World's Most Corrupt Leaders
Corrupt leaders have plagued the world since the creation of organized societies. In the modern era, this has escalated as more money and wealth have circulated around the globe. Corrupt politicians the world over, tainted by the power they wield, cannot resist the opportunity to get their hands on some dirty cash.
Political leaders who enact the most egregious abuses of power regularly make use of mechanisms such as embezzlement, money laundering, and extortion. Those who gain a few thousand may get away with it, but for the highest profile cases, where hundreds of millions of dollars go missing, keeping it a secret is often more difficult than the fraudulent action itself.
What Is A Corrupt Leader?
A corrupt leader is anyone in a position of power within a government that uses their influence to illegally benefit themselves or someone else. This benefit could be in the form of money, increased influence, or political favors. A common example is embezzlement; where leaders appropriate funds from public projects or schemes and funnel them into their own pockets.
Acts of corruption represent an affront to the ideals of a healthy democracy and therefore, corrupt leaders become disgraced in their countries, with some even facing formal corruption charges.
What Do You Call A Corrupt Government?
The formal term for a corrupt government used in political science is a kleptocracy. Corruption is present in most governments across the world, occurring at higher levels in some and lower levels in others. However, this doesn’t mean every country can be classed as a kleptocracy. What sets kleptocracies apart from other governments is the lack of public accountability and legal prosecution for acts of corruption.
Those who indulge in corrupt activities are called kleptocrats and they are the main beneficiaries of their actions. However, a key feature of kleptocracies is the presence of cronies. Cronies are the close allies and friends of kleptocrats who are deliberately appointed to positions of power in order to support their regime. In return for their support, cronies also reap rewards such as money, fame, or power.
What Is Corruption and Its Types?
Corruption takes many forms, but at its most basic it is an illegal abuse of power that takes advantage of public trust to benefit an individual or small minority. Corruption is seen as a disease within societies that not only undermines public trust in governments but also perpetuates poverty and other social ills. The eradication of corruption is seen by organizations like the UN as a major factor in creating more equal systems of wealth and increasing human rights standards.
Perhaps the most common type of corruption is embezzlement, as described above, which comes hand-in-hand with money laundering. Money laundering is the process of hiding the origin of illegal funds to evade being caught. For example, if a person gained a large sum of money through embezzlement, this sudden income could look suspicious to the authorities that deal with corruption. To make it more likely to go undetected, this person could set up a fake business to be paid by fake customers using the embezzled funds. By doing this, the income looks legitimate.
Corruption isn’t always primarily about money; many countries are plagued by political corruption that focuses on power and influence. Rigged elections, where the outcome is already predetermined as a result of bribery and voter fraud, as well as cronyism are both examples of how power can be abused to benefit a certain group of people. If unchallenged, this can lead to heavily unfair societies that rarely see any change and are overseen by dictators with absolute power.
Most Corrupt Leaders and Why
Transparency International is a non-profit organization that aims to tackle and document corruption across the world. It regularly produces assessments of countries, their levels of corruption and, in 2004, published a list of the most corrupt leaders in the world.
The list is based on the amount various individuals embezzled whilst holding positions of power in their respective countries. Of course, this list only includes those who have been caught and there is a chance that others who have embezzled more remain unknown. For up-to-date information on corruption in countries as a whole, visit their list for 2022.
1. Mohamed Suharto - President of Indonesia (1967–1998)
Funds Embezzled: $25 billion
Mohamed Suharto was the second president of Indonesia and served for a record 31 years from 1967 to 1998. Suharto oversaw a military dictatorship, which evolved into an authoritarian regime built on his own cult of personality, and ended his rule with a personal net worth of $38 billion.
Following an economic downturn in 1997 that Indonesia was slow to recover from, prominent politicians began blaming Suharto and protests began in earnest that year. After mounting pressure and desertion by his political allies in May 1998, Suharto resigned.
He has been investigated for corruption numerous times since his resignation and was accused of embezzling $571 million of government funds through various personal charity foundations. Other lawsuits in Indonesia have sought to order Suharto to repay up to $1.5 billion in scholarship funds that supposedly disappeared during his tenure.
Suharto was never prosecuted, partly because he was said to be too ill to stand trial but also because he was still well-regarded by a large proportion of the population. He died on 27th January 2008 and remains a controversial figure in the country; some regard him as a hero whereas others see him as the main source of corruption in Indonesia.
2. Ferdinand Marcos - President of the Philippines (1972–1986)
Funds Embezzled: $7.5 billion
Ferdinand Marcos entered politics in the late 1940s after World War 2. He ran for election in 1965 and won, partially due to his claims of bravery and achievement during the war. During his second term from 1969-1972, Marcos oversaw a debt crisis resulting from his policy of high public expenditure on infrastructure projects. This led to civil interest and rising political opposition which caused Marcos to declare martial law, placing him in sole charge of the country.
This period lasted until 1986 when his reign as leader ended. In 1986, Marcos was forced to call a snap election due to his rising unpopularity and coup threats, which ended in complex indecision as various vote counts declared different winners. A revolution followed and Marcos was forced to flee to Hawaii.
Marcos took with him around $717 million in cash, numerous crates of valuable physical objects, gold, and deposit slips totaling $124 million. All of this was amassed illegally during his time in power. In all, he is thought to have stolen $5-$10 billion from the Philippines Central Bank. He died in January 1995 without facing justice.
3. Viktor Yanukovych - President/Prime Minister of Ukraine (2002-2014)
Funds Embezzled: $5 billion
Viktor Yanukovych held the positions of Prime Minister and President of Ukraine variously from 2002 to 2014. During his time in office, he became increasingly sympathetic to his affiliation with Russia and represented the interests of big business in Ukraine. After the Ukrainian parliament voted to sign documents to more closely tie the country to the EU, Yanukovych instead decided to reject the vote at the last minute under pressure from Russia.
This angered the majority of the Ukrainian populace, who were a mostly anti-Russian influence, and led to the Euromaidan protests. Yanukovych fled to Russia and entered a self-imposed exile. On 22nd February 2014, the Ukrainian parliament voted in favor of his impeachment, leading to the discovery of his embezzlement activities.
Amongst a host of corrupt actions, Yanukovych was found to have used $220 million of state funds to set up a private communication company, stole $1.5 billion in assets from the state including property, and generally used public funds for his own personal enjoyment.
4. Mobutu Sese Seko - President of Zaire (1965–1997)
Funds Embezzled: $5 billion
Mobutu Sese Seko was president of Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from 1965 to 1997. After gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, Zaire went through a period of political turmoil during which Seko was the Chief of Staff of the Army. With the backing of the USA, Seko overthrew the elected left-wing leader Patrice Lumumba and installed his own autocratic government.
Known for his extravagant shopping sprees in Paris, speculation about his corruption was never far from the truth. Conservative estimates state that Seko embezzled $5 billion directly from the state’s purse, using the money to fund a luxurious lifestyle and buy gifts for his cronies. He is considered to be one of the richest world leaders of all time and was eventually deposed by a military coup in 1997. He died months later of prostate cancer without being prosecuted.
5. Sani Abacha - President of Nigeria (1993–1998)
Funds Embezzled: $2-$5 billion
Like many of the people on this list, Sani Abacha began his career as a military officer and became leader of Nigeria after seizing power in 1993 following a coup d’etat. He ruled for a shorter period of time than others due to his death in 1998, overseeing a strengthening of Nigeria’s economy but a violent approach to discipline.
Because of Nigeria’s unprecedented economic growth, the amount of money flowing through the country dramatically increased. This presented an opportunity for Abacha that he couldn’t resist. By setting up fake government funding requests, Abacha directly stole money sent from Nigeria’s central bank, laundered it abroad, and deposited it in offshore bank accounts. Estimates vary but in Jersey alone, they discovered an account holding $267 million linked to Abacha.
6. Najib Razak - Prime Minister of Malaysia (2009-2018)
Funds Embezzled: $4.5 billion
Najib Razak had been a politician in Malaysia for decades before he was elected as prime minister in 2009. During his time in power, he opened the country to more foreign investment and pursued a strategy of imprisoning his political opponents.
Due to his links with the 1Malaysia Development Berhad investment firm, which had been accused of embezzling money from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, Razak began to face rising criticism in 2013.
After he lost a general election in 2018, he was arrested by Malaysian anti-corruption investigators. In all, Razak was found guilty of embezzling $1 billion from Malaysia’s wealth fund with more expected held in assets. He was jailed in 2022 for 12 years and fined $45 million.
7. Slobodan Milosevic - President of Serbia/Yugoslavia (1989–2000)
Funds Embezzled: $1 billion
Milosevic was a key figure during the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. First rising to power as the president of Serbia in 1989, Milosevic became the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1997. The politics of Yugoslavia was, and still is, incredibly complex with multiple ethnic groups involved in conflict with each other. Milosevic supported ethnic Serbs and aided in negotiating an end to the Bosnian War in 1995.
He was put on trial for war crimes by the UN whilst still in power in 1999, eventually losing power in the 2000 elections. He was arrested soon after by Yugoslav authorities on charges of corruption and embezzlement with his trial lasting five years. He died in prison in 2006.
8. Jean-Claude Duvalier - President of Haiti (1971–1986)
Funds Embezzled: $800 million
Jean Claude Duvalier was part of the Duvalier dynasty, a family that had ruled the Caribbean island of Haiti from 1957. Duvalier succeeded his father in 1971 following his death and maintained the violent, autocratic style of governance that had preceded him. Thousands died or were tortured under the rule of Duvalier, whilst he lived a lavish lifestyle in the faces of Haitians that were amongst the most impoverished in the world.
After a popular revolution in 1986, Duvalier was forced to flee in exile to France. He remained there until 2011 when he returned to Haiti claiming he wanted to help build the country. He was arrested two days later and charged with corruption and embezzlement but died in 2014 before he could be prosecuted.
9. Alberto Fujimori - President of Peru (1990–2000)
Funds Embezzled: $600 million
Fujimori was elected to office in 1990 and almost immediately implemented vast neo-liberal economic reforms. He quickly revealed dictator-like tendencies after he enacted a self-coup to oust opposition in the congress so that he could govern unopposed. He also made use of a death squad to take out political rivals and torture those connected with them.
Fujimori was re-elected twice but both are heavily disputed on grounds of election rigging. Soon after his third win in 2000, Fujimori’s involvement in bribery was made public and he fled to Japan to offer his resignation as president. Upon his return to the country to run for president once more in 2005, he was arrested within hours. He was tried for human rights abuses and embezzlement, found guilty, and sentenced to 32 years in prison.
10. Pavlo Lazarenko - President of Ukraine (1996–1997)
Funds Embezzled: $200 million
Lazarenko was born into a peasant family in the 1950s when Ukraine was still a part of the Soviet Union. He served in the Red Army and worked in agriculture, eventually gaining employment with regional agriculture departments. He was made Vice Prime Minister in 1995 and then swiftly Prime Minister in 1996.
He lasted only a year in power but managed to oversee a chaotic, violent and highly corrupt period in Ukraine instigated almost entirely by himself. He fled Ukraine in 1998 after losing the favor of the then-president and ended up in the United States. Since then he has been charged in absentia with multiple corruption charges, including extortion of prominent business owners and embezzlement from his time in charge of gas imports. He still resides in the USA.
11. Arnoldo Aleman - President of Nicaragua (1997–2002)
Funds Embezzled: $100 million
Aleman was a popular mayor in Nicaragua before becoming president. In 1996, he decided to run for president with an anti-socialist stance beating the revolutionary Ortega in an election many disputed for fraud. He served a full term but his successor soon sought to charge him with corruption following public allegations.
It was found that Aleman repeatedly used the government credit card to pay for expensive personal items, in addition to the embezzlement of millions to Panamanian bank accounts. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2003 but this was overturned, to the surprise of lawyers in Nicaragua, in 2009. It is suspected he worked a deal with Daniel Ortega for his release in return for not standing against him.
12. Joseph Estrada - President of the Philippines (1998–2001)
Funds Embezzled: $80 million
Estrada was a successful and popular film actor in the Philippines long before his political career. He used his popularity to slowly rise through the political ranks, becoming president in 1998 after winning a large majority.
A close friend of Estrada alleged in public in 2000 that Estrada had paid him bribes worth millions of dollars. This led to outrage and an impeachment case brought against Estrada that ended in controversy after the court voted not to admit some key evidence. Hours later, mass protests began and Estrada lost all political support leaving him to resign. He was detained until 2007 awaiting a trial verdict but was pardoned in October of that year.
A Snapshot Of Global Corruption
Corruption was a huge problem throughout the second half of the 20th century. Many countries were gaining independence, power vacuums sucked in individuals with bad intentions, and there lacked any robust national-level anti-corruption watchdogs. As countries in Africa, South America, and Asia grappled with their systems of governance, many managed to settle into relatively transparent power structures.
And this is reflected in the latest Transparency International global corruption report. According to them, corruption levels have stabilized, remaining the same for the past ten years after a period of falling corruption from 2000-2010. A reduction in anti-corruption measures has meant that even in established democratic countries, corruption persists at all levels of governance. What remains clear is that areas with dictators, autocrats, or one-party systems in place will continue to see the most rampant levels of corruption.
Transparency International is an organization that tracks and reports on global instances of corruption in politics, education, and other sectors. In 2004, they reported on (as of then) the rankings of the world's most corrupt leaders2, by order of funds embezzled. They have not updated this list since 2004, with most of their reports focusing on whole countries rather than individual leaders. They do regularly update the list of the world's most corrupt countries.
If reading about the devious nature of governance has interested you, then check out our article on the world’s most notorious despots.
Sources: Transparency International
|1. Mohamed Suharto||President of Indonesia (1967–1998)||$25 billion|
|2. Ferdinand Marcos||President of the Philippines (1972–1986)||$7.5 billion|
|3. Viktor Yanukovych||President/Prime Minister of Ukraine (2002–2014)||$5 billion|
|4. Mobutu Sese Seko||President of Zaire (1965–1997)||$5 billion|
|5. Sani Abacha||President of Nigeria (1993–1998)||$2-$5 billion|
|6. Najib Razak||President of Malaysia (2009–2018)||$4.5 billion|
|7. Slobodan Milosevic||President of Serbia/Yugoslavia (1989–2000)||$1 billion|
|8. Jean-Claude Duvalier||President of Haiti (1971–1986)||$800 million|
|9. Alberto Fujimori||President of Peru (1990–2000)||$600 million|
|10. Pavlo Lazarenko||Prime Minister of Ukraine (1996–1997)||$200 million|
|11. Arnoldo Alemán||President of Nicaragua (1997–2002)||$100 million|
|12. Joseph Estrada||President of the Philippines (1998–2001)||$80 million|
|The Bribe Payers' Index||Political Statistics||Women Political Leaders —Historical and Current|
- transparency.org. Transparency. 2023.
- transparency.org. CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX. 2021.
- theguardian.com. Suharto. 2023.
- Adam, Shamim. How Malaysia’s 1MDB Scandal Shook the Financial World. 2022.
- transparency.org. SOUTH SUDAN. 2021.
- transparency.org. GLOBAL CORRUPTION REPORT 2004: POLITICAL CORRUPTION. 2004.
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