Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Casting With Disaster

October 15th, 2009 · 5 Comments

As we went digging into our pocket for some change this morning, we came up with a piece of currency sure to give the vending machine a case of indigestion: a 20 shilling coin from Kenya, a souvenir of our recent East African jaunt. Before tossing back the useless money in frustration, however, we noticed that its heads side featured the visage of Daniel Arap Moi, Kenya’s reigning president when the coin was cast 11 years ago. And that got us thinking—how many nations mint coins featuring sitting heads of state? And, more importantly, isn’t doing so a terrible idea, especially for those nations that at least try to claim the democratic mantle?

Using the images provided by the World Coin Gallery, we investigated the metal money for 40 countries we thought likely candidates for such political idolatory—primarily dictatorships with long-serving leaders. Somewhat to our surprise, we could only find three contemporary countries that have engaged in the practice: Kenya, the Ivory Coast, and (to our utter non-surprise) Tukmenbashi-era Turkmenistan. (There were also some bygone examples, such as the coins issued by Manchukuo, Japan’s puppet state in Manchuria.)

We’d think it self-evident as to why such coinage might have negative political and financial repercussions. In the case of Kenya, whose 40-shilling coins now feature the strangely smirking face of President Mwai Kibaki (above), you have a nation that goes to great lengths to portray itself as a democracy to the world. Yet it has borrowed a page from the Roman Empire when it comes to manufacturing the sort of money that many folks consider rich with symbolism. So you can understand why some Kenyans might be suspicious of election results that favor the man on their shillings.

But beyond that, doesn’t branding one’s coins with an ostensibly temporary leader’s mug make one suspicious of the stability of a currency? It seems like doing so would create a psychological association between the leader’s reign and faith in his nation’s money. Once the leader goes, might not that all-important faith, too?

Also worth noting: the two most totalitarian regimes on Earth low key it in terms of coins. North Korea is all about the animals, while Burma’s mint goes the mythical beast route.

We know our readers are a well-traveled bunch, so please advise as to whether we’re missing any countries that engage in leader worship via coinage. Standard currency only, please—commemorative coins are a whole different ballgame.


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