Since 2008, 13 world leaders have died in office – two from Asia, one from the Caribbean and ten from Africa.
Discussions around why African leaders are more likely to die in office are often laced with moral outrage over the poor state of public health in Africa and the expensive foreign hospital visits taken by the elite. In explorations of why this trend exists, many look to broad commonalities such as age, time in office, or nutrition. These avenues are often dead ends or only tell half the story. To really understand why it is more common for African leaders to die in office, we have to look at African political systems and political cultures.
The most straightforward suggestion as to why a disproportionate number of African leaders die in office is that they are older. President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi was 78 when he died of cardiac arrest, President Lansana Conté of Guinea was 74, while President Omar Bongo of Gabon was 73. Meanwhile, still going strong for now remain the likes of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe at 88 and Cameroon’s Paul Biya at 79.
But statistically, African leaders are on average the same age as their Asian counterparts at 61 years old, and this is not drastically older than the youngest-led continent, Europe, at an average age of 55 years old.
Another theory posits that while serving African leaders live in luxury, many of them may have suffered childhood malnutrition that can lead to complications in old age. However, few of the leaders that died recently had particularly underprivileged backgrounds. Nigeria’s Umaru Yar’Adua was born an aristocrat, while Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika, Zambia’s Levy Mwanawasa, Ghana’s John Atta Mills, Gabon’s Omar Bongo, and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi were all privileged enough to attend higher education.
Delving into the histories of Africa’s recently deceased leaders in a little more detail, however, does reveal two different but linked trends. The first is that African leaders tend to stay in power longer. The five longest serving world leaders still alive and in office are all African (if you include the Sahrawi Arab Democrat Republic’s Mohamed Abdelaziz who has held power for 36 years).
Gabon’s Omar Bongo died after 41 years as president; Guinea’s Lansana Conté had held office for 24 years when he passed away; while Meles Zenawi led Ethiopia for 21 years before succumbing to an infection. Additionally, while Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Guinea-Bissau’s João Vieira were killed in political rebellions – having served 42 and 23 years (with a break in the middle) respectively – it would probably have required their death, whether at the hand of enemies or natural causes, to relieve them of their presidential duties.
By contrast, Bolivia’s President Hugo Banzer and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, both long-standing leaders, passed on the reins of power when they learned of their ill health. One of the reasons African leaders die in office, it seems, is simply because they stay in power until they die.
A second trend that seems to differentiate African leaders from their international counterparts is that African leaders – as well as being more likely to stay in office while ill – are also more likely to run for office despite being ill.
Malawi’s Mutharika and Zambia’s Levy Mwanawasa both died in their second democratically-sanctioned term. Meanwhile Mills, Yar’Adua and Guinea-Bissau’s Malam Bacai Sanhá all entered their first and only term in ill health, passing away before it was over.
What explains these trends?
In Africa, more than in other continents, political power tends to be more personal than it is institutional. Instead of particular trade unions or industry lobby groups that represent particular social classes supporting different political parties that in turn select suitable candidates, wealthy citizens themselves often form alliances promising post-election favours in return for their support in gaining office.
In many young African nations, patronage networks rather than institutions are the key to power and wealth. Establishing allies and building trust takes time. And patronage invested in a presidential candidate can be difficult to transfer to another – even from the same party – as other contenders may have their own patronage networks. It is therefore in the interests of elites close to leaders to ensure their friend stays in office for as long as possible.
For the leaders themselves, it is much harder to derive the same benefits once out of office as before. Compared to more economically developed countries, the opportunity for the accumulation of power and wealth can be much greater in office than as a private entrepreneur. Leaving office invariably means a leader’s personal power and wealth will wane.
This does not mean the ill health of a candidate is unimportant. On the contrary, one thing Sanhá’s, Mills’, Yar’Adua’s, Mutharika’s and Zenawi’s illnesses show is the great zeal with which officials downplay or even deny the health problems of leaders. Ghanaians first found out about Mills death through the foreign press rather than through official statements, while the Malawi government initially denied Mutharika’s death.
Generalisations should, of course, be taken with a pinch of salt and the differing circumstances in each case are important. But these structural characteristics of many African political economies provide strong incentives for incumbents to stay in office and also for their allies to encourage them to do so, maybe convincing them that it really is ‘the will of the people’ that they change the constitution to run a third term, for example, or stay in office despite poor health.
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