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Dead (or dying) dictators: Managing Risk as Authoritarian Regimes Crumble

“Yes, I was dead, it’s true I was dead. I resurrected as I always do,” Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe recently joked about his purported demise as reported by al Jazeera.. But on the ground, genuine questions about the 92 year old’s health and the subsequent leadership transition have increased, sending protesters into the streets and tensions soaring.   Working in authoritarian countries presents a range of challenges for international companies and organizations — and the uncertainty that comes the the encroaching demise of a leader can exacerbate many existing risks and inflame new ones.  Understanding those risks and how to mitigate them is essential to continue operations and provide duty of care to personnel on the ground.

Working in authoritarian countries can be a challenge any time.  But given the inherently controlling nature of these regimes the risks are often — if nothing else — predictable. Faced with the looming death of a long time leader,  though, that element can change and the resulting unpredictability can result in a range of risks including:

  • Demonstrations or civil unrest as some in the country are emboldened by the potential for change.
  • Security force clampdown — either pre-emptively or in response to demonstrations or civil unrest.
  • Fracturing of security forces as elements vie for power, ranging from subtle new pressures by competing forces to full scale shooting in the streets.
  • Increased targeting of internationals as regimes look to deflect internal tensions by lashing out at perceived external foes. Former colonial rulers, regional powers or global superpowers are frequent targets though more generalized anti-international sentiment can be common.

During times of increased tensions consider these mitigation measures:

  • Limit travel to and within the country to help reduce risk exposure
  • Strengthen information gathering and travel management to avoid demonstrations and other flashpoints
  • Increase communication check-ins
  • Reduce staff and/or dependents in country
  • Avoid holding large events or programs

Given the risk of civil disorder, it’s essential to update safe haven and evacuation plans during these periods of potential transition & uncertainty.  Offices and residences should maintain supplies and emergency equipment that allows personnel to shelter in place or stand fast for an extended period –typically 72 hours at a minimum — in the event that violence makes movement too risky.  Evacuation plans should be updated and refreshed, though remember that in the event of widespread violence standing fast/sheltering in place at a safe location will almost always be better than risking exposure while attempting to reach the airport.

External resources — while not a substitute for a plan– may be essential to help manage and respond these risks. ? In particular security assistance and evacuation services will be a valuable source of information and guidance, and would provide critical support in the event the environment deteriorates to the point that evacuation becomes necessary.

Everybody dies, including “presidents for life.”  While no two situations look the same, it’s essential to understand and manage the risks that may come with sudden and/or tumultuous leadership change in authoritarian regimes.