Real-Life Cults of Personality You Won't Believe

So what is a cult of personality, exactly? It arises when mass media - television, newspapers, websites, posters, billboards, and more - deliberately present a politician as a great, heroic, larger-than-life figure. Cults of personality can be bolstered not just by the media, however, but also by statues, public holidays, and rallies. Yet these often very popular figures are in almost every case not what they appear to be - the government and the media (often state-run media, or media under the threat of severe punishment) do a very good job of not presenting the public with the full truth.

Here are some of the most bizarre, extreme personality cults, and the often savory figures they celebrate.
Photo: PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay / CC0 1.0

  • General Butt Naked

    General Butt Naked
    Video: YouTube

    Born Joshua Milton Blahyi, General Butt Naked led a paramilitary unit during the Liberian Civil War. His cult of personality arose from his own outlandish behavior, and his transition from a naked warrior to a Christian preacher. 

    General Butt Naked and all the soldiers under his command, some of whom were children, waged war in the buff. According to Butt Naked, who attributes to himself many magical powers, he and his soldiers didn't need clothes because their skin was bulletproof. To rid his child soldiers of the fear of war, Butt Naked gave them cocaine and showed them Van Damme movies. He was also once spotted riding atop a truck, nude, holding an enemy's severed genitals aloft.  

    Now a popular preacher, Butt Naked travels throughout Liberia and internationally in west Africa, and is also a published author. In an autobiography, he describes visiting relatives in rural Liberia as a child, where he was supposedly anointed high priest of a secret society and gained the ability to fly. In his role as a preacher, Butt Naked runs a charity helping former soldiers find footing in society. 
  • Francisco Macías Nguema
    Photo: Fair Use / Wikipedia

    Francisco Macias Nguema created a cult of personality so powerful, basically nothing else existed in Equatorial Guinea from 1968 to 1979. In pursuit of power and public adoration, he decimated the population and economy of his small African nation. His reign of terror was so complete that his own wife fled and his nephew overthrew him.

    Under the influence
    of tremendous amounts of weed and psychedelics, Macias Nguema put his own face on stamps, changed the national motto to "There is no other God than Macías Nguema," and gave himself nicknames such as "Unique Miracle" and "Grand Master of Education, Science, and Culture."

    But it doesn't stop there. According to a journalist who visited the country during Macías Nguema's rule, the only imported goods available were sardines and pink Champagne; all electricity was turned off in the capital when the president wasn't there; and free speech was such a crime that, if anyone in the regime had discovered the profession of the journalist in question, "they would cut me into pieces and throw me into the sea." During his reign, Macias Nguema killed or exiled a third of the country's population. 

    One final tidbit, from Wikipedia, lacks a verifiable source but is too insane to leave out:

    "During Macías Nguema's regime, the country had neither a development plan nor an accounting system for government funds. After killing the governor of the Central Bank, he carried everything that remained in the national treasury to his house in a rural village. During Christmas 1975 he ordered about 150 of his opponents killed. Soldiers dressed up in Santa Claus costumes murdered them by shooting at the football stadium in Malabo, while amplifiers were playing Mary Hopkin's 'Those Were the Days'."

  • Gnassingbé Eyadéma
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    Gnassingbé Eyadéma was president of Togo, in west Africa, from 1967 until his death in 2005. He had a lot of ups, downs, and contradictions during his presidency. He ostensibly handed over control of the government to civilians, but his party was the only party in the country for years. When opposition parties were legalized and elections held, Eyadéma won every time, often in suspicious circumstances. 

    What's truly astounding about Eyadéma is the insane lengths he went to create a cult of personality. He had a presidential cheerleading squad, composed of 1,000 women, that went everywhere with him. The squad performed traditional dances and sang songs in praise of the president. Eyadéma oversaw the manufacture of wristwatches with an illuminated portrait of his face, which would appear and then fade every 15 seconds. He also commissioned a comic book portraying him as a character like Superman, saving the world, with limitless power. 
  • Saparmurat Niyazoz appointed himself president for life of Turkmenistan in 1999, a post he held until his death in 2006. His cult of personality was so extreme it felt like a parody of itself. He renamed all the months of the year after family members; erected enormous gold statues of himself, one of which rotates so as to always face the sun;  wrote a book of religious doctrine and told his people that reading it three times a day would send them straight to heaven; built a lake and forest in the middle of the desert, and an ice palace and ski resort in a country with a climate the CIA world factbook describes as a "subtropical desert." 

    What else has he done? Well, his regime restricted Internet access throughout the country; banned men from listening to car radios, or having long hair or beards; demanded citizens have gold teeth removed; made opera and ballet illegal; imprisoned dissidents in mental hospitals, where they were tortured; and reduced all secondary education to a single year, which human rights groups fear was an attempt to turn the population into a league of ignoramuses incapable of dissent. 
  • Ramzan Kadyrov is so popular in his native Chechnya, people wept in the streets when he threatened to resign in 2016 under increasing pressure from Putin to make concessions to Russian power. Ironically, it was Putin who installed Ramzan, after brutal wars with Chechnya cost both countries tens of thousands of lives.

    Ramzan brought stability and prosperity to Chechnya, for which he is much beloved in the region, where he is seen as a strong, charismatic, but sensitive man. His Instagram account helps bolster his image as a man of the people. But Ramzan is also implicated in the deaths of journalists who wrote of his corruption and tyranny.

    According to those who have spent time in Chechnya's prisons, Ramzam himself enjoys doling out torture. He is also thought to be connected to the death of a human rights worker Ramzan invited to Chechnya, who actually did her job and uncovered human rights violations in the region; and to the assassination of high-ranking Russian official Boris Nemstov, who was killed outside the Kremlin.
  • Enver Hoxha, father of modern Albania, was the son of a merchant who became a teacher, and was dismissed from his post after the Italian invasion for refusing to join the newly formed Albanian Fascist Party. A communist, Hoxha came to power with the rise of the Soviet Union, and radically modernized his country - it remains an upper-middle income, largely self-sustaining nation that grows most of its own food. Images of heroic Enver decorated countless public spaces at the height of his reign. 

    Sounds good, right? Well, in nationalizing all land for agriculture, Hoxha had thousands of people imprisoned, banished, and/or executed. He also banned religion, closed all churches and mosques, and imprisoned, banished, and/or executed Christian and Muslim leaders. In 1981, as he prepared to retire, Hoxha had senior party officials and other powerful government figures executed, to ensure power would pass to a new generation, rather than remain vested in the old.