Broke as a dead dodo? Not Africa’s strongmen, thanks

Wednesday May 01 2019

Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's ousted president, at the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum on December 31, 2018. PHOTO | FILE | AFP


Just days after Sudan ruler Omar al-Bashir was ousted, Uganda—once a sworn enemy—said it would grant him asylum, if he asked for it.

It was never to be. Instead Bashir was transferred to the Kobar high security prison, where his regime sent hundreds of opponents and reportedly had some executed.

Photographs show inmates carrying out the prison ritual of shaving Bashir’s hair with a pair of scissors.

There must have been watchful guards nearby, to ensure the scissors wasn’t stuck fatally into his neck.

The most dramatic news was yet to follow. Days later, it was reported that a large hoard of euros, American dollars and Sudanese pounds, together totalling more than $130 million, had been found in Bashir’s house, stashed in grain bags.

As expected, soon there were conflicting accounts about the exact sums, with some reports lowering the find to $65 million, and others raising it to a whopping $350 million.


Usually when a dictator’s money hoard is found, it’s likely that a “finder’s fee” is charged, which requires the report of the actual amount to be lowered.

Or, to mobilise anger against him, the new order could inflate the amount of the loot found.

Whatever the amount, if Bashir had been allowed to leave with it for Uganda, its impact would be huge. Depending on how he invested it, he could have added a few points to Uganda’s gross domestic product.

If he had taken asylum in Burundi, his stash would be more than half the country’s annual budget. If he had taken it to still war-wracked South Sudan, it would be more than anyone in Juba has even dreamt of or seen since 2013.

All this serves to underscore the fact that we haven’t studied well the subject of the “African dictator’s economy”.

One reason is that it makes for a sweeter story that paints him as despicable, to use the loot to illustrate the dictator’s greed and venality, than to ask, “What does the loot do?”

Beyond ensuring the luxurious lifestyle they are accustomed to, it makes the dictator as attractive as billionaire Aliko Dangote for many countries. It is easily the most formidable weapon in a fallen ruler’s arsenal.

That is why, irrespective of ideological orientation, when they are deposed, these millions of dollars and euros are found under their mattresses.

Nearly two years after he was deposed, in Zimbabwe from time to time reports still emerge of thieves stealing $1 million from pseudo-socialist super-educated Robert Mugabe’s house.

From The Gambia, we learnt that the semi-literate superstition-peddling Yahya Jammeh, besides insisting on going into exile with a fleet of his expensive cars, stole at least $362 million.

Mugabe’s case, also illustrates another element. If there is still $1 million lying around in a suitcase in one of his houses, then there’s certainly more in other homes, holes in farms, and secret vaults.

If Bashir had $130 million in the ceiling, after 30 years he must have buried at least $150 million somewhere in the ground.

This leaves a lot of people in the new regime eager to keep him alive and safe, hoping they can get their hands on the money, or that he will use it secretly to buy loyalty.

Which is why an African strongman without a cash hoard is as rare as a Madagascan dodo.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a researcher and writer on politics and public affairs.