This small but ever expanding club comprises presidents, prime ministers, and even a sultan, who ruled or have been in office for at least 10,000 days (roughly 27 years). 2011 was a rough year for the group, thanks to a wave of popular uprisings that swept the Arab world and thinned its ranks. (That said, new candidates are visible on the horizon.) Most of the remaining members have survived multiple challenges to their authority, be they in the form of military coups, popular revolts, or assassination attempts. Many owe their longevity to control over valuable natural resources and tacit support from Western democracies, notably to oil-producing nations like Cameroon or Equatorial Guinea.
Admittedly, deeming a longtime autocrat a “dictator” is an arbitrary choice. Case in point: Brunei’s longtime sultan rules over a stable, relatively confortable population that shows little sign of popular unrest. However, we believe his tight grip on civil society and modification of the country’s constitution to ensure his own infallibility render him eligible for the 10,000 Days Club. Some entries are less contentious, i.e., late Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, while others have largely avoided international notoriety and/or condemnation. The regimes listed here are characterized by sweeping corruption and nepotism, and reliance on repressive measures to contain their respective populaces. Here are our top ten (so to speak) members of the club, plus two honorable mentions.
Fidel Castro, Cuba
Fidel Castro’s guerilla forces seized power from U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959; the Communist leader was then elected president in 1976 by the National Assembly. Despite overseeing an autocratic regime characterized by years of economic hardship and political repression, Castro was relatively popular among Cubans who benefited from his social programs, like free healthcare and education. In February 2008, forty-nine years after his successful coup, the world’s longest-serving leader stepped down — due to his ailing health — and his brother Raul was voted in his place. Castro outlasted nine U.S. presidential administrations, and earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for surviving 638 assassination attempts.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei
Bolkiah, the only monarch on our list, has ruled Brunei by decree since 1967 and also acts as the country’s Prime Minister and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Like most of the members of the club, he has amassed a huge personal fortune — estimated at over $40 billion — thanks to his country’s extensive oil and gas reserves. But despite Cambodia’s high standards of living and steady economic expansion (thanks to said reserves), Bruneians face strict limits on civil society, religious freedom and political opposition. Thanks to Bolkiah’s tight control over Brunei’s security forces, that last restriction has proven especially effective — throughout the sultan’s multi-decade rule, there have been no outwardly visible signs of dissent.
Muammar Al-Gaddafi, Libya
After 42 years in power — he seized control of Libya in a September 1969 military coup — Muammar Al-Gaddafi was ousted in August 2011 during a popular uprising backed by an international coalition. The deposed leader and self-proclaimed “king of kings of Africa” was assassinated two months later by rebel fighters. Gaddafi, who owed his longevity to rule by terror, subjected his people to violent crackdowns on dissent, kangaroo courts and public executions. The Libyan leader also bankrolled terrorist groups in the Middle East and Europe, and was implicated in the 1988 Lockerbie jet bombing. Gaddafi survived numerous attempted coups and assassination attempts, and until his demise, refused to accept that his people had turned against him.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Equatorial Guinea
President Mbasogo seized power in a 1979 coup against his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, who was a ruthless dictator in his own right. Despite a thirty-year reign marked by corruption and human rights violations (including alleged acts of cannibalism), the Equatorial Guinean ruler has largely escaped both the media scrutiny and international condemnation of many of his club peers — a distinction observers attribute to oil reserves worth billions of dollars discovered off the country’s shores in the 1990s and welcomed by many Western powers. Much of the oil profits have since been funneled into Mbasogo’s personal coffers: he is reportedly worth over $1 billion, in stark contrast to the majority of his citizens living in extreme poverty.
Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, Angola
Dubbed “Africa’s least-known autocrat,” Dos Santos assumed power peacefully in 1979, following his predecessor’s death. He is Africa’s second-longest-serving head of state, trailing Mbasogo by one month, and has outlived a three-decades-long civil war. Dos Santos owes his firm grip on power to control over Angola’s abundant natural resources — namely diamonds and oil — and has largely avoided outside criticism of his regime despite widespread abuses and corruption. (Sound familiar?) Then again, Dos Santos has carefully fostered a low profile and eschewed the limelight, unlike many of his more flamboyant counterparts. Thanks to a constitutional change implemented in 2010, the autocrat is no longer reliant on a direct popular vote to maintain his presidency.
Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe
Mugabe was elected the first president of independent Zimbabwe 33 years ago, in 1980. The once revolutionary hero quickly transformed into an authoritarian leader and under his leadership, Zimbabwe — once known as “Africa’s breadbasket” — devolved into an impoverished, starving country from which over a quarter of its population of 13 million people have fled. Mugabe has maintained power thanks to widespread corruption and election rigging, notably following the 2008 elections that saw opponent — and now Prime Minister — Morgan Tsvangirai reportedly garner a majority of the votes. Mugabe has announced that the next presidential elections will be held on July 31 in a move that has already prompted spirited opposition and concern over the rapid timetable.
Ali Abduallah Saleh, Yemen
President Saleh ruled over the Arab world’s poorest nation for 33 years before yielding to the Arab Spring-inspired revolutionary fervor that spread to Yemen in 2011. Saleh stubbornly held onto power during a year marked by a harsh political crackdown on protesters, before finally stepping down in February 2012. Unlike his less-fortunate compatriots — i.e., Gaddafi, Mubarak, and Tunisia’s deposed strongman, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, currently living in exile — Saleh was granted immunity for crimes he committed during his rule and remains in Sana where some observers believe he is preparing for a political comeback. Case in point: it is Saleh, and not his successor, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who heads the General People Congress, Yemen’s largest political party.
Hosni Mubarak, Egypt
After 30 years in power, President Mubarak was ousted by a popular revolt on February 11, 2011, not long after protesters ran off his Tunisian counterpart and fellow longtime autocrat: at 23 years, however, President Ben Ali’s reign fell four years short of 10,000 days. Mubarak ran a “textbook police state” characterized by security-force brutality, the use of torture, censorship and political repression. In 2012, the deposed leader received a life sentence for his role in the deaths of hundreds of protesters in the 2011 uprising; the conviction was subsequently overturned and Mubarak is now being retried. Trial delays and the repressive policies of his successor, Mohamed Morsi, have elicited concerns that the authoritarianism of “Egypt’s last pharaoh” still lingers.
Paul Biya, Cameroon
Since 1982, President Biya — who is less notorious than many of his club cohorts — has been perfecting his own vote-rigging methods. (He reportedly paid off international election observers in 2004.) All his election wins over the past three decades have been tarnished by fraud allegations, albeit to little effect. What’s more, the autocrat modified Cameroon’s constitution in 2008 to ensure he was immune from prosecution once (or if) he ever leaves office. During his thirty years in power, Cameroonians have seen the spread of government corruption and nepotism, and repressive security forces, as well as widespread human rights violations, a faltering healthcare system, sparse and inadequate higher education, and a deficient infrastructure.
Hun Sen, Cambodia
Hun Sen joined the club in 2012, after 27 years as Cambodia’s Prime Minister. He is a former Khmer Rouge commander who has maintained a firm grip on power primarily through the use of brute force to quell domestic dissent and quiet political opposition. Barring isolated challenges to his rule in the 1990s, his regime has been marked by relative political stability. The 61-year-old leader has said he wants to rule until age 80 or 90 — a strong likelihood given his talent for exiling, jailing or violently repressing his opposition. Today, a majority of Cambodians (66%) have known no other leader but Hun Sen.
Omar al-Bashir, Sudan
President Bashir assumed power in a 1989 military coup, following which he quickly banished all political parties. The totalitarian ruler introduced strict Islamic law to parts of the country, offered terrorists like Carlos the Jackal and Osama bin Laden (brief) political sanctuary and, in 2003, led a campaign of genocide in the Darfur region that killed some 300,000 Sudanese and displaced millions. As a result, Bashir boasts a rare distinction for a sitting head of state — an outstanding ICC (International Criminal Court) warrant for crimes against humanity. However, Bashir has seen his control weakened in recent years, notably by the 2011 secession of South Sudan, and has stated his desire to step down in 2015 — one year shy of 10,000 days.
Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan
Karimov won Uzbekistan’s first presidential election in the post-Soviet era in 1991; despite a two-term constitutional limit, and after violently suppressing all opposition, Karimov began his third mandate in 2007. He has perfected a system of torture characterized by the United Nations as “institutionalized” and “rampant,” and implemented wide scale press restrictions. (Karimov was dubbed a “predator of press freedom” by Reporters without Borders in 2012). Karimov’s most notorious crime remains having ordered the massacre of hundreds of Uzbek protesters in Andijan in 2005. But thanks to Uzbekistan’s valuable energy reserves — not to mention its strategic location along the Afghanistan border — Western powers have overlooked many of Karimov’s human rights violations.