Why Didn’t Gaddafi Just Retire?

Close on the heels of his capture and apparent execution by Libyan rebels, we are learning that longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi amassed an astonishing personal fortune over his 40+ years in power. According to a story in today’s Washington Post (emphasis added),

Gaddafi secretly salted away more than $200 billion in bank accounts, real estate and corporate investments around the world before he was killed — about $30,000 for every Libyan citizen and double the amount that Western governments previously had suspected, according to senior Libyan officials…If the values are accurate, Gaddafi will go down in history as one of the most rapacious as well as one of the most bizarre world leaders.

That’s billion with a B, folks. If it’s even close to accurate, that fortune would have made Gaddafi the richest person in the world.

Gaddafi’s mind-boggling wealth poses a puzzle for political scientists who study authoritarian rule. With all that money stuffed under his mattress, why didn’t Gaddafi just walk away early in the course of the rebellion to enjoy a fat retirement? When you’ve already got $200 billion to work with, the marginal benefits of additional accumulation are going to be pretty thin. Instead, Gaddafi chose to stick it out, and look where that decision got him (warning: graphic).

Most theories of authoritarian rule solve this problem by fiat. Rulers are simply assumed to value staying in office over everything else, and at virtually any cost. If we start with that assumption, Gaddafi’s behavior is not puzzling at all–but recently “retired” Tunisian president Ben Ali‘s is. Recall that Ben Ali fled his country just a few weeks after Tunisia’s popular uprising started to gain steam, before it was apparent whether or not the challenge could be sustained. Clearly, retirement is an option for some dictators.

In short, I think we still have a pretty poor understanding of what motivates authoritarian rulers to cling to power (or not). This matters, because the better we understand rulers’ motivations, the better equipped we are as policy-makers or activists to design strategies that might drive those rulers from office and allow for democratization. Among the many things the Arab uprisings of 2011 will give the world, perhaps one of them will be a better grasp of how dictators decide when enough is enough.

PS. On October 23, The New York Times ran this story describing Gaddafi’s last days, based mostly on the account of one member of his inner circle. The story suggests that Gaddafi may have been willing to cede power and trying to flee the country toward the end, but it’s hard to put a lot of stock in the words of one man whose own fate was so closely tied to the colonel’s.

PPS. Over at the Monkey Cage, eminent political scientist Barbara Walter sees Gaddafi’s decision to stick it out as an unfortunate side effect of a strengthened International Criminal Court.

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  1. I think more problematic is how frequently social scientists discount the role of personality in these types of decision making. Or chance discussions in chance meetings. I just don’t think that we can quantify this sort of thing. Obviously one valued it more than the other, or one thought that his chances of getting shot were higher than the other did. There are a million explanations and the only person who will probably ever know for sure is now dead.

  2. Why should we assume a “one size fits all” solution here? When we talk of masses, we can rely relatively well on statistical means to help us understand behaviour. But when we look at individuals, we cannot assume that the mean will manifest itself. The reason the mean works is that there are lots of people with lots of different behaviours, but these behaviours follow a pattern that the mean describes – not because the mean is descriptive of each individual on his or her own.
    To understand individual dictators, we’ll need to resort to psychology, not sociology. We could give predictions – we could say there’s a higher chance of a dictator bailing/staying given certain circumstances, but we have so few data-points on that, and so many intervening variables, that seems like a hopeless endeavour.

  3. Dean

     /  October 23, 2011

    Well, in short, he was a fool to stick around. Not that he would not have been hunted if he had left towards the end. 200 billion, you say? Heres what I would have done. When things started to really go south, I would have called a negotiation meeting with the rebels and government and stated a specific withdrawal timeframe from power. Say two years. During that time, I would have invested 50 billion (of my stolen money) into Libya infrastructure and and human welfare. At the end of that time, I could quietly retire smelling like a rose. Hell…they may have even asked him to stay in power after that. But no…the true levels of greed and selfishness know no boundaries.

  4. Ditto the skepticism about typologies of authoritarian motivation. The effort reminds me of attempts to deduce the logic of Congress. Plagued with inheritability problems, settle on a simplifying assumption. Sample history; fit theory to data. Get a pretty good model that works until, well, it doesn’t.

    I’m sympathetic to Matt’s position above, but I empathize with the author’s social-scientific aspiration to do better.

  1. 1 + 1 = Gaddafi will die? Trying to rationalize everything! « ardmorina

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