What is Despotism?

The term Despotism refers to a form of government Opens in new window in which a single entity, called the despot, rules with absolute power. That entity may be an individual, as in an autocracy Opens in new window, or it may be a group, as in an oligarchy Opens in new window.

The word despot is derivative of Greek. In ancient Greek usage, a despot (despótès) was technically a master who ruled in a household over those who were slaves or servants by nature.

Despotism thus involves tyrannical rule of some sort, in which the dictatorial government uses power in a cruel manner. Suppresses the rights and freedoms of the citizens, in other words.

Ayatollah Ali Montazeri describe the concept as follows:

A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communication, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail … (Quoted in Ayittey, p.7). Ayatollah Ali Montazeri

Ayittey observes that despotic governments are highly deceptive regimes that bear the following traits:

  • Unyielding grip on power: elections are farcical and are always won by the despot.
  • Political regression is an effective weapon in the hands of the despot: opposition parties are either outlawed or accorded very little political space. Key opposition leaders are arrested, intimidated, hounded or even killed.
  • Intellectual freedom is curtailed. Censorship is imposed; journalists, newspaper editors, and columnists are harassed and arrested for telling the truth. Newspapers, radio and television stations that are critical of the despot are shut down.
  • At the behest of the despot, brute force is utilized by pro-government forces of law and order to quell street protests; batons, water cannons, tear gas and even live bullets are often used to thrash unarmed protesters. Freedom of expression, assembly and movement are flouted with impunity.
  • Despotic regimes are notorious for human rights violations: opponents of the regime are incarcerated arbitrarily and without trial; disappearances and summary executions are commonplace.

In a dictatorship, things are topsy-turvy. There is no rule of law Opens in new window and state institutions are replete with sycophants who sheepishly sing the praises of the tin-god despot. Professional decency is thrown to the dogs by security forces and civil servants.

Loyalty to the dictator outweighs competence, intelligence, and efficiency. Promotion and job security are measured in terms of who is capable of singing the loudest praise of the despotic ruler.

Despotism and tyranny have serious socio-economic ramifications. Autocratic governance depletes human conscience and dignity. It exacts a heavy toll on human and economic capital.

Infrastructure such as telecommunications, roads, airports, bridges, schools, hospitals, and seaports begin to crumble because contracts are awarded by the despot to his cronies, close friends, mistresses, and family members. The plain truth is that under a despotic regime, there is socio-economic retrogression.

  1. Peter Wuteh Vakunta, A Nation at Risk: A Personal Narrative of the Cameroonian Crisis (ch. 10, p. 78-80) Deceptive Habits of Cameroon’s Despotic Regime: Socio-Economic Implications
  2. International IDEA, A Practical Guide to Constitution Building (Stockholm: International IDEA, 2011).