far) only president after the American invasion and occupation from 2001, Hamid Karzai will soon be stepping down and relinquishing power to the winner of the upcoming elections. At the beginning of his 13-year reign, Afghanistan had been the battleground for a brief war between the USA and the Taliban, who controlled Afghanistan at the time. Even though the conventional war was short, the long, drawn out insurgency that followed would cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides. Hamid Karzai was the man who represented the new face of Afghanistan as the first political leader in the post-Taliban regime. He later went on to win Afghanistan’s first election of the 21st century in 2004. He’s been described as both an American puppet and a Taliban sympathizer, albeit at different times. His political reign over Afghanistan has been rife with allegations of voter fraud, bribery, and outright stealing from the national coffers. Karzai and his family have become very wealthy during his 2 terms as president, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Afghani public. Karzai’s half brother, Ashmed Wali Karzai, was accused of profiting and facilitating Afghanistan’s burgeoning opium trade with the President’s blessing (he was assassinated in 2011). Only time will tell if Afghanistan’s next leader will carry on Karzai’s legacy of corruption.
#2 Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is the leader of Equatorial Guinea, one of the world’s poorest countries, but is also paradoxically one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state, with an estimated net worth of $600 million. For perspective, Barack Obama has a net worth of about $11.8 million. Equatorial Guinea, despite having some of Africa’s largest oil reserves, has one of the most underdeveloped infrastructures and poorest populations in the world – so where does the money go? The answer, at least from the outside, seems to be directly from the corporate accounts of Exxon Mobil and other oil companies straight into the pockets of Obiang and his family. Even though that sounds like hyperbole, it may be exactly the case. In 2003, Obiang announced that to combat corruption in public service jobs, he would be taking full control of the national treasury. He then withdrew half a billion dollars (that’s billion with a B) in state money from the national treasury and deposited it into accounts in his own name at Riggs Bank – which was later absorbed by PNC Financial Services in 2005 – a financial services company based in Washington D.C., effectively siphoning off all of the state’s money into his own pocket. In addition to draining the country’s accounts, he’s also been implicated in various human rights abuses, electoral fraud, nepotism, and using security contractors to maintain control over the country. Even ignoring all of this, one fact alone is enough to demonstrate what’s wrong with Obiang and Equatorial Guinea; the nation spends more money on presidential palaces than it does on social programs.
#1 Kim Jong-Un
The problem with North Korea (well, one of many) is that the opaque nature of virtually all of their international relationships has created a wall between what we know and what actually goes on inside the tiny, often irrational, pariah state. Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s 31-year-old leader is the youngest head of state in the world, a position he inherited from his late father Kim Jong-Il, who in turn inherited power from Un’s grandfather Kim Il-Sung. Like his father, Jong-Un allegedly has expensive taste. Shipments of luxury goods to North Korea have increased since he took over in 2011 – despite the fact that the average North Korean salary is $1,500 annually. He’s been described as a socially awkward alcoholic who likes to drink all night and party, and is a massive fan of NBA basketball. His relationship with former NBA superstar Dennis Rodman is on the shortlist for most unexpected and bizarre friendships in history – Rodman has called Un a ‘friend for life’.
What’s the distinguishing feature between Un and the other members on this list? Kim Jong-Un has access to nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-Un is more dangerous than your run of the mill corrupt leader because he was raised in this system; having the people around him act subservient is all he knows. Who knows what kind of deranged, narcissistic personality disorders the North Korean leader may have? In North Korea’s case, their actions internationally are a direct reflection of their leader’s desires. The corruption runs so deep in North Korea that it barely qualifies as corruption, but is instead a dictatorship. Of course it’s easy to say all of this from the outside, who knows what the North Korean people are aware of. With limited access to information, some of them may truly believe their ‘great leader’ is acting in their best interests.