I initially conceived this article as “Colonels and Dictators” after reading about the recently elected Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Ethiopian Army before being appointed in April of 2018. Clearly Ahmed is not a dictator, but the fact he was a Colonel made me think of a few data points, as some of the most well-known dictators are, or were, Colonels or Lieutenant Colonels. I had previously assumed that many other dictators were Colonels, given that Colonels often are very ambitious and likely have more future prospects than fully career officers (i.e. Generals). However, in actuality, the majority of dictators have been Generals or Field Marshals. Thus, my focus shifted to notable historical leaders that have been Colonels. Of these, I’ve created a few categories and descriptions for these individuals. Owing to my original focus I must point out that most of the men listed are or were dictators and not truly democratic leaders.
The following men gained power largely through military coups, with the exception of Sadat who succeeded Nasser as President of Egypt in 1970. All however held power through force and suppressed dissent, at times violently.
- Muammar Gaddafi: Colonel, Libyan Army, 1961-2011. Leader of Libya, 1969-2011. Official title: Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution. Gained power via military coup in 1969, implemented socialist reforms, advocated for pan-Africanism, and enabled global terrorism. Later deposed and killed during Libyan Civil War in 2011.
- Gamal Abdel Nasser: Lieutenant Colonel, Egyptian Army, 1938-1952. 2nd President of Egypt, 1956-1970. Presided during the Suez Crisis, formation of the UAR, and Six-Day War with Israel. Attempted to modernize Egypt and strengthen the Arab League. Died of heart attack in 1970.
- Anwar Sadat: Colonel, Egyptian Army, 1938-1952. 3rd President of Egypt, 1970-1981. Presided over disastrous attempt to retake the Sinai Peninsula during the Yom-Kippur War against Israel in 1973. Later made peace and strengthened relations with Israel in 1978-1979. Assassinated, at least partially for treaties with Israel, in 1981.
- Fulgencio Batista: Colonel, Cuban Army, 1921-1940. President of Cuba, 1940-1944 and 1952-1959. Democratically elected President in 1940, later led coup in 1952. Ruled a very corrupt and kleptocratic regime. Deposed in 1959 during Fidel Castro’s revolution. Died an exile in Spain during 1973.
- Georgios Papadopoulos: Colonel, Hellenic Army, 1940-1973. Prime Minister of Greece, 1967-1973. Led repressive regime that later shifted to liberalization after attempted coup against Papadopoulos. However, Papadopoulos was deposed and sentenced to life in prison by the newly democratic Greek government. Died in 1999.
These men are examples of leaders who were elected democratically and shifted into roles that are dictatorial, but not quite dictatorships as they maintain a semblance of democracy.
- Vladimir Putin: Colonel, KGB (USSR), 1975-1991. President of Russia, 1999-2008 and 2012-Present; Prime Minister of Russia, 1999-2000 and 2008-2012. Presided over rejuvenation of Russian economy, return of Russian as a world power, and projected Russian influence through military, economic, and propaganda means. Russia under Putin is largely corrupt and comprised of various corporate oligarchies permitted to run at the states behest.
- Hugo Chavez: Lieutenant Colonel, Venezuelan Army 1971-1992. President of Venezuela, 1999-2013. Ardent anti-imperialist and enactor of social reforms, principally nationalization of oil reserves. Largely enabled marginalization of opposition parties and weakening of democracy, which has been continued by successor Nicolas Maduro. Died of cancer in 2013.
Notable Elected Heads of Government:
While many men have served in both their military and government the following men are notable examples of democratically elected leaders who were Colonels earlier in their careers.
- Abiy Ahmed: Lieutenant Colonel, Ethiopian Army, 1991-2010. Prime Minister of Ethiopia, 2018-Present. Led rapprochement with Eritrea, freed political dissidents, and appealed to unity among various ethnic groups. Looked to as an exemplar of Africa’s future.
- Teddy Roosevelt: Colonel, United States Army, 1882-1886 and 1898. President of the United States, 1901-1909. Established large scale national park system, expansion of United States Navy, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War. Died in 1919.
- Winston Churchill: Multiple Colonel-ships from 1916-1965. Prime Minister of United Kingdom, 1940-1945 and 1951-1955. Prime Minister during the Second World War, continued the stand against Nazi Germany in spite of continual defeats in early stages of war. Along with President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin defeated Nazi Germany. Denounced communism throughout his career and later the Soviet Union owing to its imperialistic tendencies. Winner of Nobel Prize in Literature for his work in history and journalism. Died in 1965.
In short, the rank of Colonel has little bearing on one becoming leader of a country, but these are clear examples of men who held the rank and rose to power through democratic and less than democratic means.