The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers

Khalid Elhassan - December 25, 2019

Hitler, Stalin, and Mao are the unholy trinity of names that first comes to the minds of most when thinking about history’s most monstrous rulers. Unfortunately, in the sad sweep of history, there has been no shortage of horrible rulers of the same ilk. Most of them did not run up as high a body count of victims as the twentieth century’s most notorious tyrants. However, some on this list actually competed with or, and in some ways even exceeded, the victim count of the modern era’s ruling monsters. Following are forty things about some of history’s deadliest rulers.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Equatorial Guinea. Wikimedia

40. The Hitlerian Marxist

Equatorial Guinea is a small African country with a population of about a million people. It had significantly fewer during the events described here. For such a tiny country, it has endured more than its share of national suffering, inflicted by a megalomaniacal and batty tyrant, Francisco Macias Nguema (1924 – 1979).

As nutty a ruler as ever existed, Nguema practiced his crazy on the relatively small stage of a small country. For sheer murderous craziness, however, he had few equals. An admirer of both Hitler and Marx, which led him to describe himself and his governance as “Hitlerian Marxist”, Nguema visited upon his people a genocide that killed or exiled up to 60% of the population. To put that in perspective, the better-known Cambodian Genocide claimed more total victims, but Pol Pot had a bigger population base to victimize. He also “only” ended up killing about 25% of his people.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
A West African witch doctor. Pintrest

39. The Bonkers Back Story of a Villain: Witchcraft, Human Sacrifice, and Cannibalism

Francisco Macias Nguema was born into a poor peasant family in the then-Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea, the son of a witch doctor from neighboring Gabon. Nguema’s father had fled his native land after his dark practices – and they were plenty dark, including as they did human sacrifice and cannibalism – made him unpopular. He was dedicated to his craft, however – so dedicated that he sacrificed one of his own children, a brother of Nguema, an event that left the future tyrant scarred for life.

Nguema’s witch doctor dad gathered a cult following in Equatorial Guinea. However, he got into a dispute with the Spanish colonial authorities when they demanded that Africans toil on Spanish-owned plantations for slave wages. A request for higher pay got him beaten to death, and his wife, bereft at the loss, committed suicide a week later, leaving an orphaned Nguema and his 10 siblings to fend for themselves.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
The Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea in 1910. Wikimedia

38. Political Rise

The orphaned Nguema was taken in by some wealthy Spaniards, who saw to his education at a Catholic school. He muddled his through to graduation, but was no brainiac – after completing his education, Nguema failed a civil service exam three times. However, he had political talents and got himself elected mayor of a town under the Spanish colonial administration.

When Equatorial Guinea began a transition phase to independence in the 1960s, Nguema served as a member of the territorial parliament, and when the country gained independence in 1968, he was elected president. To date, that 1968 has been the sole free election held in Equatorial Guinea: Nguema, and his family after him, have held the country in an iron grip ever since. Early in his reign, Nguema made clear what he thought about elections by executing his defeated electoral opponent.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Francisco Macias Nguema on his country’s currency in 1969. Pintrest

37. Driving the Country Into the Ground

When Nguema was elected in 1968, Equatorial Guinea had a population of about 350,000. By the time his rule came to an end in 1979, over half had been killed or had fled into exile to escape the insanity of his rule. He began in 1969 by forcing the country’s entire Spanish population to leave and to leave their assets behind.

On the one hand, the Spaniards were a reminder of the hated colonial rule, and their accumulated wealth had been forcibly and unfairly robbed from the natives during colonialism. On the other hand, the Spanish settlers included a majority of the professionals, technocrats, and experienced civil servants necessary for the smooth functioning of the former colony’s economy and government. Both the economy and government took a nose dive. Nguema eventually responded by abolishing the currency, reducing the country to a barter economy.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Francisco Macias Nguema. Pintrest

36. The Insane Personality Cult

Tyrants such as Mao, Stalin, and the Kims of North Korea, are notorious for creating personality cults. None of them went as far as Francisco Macias Nguema, who banned religious meetings, but not before forcing priests to preach that: “God created Equatorial Guinea, thanks to Papa Macias“, and “There is no other God than Macias Nguema“. He made the latter the country’s official motto.

Nguema ingested copious amounts of hallucinogens, which drove him insane. He abandoned the country’s capital to live in his native village, taking the entire national treasury with him, and burying the gold reserves under his bed. When the Central Bank’s director objected, he was murdered. Nguema also accumulated a huge collection of human skulls outside his house, and beat people with them. He also held regular meetings with “ghosts”. The capital’s main power station was closed, as Nguema declared he could meet the energy needs using magic.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Francisco Macias Nguema on a postal stamp. 123RF

35. The War Against Intellectuals

Nguema was shrewd, but he had never been what you would call smart – especially not book smart. That left him with an inferiority complex when it came to those better educated than himself. So he declared war on them. Formal education was abolished, all libraries were closed, and the word “intellectual” was banned. All teachers he could get his hands on, and every current and former education minister were killed.

All forms of media, from newspapers to radio to TV, were banned. Western medicine was prohibited as being anti-African, and witch doctors were used instead to treat the sick. Nguema’s anti-intellectual pursuits extended to murdering people who wore eyeglasses, because wearing eyeglasses was associated with intellectuals. Even shoes were eventually associated with intellectuals, and banned. At the end of Nguema’s rule, only 6 intellectuals were still alive in Equatorial Guinea: 2 doctors, and 4 technical school graduates.

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The capture of Nguema after his overthrow. Pintrest

34. A Tyrant’s End

Nguema was murderous in both his public and private lives. The thought of other men having known his women sexually so displeased him, that he murdered all his mistresses’ former lovers. Dissent was brutally crushed. Troublesome journalists were hacked apart, the bits thrown into the ocean to feed the sharks. In one episode, 150 opponents were executed in a soccer stadium by soldiers dressed up as Santa Claus, while speakers blared Mary Hopkins’ “Those Were the Days“.

News that displeased Nguema was “fake news”. When his statistics director presented figures he disliked, Nguema killed him. Nguema took a relatively prosperous Equatorial Guinea, and reduced it to a hellhole. The economy got so bad that 90% of the GDP eventually consisted of foreign aid. To keep people from fleeing, he destroyed boats, the railways, and mined the roads out of the country. He was eventually overthrown by his own family, when his insanity threatened them. In 1979, Nguema was arrested, tried by a military court, sentenced to death, and executed.

Read More: Monstrous Dictators You’ve Never Heard Of.

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Francisco Macias Nguema during his trial. Executed Today

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Ivan the Terrible conquering Kazan in 1552. Russia Beyond

33. When You’re Known as “The Terrible”…

Tsar Ivan IV, better known to history as Ivan the Terrible (1530 – 1584), was the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547. In 1547, he declared himself “Tsar of all the Russias”, which became the title of Russian monarch from then on.

Ivan created a centralized government, and was a grand conqueror who finally overthrew the last remnants of Mongol domination beneath which Russia had groaned for centuries. He subjugated the neighboring nomadic Khanates, and greatly expanded Russia’s borders. On the other hand, Ivan was an insanely cruel despot, who subjected his people to a decades-long reign of terror.

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Ivan the Terrible mocking a boyar by dressing him up in royal regalia, before having him executed. Wikimedia

32. A Bad Childhood Creates a Monster

Ivan the Terrible ascended the throne at age three, and Russia was governed by his mother as regent in his name. However, his mother died when Ivan was seven, and a power struggle erupted between competing boyars, or Russian nobles, in which the child ruler was left defenseless. Ivan was exploited and tormented by boyars, who mistreated and abused him in his own palace.

That made him bitter, bitterness gave way to insanity, and before long, he was venting his frustrations by torturing small animals. By the time he took personal control of the government, Ivan was a paranoid, resentful, and angry young man who distrusted people in general, and detested the boyar class in particular. So he instituted a system known as the oprichnina in the 1560s – a reign of terror that inaugurated the absolute monarchy that was to be Russia’s hallmark for centuries to come. With a special police force, the Oprichniki, Ivan kicked off a wave of persecutions that targeted the boyars, and spread from there in ever greater ripples that soon covered all of Russia.

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Ivan the Terrible. Wikimedia

31. The Novgorod Massacre

Ivan the Terrible’s most infamous act of cruelty occurred in Novgorod, when that city defied him in 1570. He marched on it in the dead of winter, and after seizing it, Ivan indulged in an orgy of violent depravity. He started off with the clergy, whom he rounded up and ordered flogged from dawn until dusk, for days on end, until they each paid a 20 ruble fine. Hundreds died, and afterward, he ordered the survivors executed.

Novgorod’s population fared no better: he ordered the torture of leading citizens, along with their families. Men were executed, and women and children were bound and thrown into a nearby river, where they were trapped under the ice as soldiers patrolled the area on foot, wielding hooks and spears to push down any who surfaced. By the time Ivan was finally sated, over 60,000 had perished.

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‘Ivan the Terrible Killing His Son’, by Ilya Repin. Pintrest

30. Murdering His Own Flesh and Blood

Not even the family of Ivan the Terrible was spared his fits of uncontrollable rage. In 1581, he grew upset when he saw his pregnant daughter-in-law wearing summer clothing that he thought was too revealing. So he violently assaulted her, causing her to miscarry.

When her husband – Ivan’s son and heir – angrily berated his father for what he had done, Ivan smashed his head in with his scepter, causing a fatal wound from which he died a few days later. Ivan grieved, but grief did not bring back his son. He followed him three years later, dying from a stroke while playing chess.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Chin Shi Huang. Ancient Origins

29. The Megalomaniacal Emperor

China’s first emperor, Chin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC), pulled off the impressive task of ending China’s Warring States Period – five centuries of chaos and violent feudalism – by conquering all the warring states. He then combined them into a unified, peaceful, and efficiently governed centralized state.

However, unification, pacification, and efficiency, came at a high price: tyranny, crushing oppression, and cruel megalomaniacal rule that reduced millions of Chinese to de facto state slaves. As a result, even though Chin Shi Huang was the most influential figure in China’s history, he was also the figure most loathed by the Chinese for millennia.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Chancellor Li Ssu. Wikimedia

28. Ancient China’s Reign of Terror

Chin Shi Huang’s most trusted and influential official was his minister of justice, Li Ssu. In addition to being a bureaucrat, Li Ssu was also a philosopher who followed a school of thought known as “Legalism”, which advocated strict laws and draconian punishments for even petty crimes. As Li Ssu put it: “If light offenses carry heavy punishments, one can imagine what will be done against a serious offense. Thus the people will not dare to break the laws“.

Criticizing the law became a capital offense, and cowed citizens were expected to inform their neighbors. Millennia before modern totalitarians such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, China’s First Emperor had created what was arguably history’s first totalitarian state.

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Chin Shi Huang. Flickr

27. Megalomania Reigns Supreme

After consolidating his rule, and with unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire upon which to draw, Chin Shi Huang grew megalomaniacal, and launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor. One such project used 700,000 laborers working on his tomb for three decades.

The famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourism with its thousands of life-size statues, is but a fraction of his gigantic tomb complex. The bulk of the compound is yet to be unearthed. Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China, which did double duty: keeping the northern barbarians out, and keeping the Chinese seeking to flee the emperor’s onerous taxation and oppressive rule.

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The Burial of the Books and the Burning of the Scholars. University of California, San Diego

26. Thought Control

China’s Warring States period had been a period of chaos, but it had also been a golden age of Chinese philosophy and free thinking. The centuries preceding China’s unification in 221 BC came to be known as the “Hundred Schools of Thought”. It was an era during which a broad range of philosophies, including Confucianism and Taoism, emerged and were freely debated.

Chin Shi Huang brought that to an end by banning all schools of thought, except Legalism. He saw his new state as a radical break from the past, and to emphasize that break, as well as to keep his subjects from pining for bygone days, he ordered the burning of all history books throughout his realm. He also ordered the burning of books on philosophy, and every other subject except for agriculture, science, and magic. When scholars protested, he ordered 460 of them buried alive.

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Expedition sent by Chin Shi Huang in search of the Elixir of Life. Wikimedia

25. A Fortuitous Case of Mercury Poisoning

Chin Shi Huang’s megalomania included a quest for immortality: he literally wanted to live forever. He lavishly funded searches for a “Life Elixir”, including an expedition with hundreds of ships that sailed off into the Pacific in search of a mythical “Land of the Immortals”. It was never heard from again. He also patronized alchemists who claimed that they were close to inventing the Life Elixir.

One of the charlatans who flocked to the First Emperor’s court gave him daily mercury pills. He claimed that they were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs, which should tidy Chin Shi Huang over until the Life Elixir was ready. Swallowing mercury every day, the emperor gradually poisoned himself, and gradually grew insane. He turned into a recluse who concealed himself from all but his closest courtiers, constantly listening to songs about “Pure Beings. The mercury poisoning eventually killed him at the relatively young age of 49.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Pol Pot. Muskellunge

24. The Genocidiere

Cambodian communist revolutionary Saloth Sar, better known to history as Pol Pot (1925 – 1998), was a monster who hid beneath a charismatic façade. When he led the Khmer Rouge into seizing power in 1975, there was this little in his background that would have hinted at the horrors he was about to unleash. The country, which was renamed Democratic Kampuchea, was transformed into a nightmarish ideological tyranny, masterfully depicted in the 1984 movie, The Killing Field.

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Skulls from the Cambodian Genocide. The New York Times

During the Khmer Rouge’s years in power, about a quarter of Cambodia’s population was killed in a horrific genocide carried out by Pol Pot and his followers, which was made even worse by its irrationality. In an attempt at social engineering, Cambodian cities were evacuated, and the urban masses were forcibly converted into peasants toiling on poorly run collective farms. Roughly three million were murdered or starved to death before the nightmare ended when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979.

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Saloth Sar. Pintrest

23. The Unexpectedly Mild Background of a Monster

Born into a prosperous family, Pol Pot received an elite education in Cambodia’s best schools, before moving to Paris, where he joined the French Communist Party. Upon returning to Cambodia, he became a college professor, teaching French and Geography, and was beloved by his students as a “very kind man“.

In those days, he frequently spoke on the themes of human decency and kindness, and was described as: “an attractive figure. His deep voice and calm gestures were reassuring. He seemed to be someone who could explain things in such a way that you came to love justice and honesty and hate corruption“. Some students remembered him as “calm, self-assured, smooth featured, honest, and persuasive, even hypnotic when speaking to small groups“. Many of those students became his most enthusiastic followers when he led the Khmer Rouge, and were among the most ruthless executioners of what came to be known as the Cambodian Genocide.

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A young Colonel Gaddafi. Pintrest

22. The Batty Bedouin

Born into a poor Bedouin family, Muammar Gaddafi (1942 – 2011) rose to colonel in the Libyan army, before staging a coup and seizing power in 1969. He then made himself dictator, styling himself “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamihirya”. Gaddafi headed a blood-thirsty and insanely erratic regime that terrorized, cowed, and bewildered his countrymen for 42 years, until they finally had enough, and overthrew and killed him in 2011.

Called the “the mad dog of the Middle East” by Ronald Reagan, just before sending jets to bomb him, Gaddafi’s reign was marked by dramatic twists and turns. He morphed from socialism to Islamic fundamentalism; from sponsorship of terrorism to avid cooperation in the Global War on Terror; and from an Arab nationalist to deriding Arabs and turning to African nationalism instead.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Gaddafi in later years. Time Magazine

21. The Arab Mao

Gaddafi saw himself as a messiah. Modeling himself on Chairman Mao, he published The Little Green Book, containing a political philosophy labeled The Third International Theory – a mix of direct democracy, Arab and African nationalism, and Islamic socialism – as an alternative to capitalism and communism.

The book was required reading for Libyans, and formed the theoretical basis of Gaddafi’s government. In reality, Libya was a kleptocratic dictatorship, governed on the basis of nepotism to enrich Gaddafi’s family and his tribe, with a grossly mismanaged economy that survived solely due to an abundance of oil and gas.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Gaddafi and Condoleeza Rice. Veja

20. A Creepy Womanizer

Gaddafi was creepy. He had a habit of hitting on female reporters, often meeting them for interviews in bathrobes or in his underwear. He also became obsessed with former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, referring to her as his “darling black African woman“. When she visited Tripoli, Gaddafi showered her with over $200,000 worth of gifts, including a lute and a locket with his picture inside.

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Gaddafi, trailed by some of his Amazonian Guard. The Mirror

Gaddafi also saw himself as a fashion icon, and to that end cultivated an odd collection of ensembles and sartorial choices that made him modern history’s most bizarrely dressed ruler. Changing in and out of silly uniforms multiple times a day, he was the closest real life depiction of a James Bond villain. The cartoonish villain look was further enhanced by his all-virgin female bodyguard, officially named the “Revolutionary Nuns”, but known more commonly as the Amazonian Guard.

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Gaddafi and some of his Amazonian Guard. YouTube

19. The Deadly Buffoon

Beneath Gaddafi’s buffoonish look and cuckoo philosophy, however, was a brutal dictator whose regime engaged in repression, torture, murder, and sundry human rights violations. Among his vices was the habit of ordering women kidnapped off the street, including teenaged girls. He then had them taken to one of his many palaces, to have his way with them.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Libyan rebels capturing Gaddafi. Freedom Group

One of his numerous victims was kept imprisoned in his basement for six years. He forced her to watch pornography while snorting cocaine with him, and repeatedly raped, urinated on, and subjected her to sundry perversions. Gaddafi was finally overthrown in a popular uprising in 2011. Captured by rebels, he was tortured, and probably sodomized, before he was brutally killed.

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Attila the Hun. Pintrest

18. The Scourge of God

Attila the Hun (406 – 453) was born in the Hungarian Steppe into the Hun royal family, and inherited the crown jointly with his brother Bleda in 434. He ruled a multi-tribal empire that spanned Eastern and Central Europe.

During his reign, 434 – 453, he earned the moniker “The Scourge of God“, as he terrified the civilized world. Attila invaded Persia, terrorized the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, plundered the Balkans, extorted vast sums of gold from Constantinople, and invaded Gaul. Beaten back, he recoiled, then struck into Italy, before drinking himself to death on his wedding night.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Bleda the Hun. Flickr

17. The Killer Bros

Early in their joint rule, brothers Attila and Bleda were challenged, but crushed the opposition. When their surviving enemies fled to the Roman Empire, the brothers invaded and forced the Romans to surrender the fugitives and agree to an annual tribute of 230 kilograms of gold. Attila and Bleda then turned their attention to the Persian Empire, which they invaded and plundered for years before they were beaten, at which point they returned their attention to Europe.

Crossing the Danube in 440, the brothers plundered the Balkans and destroyed two Roman armies. The Romans admitted defeat, and the brothers extorted a new treaty that paid 2000 gold kilograms up front, plus an annual tribute of 700 gold kgs. Soon thereafter, Attila consolidated power by murdering his brother and becoming sole ruler. In 447, Attila returned to the Balkans, which he ravaged until he reached the walls of Constantinople, before recoiling.

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‘Attila’s Death’, by Pazcka Ferenc. Wikimedia

16. Choking to Death on His Own Blood

In 450, the Western Roman Emperor’s sister sought to escape a betrothal by begging Attila’s help, and sent him her engagement ring. He interpreted that as a marriage proposal, accepted, and asked for half of the Western Roman Empire as dowry. When the Romans balked, Attila invaded, visiting his customary devastation, before he was finally stopped at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451.

The following year, he invaded Italy, sacking and burning as he advanced down the peninsula, before he was persuaded by the Pope to withdraw. He planned to attack Constantinople again in 453, but his rampage finally ended that year, when he drank himself into a stupor while celebrating his wedding to a new wife. While passed out, he suffered a nosebleed, and choked to death on his own blood.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Jean-Bedel Bokassa. The Famous Birthdays

15. The Central African Emperor

Africa has had no shortage of bloody-minded and bizarre rulers. For sheer delusion, however, it is difficult to top Jean-Bedel Bokassa (1921 – 1996), the military dictator of the Central African Republic from 1966 to 1979. He declared the small landlocked country an empire, and himself Bokassa I, Emperor of the Central African Empire. His years in power were marked by bloodthirst, murder, terror, corruption, and increasingly bizarre behavior.

Bokassa was a captain in the French colonial army when Central Africa gained its independence from France, and the country’s new president, a distant cousin, invited Bokassa to head its armed forces. He accepted, and a few years later, staged a coup and seized power, declaring himself president.

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The coronation of Emperor Bokassa I. Reddit

14. The Napoleon Fan Boy

Bokassa was not just an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, but an outright worshipper of the French emperor. So he emulated his idol by crowning himself Emperor of Central Africa. In the process, Bokassa bankrupted his impoverished country with a lavish coronation that cost about 80 million dollars, including a diamond-encrusted crown that cost 20 million.

His rule was marked by a reign of terror in which Bokassa personally supervised the judicial beating of criminal suspects, decreeing that thieves were to lose an ear for the first two offenses, and a hand for the third. He also oversaw the torture of suspected political opponents, then fed their corpses to crocodiles and lions he kept in a private zoo. There were also widespread accusations of cannibalism, triggered by photographs in Paris-Match magazine which showed a fridge containing the bodies of children.

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Bokassa and his family in exile. Rebel Circus

13. Massacring Children

Among the sundry atrocities committed during Bokassa’s reign, the most infamous was the arrest of hundreds of schoolchildren in 1979 for refusing to buy school uniforms from a company owned by one of his wives. Bokassa personally supervised the murder of over one hundred children by his imperial guard. That was a final straw, and soon thereafter, French paratroopers deposed the murderous despot.

Bokassa got off the light. He ended in French exile, with millions looted from his country’s treasury. However, he managed to waste his embezzled fortune within a few years, and was reduced to penury. His poverty became international news when one of his children was arrested for shoplifting food. Bokassa returned to Central Africa in 1986, where he was tried and convicted of murder and treason, and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was released in 1993, living another three years before dying in 1996.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Genghis Khan. Ancient History Encyclopedia

12. A Gruesome Definition of Happiness

The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy and drive him before you. To see his cities reduced to ashes. To see those who love him shrouded and in tears, and to gather to your bosom his wives and daughters“. Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227), author of the previous quote, gathered to his bosom many conquered enemies’ wives and daughters: a 2003 genetic study revealed that about 38 million people, or 1 in 200 of the world’s population, is descended from him.

Born Temujin, he founded the Mongol Empire, the world’s largest contiguous empire, and was likely the most terrifying figure to emerge from the Steppe. His conquests were frequently accompanied by huge massacres, even genocide. The estimated 40 million deaths toll of the Mongol conquests initiated by him, viewed as a percentage of then-global population, would be equivalent to 278 million deaths if adjusted for the 20th century.

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Genghis Khan and a sibling ganging up to murder one of their brothers. Pintrest

11. A Monster’s Harsh Upbringing

When Temujin was nine, his father, a minor Mongol chieftain, was poisoned. Rivals in the tribe then expelled the widow and her family to fend for themselves on the harsh Steppe. Temujin endured extreme poverty and want alongside his family for years, during which he killed one of his brothers for refusing to share a rodent. Growing up hard, Temujin grew into a hard man.

He also grew into a charismatic one. By the time he was a young man, Temujin had amassed a small and devoted following, which he parlayed into bringing the Mongol tribes under his sway, one after another. Temujin erased intra-tribal distinctions by exterminating each tribe’s nobility, and combined the commoners into a unified entity henceforth known as the Mongols, united by their personal allegiance to him.

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Mongols on the attack. Quora

10. Becoming Genghis Khan

After uniting the Mongols, Temujin took on the formidable rival Tatar tribe, defeated them, and executed all males taller than a wagon’s axle. By 1206, Temujin had destroyed all Steppe rivals, and the formerly squabbling tribes had been united into a Mongol nation. So a grand assembly was held that year, where he revealed a vision, endorsed by shamans, in which the heavens had ordained that he rule all under the sky. The Mongols proclaimed him “Genghis Khan“, meaning Universal Ruler.

Genghis organized the Mongols for war. He was a good judge of men and an excellent talent spotter, and his system was a meritocracy where the talented could rise, regardless of origins. He imposed strict discipline in a military structure based on decimals, from squads of 10, to companies of 100, to minghans of 1000, and tumans of 10,000.

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A Mongol army on the march. Pintrest

9. Setting Out to Conquer the World

Genghis Khan then set out to conquer world, beginning with China, which was fragmented at the time into various dynasties. He started with the Western Xia, and reduced them to vassalage, before turning to the more powerful Jin in 1211, capturing and sacking their capital in 1215 after a victory in which hundreds of thousands were massacred. That forced the Jin emperor to abandon the northern half of his empire.

Genghis, who found himself ruling a domain that included tens of millions of Chinese peasants, at first wanted to simply kill them all and transform the land into pasturage suitable for Mongol herds. Then taxation was explained to him, and he was persuaded that many live peasants translate into a steady stream of income and wealth. He interrupted his campaign against the Jin after a city governor in the powerful Khwarezmian Empire to the west executed Mongol envoys sent by Genghis to its emir. The emir’s refusal to surrender the offending governor was one of history’s biggest mistakes.

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Mongols leading the mother of Khwarezm’s ruler into captivity. Wikiwand

8. The Khwarezmian Depredations

Genghis launched a brilliant invasion of Khwarezm in 1218 that overwhelmed the empire and extinguished it by 1221. Its fleeing emir was relentlessly chased across his domain to his death, abandoned and exhausted, on a small Caspian island as his pursuers closed in. It was in this war that the Mongols gained their reputation for savagery. Millions of Khwarzmians died, as Genghis ordered the massacre of entire cities that offered the least resistance. He also marched thousands of captives ahead of his armies, as human shields.

By the time Genghis was done, Khwarezm had been reduced from a prosperous and wealthy empire to an impoverished and depopulated wasteland. At the grand mosque in the once thriving but now smoldering city of Bukhara, Genghis told the survivors that he was the Flail of God, and that: “If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you“. Genghis died in 1227, after falling from his horse while campaigning in western China.

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Idi Amin, center left, as chief of staff of the Ugandan army in 1966. Wikimedia

7. The Ugandan Monster

Dictator Idi Amin Dada (circa 1925 – 2003) was a Ugandan military officer who seized power in a 1971 coup, and ruled Uganda until 1979. His regime became infamous for repression, ethnic persecutions, human rights abuses, economic mismanagement, corruption, and nepotism. He is estimated to have killed up to half a million Ugandans, which was a significant percentage of his small country’s population. In addition to, and setting him apart from many other brutal and incompetent kleptocrats, was Amin’s sheer bizarreness.

He was commander of the Ugandan army when he got wind that he was about to be arrested for theft, so he overthrew the government and declared himself president. His behavior was odd from the start, and grew increasingly more erratic and unpredictable with time. He started off as a conservative, and was initially supported by the West and Israel, only to end up an ardent supporter of Libya’s Qaddafi and the PLO.

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A 1977 caricature of Idi Amin. Library of Congress

6. Wrecking the Country

Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Uganda’s ethnically Asian citizens and residents, and seized their and Europeans’ businesses and enterprises, which formed the economy’s backbone. He handed them over to relatives and supporters, who incompetently and promptly drove them into the ground, wrecking Uganda’s economy.

After the UK severed diplomatic relations, Amin declared that he had defeated Britain and awarded himself a CBE (“Conqueror of the British Empire”) medal. He also conferred upon himself a VC, or Victorious Cross, a copy of the original British VC. Among the titles he bestowed upon himself were “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular“. He also declared himself King of Scotland.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
A blinged-out Idi Amin. Pintrest

5. Lavish Spending Amidst Widespread Poverty

Idi Amin’s personal life was just as batty as his public one. A polygamist, he married over half a dozen women, at least one of whom he murdered and dismembered. In 1975, a 19-year-old go-go dancer caught his eye, so he had her boyfriend beheaded. He then married her in a lavish wedding that cost about 10 million dollars, at a time when much of Uganda was hungry and malnutrition was widespread.

Estimates of his victims range from 100,000 to half a million. A boneheaded attempt to seize a province of neighboring Tanzania led to a war which Amin swiftly lost, and he was forced to flee in 1979. He headed first to Libya, and then to Saudi Arabia, whose royal family gave him asylum, refused to honor requests for his extradition, and paid him generous subsidies until his death in 2003.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Tamerlane. Yes Urdu

4. History’s Deadliest Ruler

Tamerlane (1336 – 1405) was history’s deadliest ruler, when seen from the perspective of the percentage of the global population of his era that was killed by his depredations. He was the last of the great Eurasian Steppe conquerors to terrify the civilized world through widespread devastation and butchery.

Tamerlane is chiefly remembered for his savagery. His wide-ranging rampage, from India to Russia and the Mediterranean, and points in between, is estimated to have killed about 17 million people, amounting to 5 percent of the world’s population at the time. To put that in perspective, prorating Tamerlane’s figures to 2019’s global population would be the equivalent of killing about 385 million people – a figure exceeding the total victims of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, combined.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Tamerlane. Imgur

3. The Rise of a Monster

Tamerlane was a Muslim Turko-Mongol who claimed descent from Genghis Khan. He was born in the Chagatai Khanate, then ruled by Genghis’ descendants, in today’s Uzbekistan. His rise began in 1360, when he led Turkic tribesmen on behalf of the Chagatai Khan. However, the Khan was murdered, leading to a power struggle among would-be successors.

By the time the dust had settled, Tamerlane had emerged as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead Chagatai puppet, through whom Tamerlane ruled. While his claimed descent from Genghis is dubious, Tamerlane justified his conquests as a restoration of the Mongol Empire and re-imposition of legitimate Mongol rule over lands seized by usurpers. After consolidating his power, he spent 35 years earning a reputation for savagery, while bringing fire and the sword to the lands between the Indus and the Volga, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Tamerlane overseeing the cementing of skulls into a wall. Pintrest

2. Tamerlane’s Depredations

Among the cities left depopulated and in by Tamerlane ruins were Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Baghdad in Iraq; Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde, and Ryazan, both in Russia; India’s Delhi, outside whose walls he massacred over 100,000 captives; and Isfahan in Iran, where he massacred 200,000. Tamerlane was also in the habit of piling up pyramids of severed heads, cementing live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erecting towers of his victims’ skulls as object lessons and to terrorize would-be opponents.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
Tamerlane gloating over a captured Sultan Bayezid. Flickr

His most impressive victory came at the expense of the Ottoman Turks, a rising power in their own right, as exuberantly confident in their prowess as was Tamerlane. For years, insulting letters were exchanged between Tamerlane and the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid, until Tamerlane finally showed up and defeated him in 1402. Bayezid was captured and kept in a cage at Tamerlane’s court, and further humiliated by having his favorite wife serve Tamerlane and his courtiers, naked.

The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers
A facial reconstruction of Tamerlane, based on his skull. Wikimedia

1. A Deadly Ghost?

Tamerlane’s decades-long rampage finally came to an end in 1405, as he was preparing to invade China. Fortunately for the Chinese, Tamerlane took ill while encamped, and died before launching the campaign. Tamerlane’s grave was reportedly cursed. His body was exhumed by Soviet anthropologists on June 19th, 1941, and carved inside his tomb were the words “When I rise from the dead, the word shall tremble“.

Two days later, the Nazis launched the largest military operation of all time against the USSR, which the Soviets survived only by the skin of their teeth. Just to be on the safe side, in November of 1942, shortly before Operation Uranus which led to the first major Soviet victory at Stalingrad, Tamerlane was reburied with full Islamic ritual.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Abazov, Rafis – Tamerlane and the Timurid Empire in Central Asia (2008)

Biography – Idi Amin

Biography – Pol Pot

Bobrick, Benson – Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible (1990)

Clements, Jonathan – The First Emperor of China (2006)

Cooper, Alan D. – The Geography of Genocide (2008)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ivan the Terrible

Encyclopedia Britannica – Jean-Bedel Bokassa

Encyclopedia of War – Timur “The Lame”, 1336 – 1405

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe II (1994)

Hinton, Alexander Laban – Why Did They Kill: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (2004)

JSTOR – Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Emperor Bokassa

Lamb, Harold – Genghis Khan: The Emperor of All Men (2015)

Man, John – Attila: The Barbarian King Who Challenged Rome (2009)

Turnbull, Stephen – Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests, 1190 – 1400 (2003)

Wikipedia (Spanish) – Francisco Macias Nguema

Wikipedia – Muammar Gaddafi