The Hat Theory of Kleptocracy

So US leaders have finally decided that Hamid Karzai is not a reliable figure to lead Afghanistan. Under his leadership, Afghanistan has struggled against Taliban fighters, farmers grow vast fields of opium used to make heroin, warlords control vast swathes of the country independent of the central government, and there’s massive corruption in the government. The fact that he’s gone completely insane over the past few weeks gives weight to such concerns. So are we supposed to be surprised that things turned out that way? No!

People with the benefit of hindsight say that we should never back specific figures in other countries’ governments, bringing up historical examples of bad things happening when the United States props up a political leader as “their man.” The Shah of Iran, Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein? They all went bad, much to the detriment of their people. Critics of such policies say that it shouldn’t be a surprise that things go bad, since those political leaders tend to become corrupt and consolidate power with the support of the US.

To some degree, I agree. Backing specific horses is a risky business, and the US has proven throughout its history that it’s not that great at it. But seriously, they should have seen this coming. They shouldn’t have let Karzai gain any meaningful power in the Afghan government. I mean, wasn’t it obvious from the hat?

That there is the hat of a kleptocrat

Hamid Karzai’s unusual hat, made from lambskin, has become synonymous with the man himself. But do you know who else wore similar hats?

Mobutu Sese Seko, one of the world's greatest kleptocrats

Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1965 to 1997. He was another figure known for his unusual choice of hat, which seems to be made of leopardskin. He was also known for embezzling. Lots of money. Like, $5 billion dollars worth. Not to mention that in the process, he ruined the economy of Zaire by creating a system of resource extraction and networks of patronage, where warlords controlled significant portions of the country with him at the center. Sound familiar? This is largely why the Congo is in such horrible shape right now. Warlords. But remember, he wore a weird hat. He always wore that weird hat.

Sani Abacha, the original Nigerian prince

But wait! There’s more African kleptocrats! Sani Abacha was the de facto military leader of Nigeria from 1993 to 1998. During those five years, he embezzled a stunning 2 to 5 billion dollars. Remember, Mobutu stole that amount over 32 years. And he also wears a funny hat. Coincidence? I think not.

Suharto, king of the kleptocrats

But truly, Indonesia’s Suharto takes the cake, having stolen an estimated $15-35 billion dollars during his reign from 1967 to 1998. He was also known for a general disregard for human rights, and several regions of Indonesia such as East Timor suffered greatly while he was around. And what’s that I see on his head? I think it’s the mark of a kleptocrat?

The leaders mentioned above have two things in common: they were corrupt on a massive scale, and they wore funny hats that happen to look very, very similar. I’m not saying that funny hats cause leaders to become kleptocrats, but there seems to be a very strong correlation. I mean, I haven’t seen any other leader who wore such a hat and wasn’t a kleptocrat of some kind. Of course, kleptocrats in general don’t wear funny hats, so it’s hard to tell in most cases whether someone will turn out bad or not. But if someone’s wearing a hat in the style of Karzai, Mobutu, Suharto, or Abacha, I would think there’s very little chance that they’d turn out to be some enlightened leader that bowed out gracefully.

Conclusion? Beware the hat.

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