This question was originally asked on Quora.
I define a benevolent dictator as that unelected leader of a country who made hard/tough changes to his country’s situation and brought about prosperity to a large extent.
From my knowledge, there are very few benevolent dictators. But I can point out 3 benevolent dictators that no answer has made mention so far.
1. Yakubu Gowon of Nigeria (1966–1975)
Gowon came to power in Nigeria through a coup, and his rise to power coincided with a time when that country was facing its worst ever socio-ethnic crisis. That crisis eventually led to a Civil War. But unlike how the war has been portrayed, Gowon tried his best to resolve the crisis and ensure that it didn’t degenerate into a genocide.
Two things that made Gowon rise to power simply incredible were that he was a Christian, and he was from a minority ethnic group in the middlebelt region of Nigeria.
When the war started he refused to go all out on the secessionist group from the East. Instead he pursued what is known as police action, where by lethal force would not be used and mediation would be sought to resolve this fight “between brothers” (that was how he described the war initially).
As the war progressed, and the secessionist Igbo group used more innovative weaponry, Gowon was advised to change tactics and he did. Unlike what was reported, the over 3 million people that died was largely as a result of starvation within the secessionist Igbo territory, and not entirely due to soldiers killing them. The war lasted 30 due to Gowon’s refusal to use lethat force.
After the war, he tried as much as possible to reintegrate the Igbo secessionist group. He pardoned some rebel leaders, and began a swift push to modernize and reintegrate the entire country. By the time Gowon was removed from power, the tragedies of the war seemed to have been put in the past, as the country was extremely progressive.
Boosted by the oil boom of the 70s, Gowon boosted the economy, improved educational facilities, created new institutions that fostered harmony in Nigeria. He implemented a new currency regime in the country without crashing it’s economy, a feat that is extremely rare in Africa.
Gowon fought apartheid in South Africa, gave support to liberation movements across Africa, and pushed for regional integration in West Africa (a laudable feat considering France’s meddling).
For the first 6–7 years of Gowon’s rule, Nigeria really felt progressive. And the country was poised to have a better future. Indeed, Nigerians never thought
However, like all dictators, Gowon let his power to influence him. He was caught up in bribery allegations and playing a bit of favouritism. Such issues angered the military, and his removal was plotted. He was removed from power in 1975 and replaced by another even more radical and progressive Nigerian leader.
2. Murtala Muhammad of Nigeria (1975–1976):
Murtala was one of Nigeria’s greatest leaders, even though his rein was cut short. Murtala was a very prominent coup plotter. He took part in the coup that ended the regime of Gen Aguiyi Ironsi in 1966, and he supported the coup that removed General Gowon from power.
Murtala’s time in power pushed Nigeria into greater progress than even Gowon had, even though it was short. He pushed aggressive policies in order to ensure that the country was moving in the right direction.
Murtala was really vexed about corruption and was radical in his approach. He purged the country’s civil service of corrupt and unproductive workers. He went after corrupt military governor’s, and found that of the 12 military governor’s under Gowon, only one (or two) were not guilty of corrupt practices.
Gowon had huge plans for the country and promised to do a lot for the country before handing over to a democratically elected government by 1979. Now you may doubt if he really could, but you should note that even after his death in 1976, his deputy, Obasanjo, still pushed ahead with this pledge and handover power by 1979.
Murtala was definitely one of Nigeria’s finest leaders.
3. Deng Xiaoping of China (1977–1989)
Based the economic system that Mao Zedong had created for China, that country would still be far from being a major power in the global economy. But Deng Xiaoping was the one who brought about the radical change that is influencing China decades after he’s left power.
Deng Xiaoping had always had a different view about development, so different that he fell out of favour with Mao Zedong.
But as soon as Mao died, and the Gang of Four were swept aside, Xiaoping re-emerged with his bright ideas that China still relies upon.
He rejected Mao’s Marxist economic views and instituted novel ideas that pushed China onto the path to becoming a free-market economy.
Deng pushed for innovative farming techniques, greater use of capitalist practices in the Chinese economy, opened up the economy to foreign trade and gave support so that more Chinese people could go abroad and study.
Xiaoping tweaked the entire economic system of China so much that today people still ask if what sort of system does it practice.
However, Xiaoping didn’t do enough to quell the political discontent in China. He did not adjust China’s political system. And as the Tiananmen Square massacre showed, he was just as willing to use force as well his predecessors.
Yet, the tremendous development that China has witnessed today is largely due to his benevolence, even as a dictator.
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