One in four African leaders has served more than 20 years

Africa has the world’s most youthful population. It also has the world’s oldest and longest serving heads of government.

Though African countries form 28 per cent of the members of the UN, it is over-represented in presidential gerontocracy.

On the list of the world’s 10 longest serving leaders, seven are African. The rest of the world contributes only Iran’s Ali Khamenei, (37 years), Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev (34 years) and Cambodia’s Hu Sen (34 years) to that list.

In the multi-party era, 15 of Africa’s 44 heads of state and government — in Ethiopia, Libya, Gabon, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo Uganda, Swaziland, Sudan, Chad and Eritrea —held or have held power for more than 20 years.

By the time of his death in 2012, Meles Zenawi had been Ethiopia’s prime minister for 21 years. Muammar Gaddafi, overthrown in 2011, had ruled Libya for 42 years as had Omar Bongo of Gabon who died in 2009. Lansana Conte served for 24 years as president of Guinea till his death in 2008.

Joao Bernardo Vieira, « God’s gift to Guinea-Bissau, » in his own words, ruled for 31 years before his own soldiers killed him in 2009.

Yaya Jammeh was forced out in early 2017 after running The Gambia for 22 years. Until he was ousted in a palace coup late last year, Robert Mugabe, 93, was the world’s oldest head of state. He had been in power for 37 years.


There are still many long-serving leaders in power, especially along « Africa’s Crescent of Dictators, » the arc of repression that runs from Equatorial Guinea in the armpit of Africa across Cameroon, through Chad via the Sudan to Eritrea on the Red Sea.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Equatorial Guinea’s « god, » according to a 2003 broadcast, overthrew and executed his uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, the country’s first president, in August 1979. Thirty-eight years later he is Africa’s — and the world’s — longest-serving leader.

He may be around awhile yet: He won a 57-year term in 2016 and is keeping it all in the family. In 2012 he appointed his son Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, as Equatorial Guinea’s first vice-president.

Next door in Cameroon, Paul Biya, who is facing his most serious political crisis yet, has been in power for nearly 36 years. He has ranked near the top in almost every list of the « World’s Worst Dictators » that has been published since 2005.

In Congo Brazzaville, Cameroon’s neighbour to the East, Denis Sassou Nguesso has now served 34 years in two different stints, from 1979 to 1992 and then again since 1997.

He repealed term limits in 2015, was re-elected in March 2016 for another seven-year term and, though he would be 80 in 2023, he is likely to run again when the current term expires.

Idriss Deby has ruled Chad, another Cameroon’s neighbour, for 28 years. He won a contentious fifth term in 2016. Without term limits, he could keep running till he dies.

In Sudan, Omar al Bashir has been in power for 29 years, having come to power in a coup in June 1989.

Isaias Afwerki has been Eritrea’s President for 25 years. Barring a rebellion or death, he won’t be leaving soon. He was first elected president — by the national assembly — in 1993 and since then no presidential election has been held in Eritrea. An election was scheduled but not held in 1997.

In the East African region, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has ruled for more than 32 years. He was re-elected to a fifth term in February 2016. King Mswati III of Swaziland, Africa’s only absolute monarch, marks 32 years in power this year.


By Wachira Maina, in The East African, 14.03.18
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