February 21st, 2011
The Exile Factor: Wives of Deposed Dictators
Behind every tyrant on the run with a trunkful of loot, there’s usually a spouse.
by Jerome Taylor
It’s not exactly the kind of career you would see advertised at the local Job Centre. But in the world’s all-too-numerous autocratic kleptocracies there are few positions more lucrative and gilded than becoming the wife of a dictator.
Successful applicants may have to spend their lives with some of the world’s most unpleasant men, but in return, she can expect palaces, power and sumptuous living standards – even when things go wrong.
With careful risk management by a dictator (a private jet on permanent standby and a healthy stash of bullion in offshore bank accounts are recommended), the threat posed by revolution and overnight ousting can be mitigated to acceptable levels. But wannabe WODs – Wives of Dictators – should be aware that there is always a small chance of the starving masses bashing down the palace gates and demanding a piece of the national pie, and should also plan their metamorphosis into Wodds – Wives of Deposed Dictators.
The toppling last week of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s 24-year reign is a sharp reminder to the world’s dictators that nothing lasts forever. It may also prompt their wives to make escape plans should the winds start blowing in the wrong direction.
Leila Trabelsi, Mr Ben Ali’s second wife, was clearly well prepared. According to reports this week, the 53-year-old daughter of a fruit seller, who rose to become the country’s most powerful woman, organised the removal of more than £37.5m worth of solid gold bars from Tunisia’s Central Bank before she fled via Dubai to Saudi Arabia. Bank officials have denied the allegations, but the reports came as little surprise to ordinary Tunisians on the streets, who compared the Trabelsi and Ben Ali families to mafia-like organisations that squirrelled away vast amounts of the nation’s wealth in preparation for a life of luxurious exile.
For while many ruthless strongmen – such as Charles Taylor, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein – end up in court, the innocent wives of the world’s despots do not need to worry about threat of prosecution. Ms Trabelsi’s flight to well-funded exile is just one of a number of such journeys that have been made by partners of toppled dictators over the past five decades. The great political upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s led to scores of regime changes in Latin America, the Middle East and South-east Asia.
As largely pro-Western dictators were toppled by popular revolution, many chose to settle in Europe and the United States. The Shah of Iran’s wife, Farah Pahlavi, still divides her time between Paris and Washington DC, while Imelda Marcos fled to Hawaii to plot her eventually successful return to Filipino politics.
More recently, Saudi Arabia has become something of a favoured destination for strongmen of the Muslim world. Mr Ben Ali is following in the footsteps of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in seeking sanctuary with the Al Saud dynasty.
Not all flights into exile go according to plan. Elena Ceausescu tried to flee alongside her husband Nicolae in a helicopter as their notoriously brutal regime crumbled against Romanian street protests. They got as far as the town of Targoviste before revolutionaries within the army forced them to land, subjected them to a swift show trial and executed them.
For those who escape such rough justice, a life of luxury is not always guaranteed. Sarah Kyolaba Amin, the Ugandan dictator’s fifth wife, made ends meet post-divorce working as a lingerie model in Germany before moving to the UK, where a café she ran in London was closed for a while by health inspectors.
Mussolini’s wife fared a little better. While Il Duce’s mistress Claretta Petacci was executed by Italian partisans, Rachele Guidi Mussolini survived the war and spent the rest of her life running a little pasta restaurant in her home village of Predappio. Catering, it seems, is not a bad fallback.
But the real lesson is surely that, if you want to be a successful Wodd, keep a bag packed for a potentially sharp exit.
The good WODD guide: Who’s holed up where?
The sophisticated Bennett married Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1980 with a wedding that reputedly cost $3m. In Haiti, the Duvalier regime used fear and repression through the Tonton Macoute secret police and plundered millions that were transferred to European bank accounts. The couple fled to France for a luxury lifestyle on the French Riviera, complete with Ferrari and multiple properties. A police raid on their Mougins villa in 1986 unearthed a notebook logging spending including $168,780 for Givenchy clothes and $270,200 for Boucheron jewellery. They divorced after a decade and reports suggested that Duvalier lost much of his fortune in the divorce settlement.
Sarah Kyolaba Amin
Idi Amin’s fifth wife Sarah fled with him to Libya when he was toppled in 1979. By 1982, she had left him to seek asylum in Germany, where she worked as a lingerie model. In 1999, she narrowly escaped a jail sentence for running a cockroach-infested café in London. Now aged 55, she is thought to be an events organiser in Tottenham. Last year, she collected an award for Amin, which posthumously named him best Ugandan president of all time.
Begum Sehba Musharraf
Begum Sehba Musharraf spent much of the latter part of her husband’s reign receiving female dignitaries from Laura Bush to Princess Rania of Jordan. Facing accusations of violating the Pakistani constitution and gross misconduct, Musharraf resigned from his post as President in 2008 and the couple moved to a luxury apartment in central London.
Married the former shah of Iran in 1959 at the age of 21. For the most part she was a popular figure, while the regime itself was increasingly seen as being aloof from the people. In 1979, she fled Iran with the deposed shah and their children after months of protest led to an Islamic revolution. The deposed shah, who is thought to have stashed away a fortune before fleeing, moved his family from country to country. Since they left, she has suffered personal tragedy with two children apparently committing suicide. But the family fortune remains considerable.
She was said to be the driving force in her marriage with Slobodan Milosevic, the “Butcher of the Balkans” who died of a heart attack while on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity. Now in exile in Russia, she was accused by Serbian prosecutors of making tens of millions of pounds through cigarette smuggling. Said to have a penchant for furs, caviar and French perfume and would fly a plastic surgeon in from Italy.
Catherine Martine Denguiadé
Jean-Bédel Bokassa began to lose his grip on power in the Central African Republic in 1977 when he decreed that all schoolchildren must wear uniforms. Mass protests ensued, partly because the country’s only uniform supplier was owned by his wife, Catherine. When Bokassa was deposed in 1979, the couple fled to France and lived in a chateau just outside Paris, which sold to a mystery buyer for around £762,000 earlier this year. In December 2010, Catherine accepted a state medal of honour from CAR’s current President François Bozizé.
Married in 1980, Bobi Ladawa became Mobutu Sese Seko’s second wife (although he is also said to have fathered illegitimate children with Ladawa’s twin sister). In 1997, the couple fled Zaire (DRC) after 32 years of Mobutu rule during which he embezzled around £6.3bn. They eventually found refuge in Morocco, but Mobutu died of prostate cancer later that year.
The wife of the former leader of East Germany and herself a former education minister, Margot Honecker fled to Moscow in 1991, to avoid criminal charges related to communist policies before Germany was reunified. Nicknamed the ‘purple witch’ in recognition of her blue-rinse hair and hardline policies, she was forced out of Russia by Boris Yeltsin a year later. Honecker has since lived in Chile and gets by on an old age pension.
Finally ousted in 1991, Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam and his wife fled to Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe received them as guests of honour. In 2006, Mariam was foundguilty of genocide and of ignoring a famine which killed one million Ethiopians during his 17-year rule. The couple were last reported to be living between two heavily-guarded luxury villas in Harare and Lake Kariba.
The newest member of the exiled wives set, Leila Trabelsi reportedly fled to Saudi Arabia to join her husband, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, a week ago following weeks of protest against his corrupt rule in Tunisia. Reports suggest one of her final acts was to collect gold from the country’s central bank. The former hairdresser was known for her love of fast cars – the family owned dozens – and fine clothing bought on frequent shopping trips to Dubai.
The second of Saddam Hussein’s four wives, Samira Shahbandar reportedly had an affair with Saddam while they were both still married. She fled Iraq to Lebanon after the US invasion. In an interview with the Sunday Times in 2003, she said that Saddam had given her $5m in cash and a hoard of jewellery and gold before she left the country.
One of the more unusual WODDs in that she met her husband after he fled the country. Alberto Fujimori was elected president and ruled Peru for ten years but adopted dictatorial powers to fight left-wing rebels. He fled to Japan amid a corruption scandal in 2000, and met Japanese hotel magnate Satomi Kataoka. He was arrested in Peru in 2005 when he attempted to launch a new bid for presidency and married multi-millionaire Kataoka from his cell a year later. He remains in jail after being found guilty of abuse of power and ordering killings by the security forces.
The despotic regime of Ferdinand Marcos oversaw political repression and human rights violations. Thousands were killed and the country’s economy ruined. When the couple fled the palace after popular protests, Mrs Marcos was found to have left behind more than 1,000 pairs of shoes and 15 mink coats. Mr Marcos is estimated to have looted billions of pounds from the country. Imelda returned to the Philippines in 1991 when she was convicted of corruption, a verdict that was overturned the following year.
source: The Independent