The 6 Famous Warlords Who Became Presidents

"He killed my ma. He killed my pa. He gets my vote."

When we think of the image of a president our minds are often drawn to one of sophistication, leadership, integrity, and the possible addition of the odd scandal to mix things up a bit. In some corners of the world, the image of a president is the complete opposite. Especially in countries where the presidents were, or still are, famous warlords.

To those in North America and Western Europe, the idea of a violent warlord becoming the leader of your country is one confined to movies and video games. Unfortunately, for millions of people, this is a stark reality.

In this article, we’re going to look into 6 famous warlords who became the president of a country. We’ll also delve into their backstory, some of their most infamous incidents, and where they ended up. Spoiler alert! Just under half of them are still serving presidents in 2021!

Famous Warlords of the Rhodesian Bush War – Robert Mugabe

The 4 Famous Warlords Who Became Presidents

The story of our first famous warlord who became president begins in the British colony that would eventually become Zimbabwe: Rhodesia. It was here in 1924 that Robert Mugabe was born. As a boy, his mother hoped he would become a priest. He turned out to be anything but.

During his childhood, the Mugabe family lived with Catholic missionaries. The fatherless Robert was mentored by a priest from Ireland who described the young Mugabe as a witty kid. This priest became his father figure and would often tell him stories of Irish rebels fighting for their independence against the British.

“I am a graduate in violence.”

– Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe would grow up to attend the same South African university as Nelson Mandella: Fort Hare. It was here that he would adopt Marxist ideology before returning to Rhodesia and becoming a leading guerilla warlord fighting to end the white-majority rule of Rhodesia.

In 1963, he was jailed for over a decade. He used his jail time to study profusely and earn 7 degrees. Upon his release, he found himself in the middle of the Rhodesian Bush War. In neighboring Mozambique, he became the commander of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)

Soldiers of the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade wearing old Rhodesian brushstroke camo. EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK
Soldiers of the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade wearing old Rhodesian brushstroke camo. EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK

As the grueling Bush War came to an end, Mugabe was victorious. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe with Mugabe as prime minister and later president. His presidential reign was undeniably violent. His land reforms saw private property seized from mostly white farmers and redistributed to local tribes.

Infamous Mugabe Moments

  • In 2007, Mugabe killed 100 Elephants in order to provide food for a feast.
  • In an attempt to redress colonial-era land grabs, Mugabe violently seized land from over 4,000 white farmers. A move that led to economic devastation and a collapse of international relations.
  • His xenophobic and homophobic rule oppressed free speech and journalists. This led to millions of Zimbabweans fleeing the country for a better life, thus plunging the country even further into crisis and misery.

The North Korean 5th Brigade largely made up of former ZANLA fighters, was used to violently crush any opposition to Mugabe. In the 1980s, they murdered around 20,000 civilians classed as dissidents. Public executions and burning people alive were common.

All elections were defined by allegations of vote-rigging and Mugabe remained in power for over three decades until he was removed from power in the 2017 Zimbabwean coup d’état. Two years later, he died following a long battle with cancer.

Rodrigo “The Punisher” Duterte

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (Left) holds a AK-47 assault rifle as Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu looks on, during a inspection of donated firearms and trucks onboard the Russian destroyer Admiral Panteleyev docked at the port in Metro Manila, Philippines October 25, 2017. (Reuters Photo/Malacanang Presidential Photo)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (Left) holds a AK-47 assault rifle as Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu looks on, during a inspection of donated firearms and trucks onboard the Russian destroyer Admiral Panteleyev docked at the port in Metro Manila, Philippines October 25, 2017. (Reuters Photo/Malacanang Presidential Photo)

Rodrigo Duterte is one of the famous warlords who would later become one of the most controversial world leaders of modern times. From waging a violent kill-on-sight campaign against suspected drug dealers to openly boasting of throwing people from helicopters, the story of Duterte is a wild ride.

Born in the Southern Philippines in 1945, Rodrigo Duterte’s political career began when he became the 20-year mayor of Davao city in 1988. Here, he gained a reputation for vigilante killing of suspected drug dealers and drug addicts.

“Duterte was the one who finished him off. The justice department official was still alive when he (Duterte) arrived. He emptied two Uzi magazines on him.”

– Testimony of former death squad hitman, Edgar Matobato, against Duterte.

During the time Duterte was Mayor, Davao City has been described as “Warlord Central.” The Tale of Two Warlords article describes President Duterte’s time as one of the world’s famous warlords with his extreme warlordism covered in explicit detail.

His initial infamous reign got him the nickname of “the death squad mayor” in relation to the death squads he is alleged to have sent out to carry out these murders. In 2016, he became president on an anti-establishment platform that prioritized the eradication of drugs in the Philippines.

Rodrigo Duterte posing with an Uzi submachine gun as mayor of Davao City, 1994.
Rodrigo Duterte posing with an Uzi submachine gun as mayor of Davao City, 1994.

His subsequent presidential reign was pockmarked with controversy that ranged from calling Obama ”a son of whore” to threatening to throw corrupt government officials out of a helicopter. However, his anti-drug campaign was indeed the most shocking event.

Rodrigo Duterte’s Most Infamous Moments

  • Proudly compared himself to Adolf Hitler at a press conference when he stated “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. There are 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them all.”
  • Threatened to throw a corrupt official from a helicopter in 2016. To show his seriousness, Duterte boasted that he had indeed done it before when he throw a rape suspect from China to his death from a helicopter back in the day.
  • Routinely threw highly offensive insults at world leaders and influential figures from Barack Obama to the Pope.

It’s estimated that President Duterte’s war on drug dealers, drug addicts, and crime has led to the deaths of around 7,000 people. Duterte would later state that he would “be happy to slaughter” three million drug dealers and users. He is currently still the serving president of the Philippines.

Famous Warlords of Liberia – Charles Taylor

Former Liberian leader, Charles Taylor, celebrating with rebel troops in the height of his power. Photo credit: Pascal Guyot.
Former Liberian leader, Charles Taylor, celebrating with rebel troops in the height of his power. Photo credit: Pascal Guyot.

The next of the world’s famous warlords turned president is arguably one of the most infamous mass killers to have come out of Africa: Charles Taylor. Born in Liberia, Taylor received a university education in the USA and a guerilla warfare education in Gaddafi’s Libya.

In 1989, Taylor returned to Liberia as a warlord commander kicking off the country’s horrifying civil war that saw urban warfare mixed with child soldiers and cannibalism. The First Liberian Civil war killed over 200,000 people in a country with only 3 million people.

“Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time”

– Charles Taylor upon being accused of being a murderer in a BBC interview.

When the first war was over, Taylor became president of Liberia after threatening to resume the carnage if he lost. His infamous campaign slogan went down in history as one of the most shockingly audacious: “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.”

During his presidency, Taylor made an alliance with the Revolutionary United Front waging an equally gruesome civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. Taylor traded guns for diamonds with the group who routinely massacred civilians and recruited child soldiers. You may remember the RUF from the movie Blood Diamond.

As the Second Liberian Civil War erupted, Taylor was ousted from power and forced into exile in Nigeria. He was later extradited to the Hague and sentenced to 50 years in prison for a string of war crimes charges.

The Infamous Incidents of Charles Taylor

  • Led a band of ruthless, poorly trained, and ill-disciplined forces paid meagre wages. These men would relentlessly rape, loot, and kill innocent people across Liberia to supplement their income in a method they called “Operation Pay Yourself”.
  • He was forced to flee Liberia prior to the civil war on charges of embezzlement and found himself in the U.S. where he was jailed. Later, with alleged assistance from the CIA, he escaped prison and wound up in Libya to receive guerrilla warfare training from colonel Gaddafi.
  • Spread civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Guinea that led to an additional 200,000 deaths on top of the 250,000 already killed in Liberia. The skyrocketing death count prompted international intervention from the U.N.

Today, Charles Taylor remains incarcerated in the United Kindom. He became the first former head of state to be convicted by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials in Germany after the Second World War.

Igor Smirnov from Transnistria

One of only two famous warlords from Europe on this list who shook off their camouflage for a presidential suit is Igor Smirnov, the former twenty-year ruler of the unrecognized country of Transnistria in Eastern Europe which tore apart from Moldova in a civil war.

Whilst he is certainly no Charles Taylor on the scale of famous warlords around the world, Smirnov played a significant role in the escalation of fighting in the Transnistrian Civil War during the early 1990s as the Soviet Union began to tear itself apart.

Born in Soviet Russia during the opening phases of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, Igor was born to a family who held good stead in the Communist party. After being promoted, his father later brought the family to Southern Ukraine where, after serving in the Soviet Army, Igor would go on to become a well educated factory director.

In 1990, as the USSR began to fragment, the ethnically Russian side of Moldova went head to head with the ethnically Moldovan side of the Moldovan SSR. A violent civil war soon erupted between the Russian separatists in Transnistria and the Moldovan authorities.

Both prior to and during the height of the conflict, Igor Smirnov was heavily active and often surrounded by former KGB agents acting as his bodyguards. He secured the help of local Soviet Army units who provided manpower and weapons to the separatist cause, escalating the violence and eventually securing victory.

What’s Igor Smirnov Known For?

  • Quirky fashion, among other things. Smirnov pioneered the short sleeve business suit in the hot summers of Transnistria and often topped it off with the rather unconventional baseball cap.
  • Led a series of industrial strikes to put pressure on Moldova when the y tried to replace Russian with Moldovan as the official language. When this failed, Smirnov ran for the Supreme Soviet of Moldova and won seats.
  • Gained the support of the Soviet Army remnants in Transnistria during the war. These largely ethnic Russian soldiers, with rapidly degenerating communication with Moscow, jumped into the fight alongside the pro-Russian separatists and turned the tide of the Transnistrian Civil War.

Following the war, Smirnov was elected as the president of Transnistria. He ruled over the unrecognized separatist state for almost twenty years until he was voted out. Now almost 80, he is still active and has vowed never to retire until he gets Transnistria recognized as a legitimate, independent country.

Muammar Gadaffi

Colonel Gadaffi (centre) with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (left) and a member of Gadaffi's all-virgin, all-female Amazonian Guard (right)
Colonel Gadaffi (centre) with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (left) and a member of Gadaffi’s all-virgin, all-female Amazonian Guard (right)

Our list of famous warlords who became presidents takes us to North Africa. This time to Libya, the birthplace of Muammar Gaddafi. Although Gadaffi served as “Brotherly Leader” of Libya rather than President, a list of famous warlords who were also world leaders wouldn’t be complete without him.

Born to a poor Bedouin family in 1942, Gadaffi would grow up to lead a military coup and take control of Libya. He would go on to transform the country into a socialist state dedicated to Arab nationalism and socialism and eventually, the Gadaffi founded Third International Theory.

“All of the great prophets of modern times have come from the desert and were uneducated: Mohammed, Jesus, and myself.”

– Muammar Gadaffi

Throughout his reign, Colonel Gadaffi regime stockpiled various chemical weapons such as 24.7 metric tonnes of mustard gas and 1,390 metric tonnes of chemical precursors for making sarin. The regime openly armed, trained, and supported numerous international terrorist groups around the world, most notably to the IRA.

The 1980s saw the peak of violence carried out by Gadaffi. He was accused of being bombing a disco in Berlin in 1986, leading to U.S airstrikes being launched against his country. Additionally, he was said to be behind the 1988 Lockerbie bombing that saw a passenger plane explode over Scotland filling all 270 people on board.

A anti-Gadaffi rebel fires a Kalashnikov at a pro-regime billboard. Photo credit: Sputnik / Andrey Stenin
A anti-Gadaffi rebel fires a Kalashnikov at a pro-regime billboard. Photo credit: Sputnik / Andrey Stenin

Gadaffi’s reign came to an extremely violent end in 2011 during the Libyan Civil War that saw him ousted from power by western-backed rebel forces. Gadaffi was cornered in his home city of Sirte, raped with a bayonet, and shot in the head.

Colonel Gaddafi’s Most Notorious Incidents

  • Behind the infamous Lockerbie Bombing that saw Pan Am Flight 103 blown up in the skies above Scotland. The terror attack caused the deaths of 270 people and was the deadliest in British history.
  • Funded, trained, and armed numerous violent terror groups and irregular forces across the world from the IRA to Charles Taylor’s NPFL.
  • Recruited female guards who were sworn to die in his defence. These women were known as ”The Amazonian Guard” and were said to be sworn virgins.

Despite being one the most ruthless famous warlords to turn world leader, Gadaffi’s Libya was significantly more stable than what was to come after his death. The country subsequently fell into a failed state and a power struggle that initiated the second Libyan Civil War.

The Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov

Ramzan Kadyrov speaks to journalists in Chechnya's capital Grozny, Russia on Dec. 28th. Photo Credit - Musa Sadulayev / AP, file.
Ramzan Kadyrov speaks to journalists in Chechnya’s capital Grozny, Russia on Dec. 28th. Photo Credit – Musa Sadulayev / AP, file.

The Russian Republic of Chechnya is one of the stark contrasts. It’s a land of mind-blowing natural beauty, hospitality, and fascinating heritage. It’s also a country that was ravaged by one of the most horrific and brutal conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Between 1994 and 2009, Chechnya underwent two gruelling wars fought between Chechen separatists and Islamic fundamentalists versus the Russian military alongside pro-Russian Chechen militias.

The latter pro-Russian militias were ex-Chechen separatists from the first conflict. After waging violent insurrection against Russia in the First Chechen War, they switched sides in the Second Chechen War in order to combat what they saw as the bigger threat of Wahhabist Islamist forces who had entered the conflict from abroad.

Ramzan Kadyrov (circled) as a Chechen separatist. The man immediately in front is the infamous Chechen Warlord Shamil Basayev who was nicknamed ''Russia's Bin Laden'' as a result of leading an array of horrific terror attacks.
Ramzan Kadyrov (circled) as a Chechen separatist. The man immediately in front is the infamous Chechen Warlord Shamil Basayev who was nicknamed ”Russia’s Bin Laden” as a result of leading an array of horrific terror attacks.

One of these pro-Russian militants was Ramzan Kadyrov. The son of the respected Chechen Imam Akmhat Kadyrov, Ramzan fought alongside his father against Russian troops in the First Chechen War before defecting to the pro-Russian side in 1999.

Infamous Incidents Involving Ramzan Kadyrov

  • 2005 – When his sister was detained by police in Dagestan, Ramzan and 150 armed men under his command surrounded the police station, forced the police officers against a wall, assaulted them, and returned to Chechnya with his sister whilst shooting victoriously into the air.
  • 2011 – Kadyrov celebrated a lavish 35th birthday celebration in the company of various Hollywood stars. Jean-Claude Van Damme, Hilary Swank, Seal, and others were paid to attend the birthday concert held in downtown Grozny.
  • 2017 – Made a veiled nuclear threat to the U.S. by stating ”Even if our government was completely destroyed, our nuclear missiles would be automatically deployed. We will put the whole world on its knees and screw it from behind.”
  • When Ramzan Kadyrov’s cat went missing, he put out an appeal on the official Ramzan Kadyrov Instagram. This prompted comedian John Oliver to reply with a mocking picture of him holding a cat, this triggered a small online argument between the pair.

Akhmat Kadyrov became the president of the Chechen Republic with Ramzan as his personal bodyguard and head of security. Their militia, known as the Kadyrovtsy, was backed by the FSB in Moscow and began waging war against Jihadists and separatists in Chechnya.

On the 9th May 2004, whilst enjoying the annual Victory Day celebrations in Grozny, Akhmat Kadyrov was murdered in a terrorist attack. Ramzan would later replace him as the Moscow-sanctioned Chechen president. Before long, the reign of this former warlord rapidly turned controversial.

“I ALREADY KILLED WHOM I OUGHT TO KILL. AND THOSE, WHO STAY BEHIND, I WILL BE KILLING THEM, TO THE VERY LAST OF THEM, UNTIL I AM MYSELF KILLED OR JAILED. I WILL BE KILLING FOR AS LONG AS I LIVE!”

– Ramzan Kadyrov responding to a question on how he is going to “avenge the murder of his father

Ramzan Kadyrov would attract various condemnation from various international organizations. Even following the end of the Second Chechen War, the Republic played host to a range of human rights abuses, torture, disappearances, and mass detention.

Related Famous Warlords Articles

One of the most recent infamous cases was the alleged mass incarceration, torture, and forced exile of Chechen citizens accused of being gay. Additionally, some Chechens in exile and vocally critical of the Kadyrov regime found themselves murdered in various countries with the regime being blamed for the killings.

Today, Kadyrov remains in power as the leader of Chechnya backed by Moscow, and has an estimated net worth of $100 million. However, his actions have led to him and the people around him being heavily sanctioned by the U.S. under the Magnitsky Act. He responded by saying:

AMERICA CANNOT FORGIVE ME FOR DEDICATING MY WHOLE LIFE TO THE FIGHT AGAINST FOREIGN TERRORISTS AMONG WHICH THERE ARE BASTARDS OF AMERICA’S SPECIAL SERVICES.”

As we reach the end of our list of famous warlords who have managed to become president of a country, consider yourself lucky if you live in a well-developed country where such a nightmare is thankfully non-existent.

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The 6 Famous Warlords Who Became Presidents

When we think of the image of a president our minds are often drawn to one of sophistication, leadership, integrity, and the...