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Finance & Innovation

Presidential Roundup: The World's 5 Most Corrupt

Wikimedia | Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Lock

I’m generally not one for internet memes and trending topics, but last Thursday evening, after responding to some Facebook messages and checking-up on notifications, I was hooked and confused by the Facebook “What’s Trending” window. Usually, forgettable trends, TV/Film news, and speculative celebrity drama grace the top of the buzz-worthy list, but Thursday was different. I was hovering over a hyperlink titled “Robert Mugabe.” 

Mugabe addresses the United Nations General Assembly | Flickr | Marco Castro

Often dubbed Zimbabwe’s ‘president for life,’ Robert Mugabe has been in power since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980. 35 years of leadership-or lack thereof-featuring a dismal record on Human Rights, development, transparency, and economic (mis)management. Having studied International Relations, Development, and African Geopolitics throughout college and my professional life, I was all too familiar with the opaque, corrupt transgressions of President Mugabe and his cohorts. At first, I wondered whether the Facebook community was lauding the President for a stark reversal in policy or maybe cheering a sudden resignation, and then I gleefully stumbled upon a meme equal parts troubling and hilarious.

First, the context. 

President Mugabe, upon returning to Zimbabwe after a trip abroad to Ethiopia, is deboarding at Zimbabwe’s Harare airport to a red-carpet and great fanfare. A couple steps down the red-carpeted staircase, Mugabe loses his footing, and stumbles to the ground despite the best efforts of his team of 27 security guards (many of which were later punished for not responding quickly enough). 

Mugabe looses his footing | YouTube: BBC News

Despite reactionary and desperate attempts from Mugabe’s team to have the photos deleted and the story squashed, the image was out, and the internet was ready to make the most of the misstep. Without further adieu, the #MugabeFalls meme that has me questioning my longstanding disinterest in all things viral:

Mugabe chasing down the Snitch on the Quidditch Field:
Mugabe, the not so smooth criminal:
Mugabe, coming in like a “Wrecking Ball”:

Jokes and laughs aside (and the jokes get incredibly creative), President Mugabe leads a list of international leaders working hard, it seems, to perpetuate anti-development policies that keep their citizens locked in extreme poverty. These leaders are global proponents of opacity, human rights abuses, journalistic censorship, and spending more on their own lavish lifestyles than on country-wide social programs to help the poor. From embezzling public funds to single-handedly wrecking economic opportunity, these five leaders are corruption crystallized:

Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe

Flickr | Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt

During the elections of 2002 and 2008, in a direct affront to the democratic process, Mugabe created “torture camps” to punish supporters of his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai and utilized government institutions as well as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to manipulate the vote and stifle any threat to his 30 year reign. Despite entering into a power-sharing agreement with Tsvangirai following the 2008 election, it was not at all clear how much of Mugabe’s power was actually diluted. In the 2013 presidential election, in which Mugabe won handily over Tsvangirai, accusations of violence, fear, and intimidation by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF political party showcased Mugabe’s long-standing control over Zimbabwe’s governmental institutions. Mugabe’s corrupt and resolute power grabs over the past 30 years have not resulted in any progress benefitting the welfare of the Zimbabwean people. Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate, last measured in 2011, is the highest in Sub-saharan Africa at 70%. All the while the president personally benefits from the country’s lucrative diamond-mining trade. 

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, President of Equatorial Guinea

Flickr | Embassy of Equatorial Guinea

Teodoro Obiang Ngeuma Mbasogo is the president of one of the world’s poorest nations, Equatorial Guinea, but has an estimated net worth of $600 million dollars. The paradox of President Obiang’s pocketbook is mirrored by the stark contrast between Equatorial Guinea’s abundance of natural resources and the country’s extremely underdeveloped infrastructural base. In 2003, working to “eradicate corruption” (my sarcastic air quotes added) in Equatorial Guinea, Obiang felt the need to take full control of the national treasury to prevent government employees from engaging in corrupt practices. Oh, the irony! To “avoid potential corruption” (more sarcastic air quotes), Obiang parked around $500 million in a UK bank account under his own name. Under Obiang’s leadership, absurdity and corruption run rampant at the expense of Equatorial Guineans. Human Rights abuses include, but are not limited to, “...unlawful killings by security forces; government-sanctioned kidnappings; systematic torture of prisoners and detainees by security forces; life threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities[.]” Although Obiang has recently pledged to make his government more transparent, spend public funds to improve Guineans quality of life, and protect the basic freedoms of all Equatorial Guineans, evidence of widespread poverty and lack of access to jobs suggests that Obiang’s commitments are solely rhetoric.

Islam Karimov, President of Uzbekistan

Flickr | Reinis Inkens, Saeimas Kanceleja 

When Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Karimov took power in the country’s general election (rife with accusations of electoral fraud and voter intimidation) and hasn’t looked back. Uzbekistan,  led by the nepotistic, power-hungry Karimov, is considered a secretive, brutal, and remote state on par with North Korea.  Uzbekistan’s Human Rights record under Karimov is “appalling,” with the jailing and torturing of peaceful civil activists, journalists, and human rights defenders far too common a practice. Under Karimov’s rule, religious expression is a punishable offense, large-scale massacres are overlooked, and the use of torture is “systematic.” 

José Eduardo dos Santos - Angola

Wikimedia | Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil

Next to Equatorial Guinea’s President Obiang, President dos Santos of Angola is the second longest serving president in Africa. After becoming president in 1979, dos Santos has led Angola, one of sub-Saharan Africa’s leaders in resource richness and diversity, with very little regard for Angolans. 68% of Angolans live below the poverty line, 28% of which live on less than 30 cents a day. President dos Santos has done a horrid job converting Angola’s resource-driven economic boom (following current trends, Angola could take over Ethiopia as Africa’s largest oil-producer) to social progress and development. Malnourishment, maternal deaths, and child deaths continue to plague Angolans as Isabel Dos Santos, the president’s daughter, has become Africa’s first female billionaire, profiting off illicit funds amassed through her father’s corruptive acts. 

Kim Jong-un, Supreme leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Flickr | Zennie Abraham

Where to begin? No functioning civil society. Estimates of around 200,000 North Koreans, children included, held in labor camps and suffering through malnutrition, forced labor, and physical abuse. Ill-advised government policies that led to food shortages and famine. The list goes on. All the while, spending on luxury goods by Kim Jong-un’s regime reached $645.8 million in 2012, as 84% of North Korean households suffer from “borderline” or “poor” food consumption. The malfeasance and unfathomable spending practices don’t end there - in that same year, Kim’s government spent $1.3 billion on a ballistic missile program. Furthering his father’s practices of neglect, which caused between 600,000 and 2.5 million North Koreans to die of hunger, Kim Jong-un’spersonal expenditures continue to outweigh his spending to improve the North Koreans' quality of life.


We cannot overlook the indispensable framework of good governance. Strong and just leadership is the bedrock that ensures aid is effectively delivered, rights are protected, and opportunities to rise out of poverty exist. Effective governance and strong governmental institutions must exist to sustain the technical fixes, increased aid commitments, and produce the  monumental policy shifts global citizens want.

Beyond these four despotic and deplorable leaders, many more leaders are perpetuating the systemic forces that sustain extreme poverty. Holding our leaders to higher standards is an act of civic engagement that drives movements for change and the eradication of global ills. 

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Taylor B. Light