Why Do African Presidents Keep Dying?


Being an African president is a risky business. It can be fatal. We're already three down this year alone, and critically-ill Meles Zenawi looks like he'll make it four. Other continents, by and large, seem to do a better job of hanging on to their leaders. SIMON ALLISON examines Africa's strangely high presidential mortality rate.

The curse of the African president strikes again. This time, its victim was Ghana's John Atta Mills, who complained of pains on Monday last week and was dead by Tuesday afternoon. Mills was the latest in a disturbingly long line of African presidents to be unexpectedly and unceremoniously despatched to the Great Presidential Palace in Sky while still firmly ensconced in a real one.

Mills is the third this year alone. Before him was Malawi's Bingu wa Mutharika, who had a heart attack in April after over-exerting himself in an illicit sexual encounter with a female MP (according to this scandalous report, which, as much as I want it to be true, does strain the definition of credibility).

And in January, Guinea-Bissau's Malam Bacai Sanha succumbed in Paris after spending most of his two years in office in hospitals. Not Guinea Bissau hospitals, of course. As a rule, African presidents don't leave themselves at the mercy of their own health systems, not even in Guinea Bissau, which has the continent's best drug supplies (a fringe benefit of being a narco-state).

Go back just a little bit further and the list of dead sitting African presidents gets alarmingly longer. Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year, although his circumstances were rather unusual (as, of course, was he).

In 2010, it was Nigeria's Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. In 2009, Omar Bongo of Gabon. In 2008, Zambia's Levy Mwanawasa and Guinea's Lansana Conté.

Maybe it's a presidential thing. It's a stressful job. But other continents aren't affected in the same way. Since 2008, Africa has lost eight heads of state. There are only 54 states. That's a presidential mortality rate of nearly 15%; slightly higher than the infant mortality rate of Sierra Leone, which is the second highest in the world. In other words, a baby in Sierra Leone has more chance of surviving its first five years than African presidents do of getting through a few terms in office.

Contrast this with other continents. In the same time period, there was just the one presidential fatality each from Asia (the Dear Leader from North Korea), Europe (Poland's Lech Kaczy?ski, in a plane crash), and North America (David Thomson of Barbados, from cancer). South America's leaders all somehow managed to keep themselves alive, an impressive feat especially considering Hugo Chavez's increasingly shaky public appearances. Same for Australasia.

So what's happening in Africa – why do our presidents keep dying on us?

It's tempting to resort to the old cliché about death being the only thing that can separate African leaders from their grip on power. But the facts don't support this analysis. It's certainly true of Bongo, Conte and Gaddafi, all of whom were old-school dictators who were never going to stop.

But the other five were all within their constitutional term limits. And they hadn't even fiddled with those limits yet. Mutharika looked like he was about to, but never got the chance. Mills, Sanha and Yar'Adua hadn't even made it to a second term.

So the problem must lie somewhere else. Perhaps it's something to do with age. Political success tends to come later to African leaders, a function perhaps of some holding on to it for too long and a long tradition of veneration for one's elders. The average age of African heads of state is 62.5. That's pension time, or nearing it, in most countries. To give you a bit of context, the European equivalent is just 55. This is also the average age of American presidents at the time of their inauguration. Barack Obama is 50. David Cameron is 45.

Given that 62.5 is just an average, and the continent does have a few young leaders – the DRC's Joseph Kabila is just a pipsqueak at 41, while Swaziland's King Mswati III is 44 and still virile (he needs to be with all those wives) – it follows that there are also some very old leaders.

Plenty of Zimbabweans have questioned why Robert Mugabe is still alive and kicking at 89 when so many younger presidents have fallen before him. Mwai Kibaki of Kenya is 80, and rumours abound that he's exactly as alert as 80-year-olds are expected to be: that is, not very.

Age is certainly a factor in Africa's high presidential mortality rate, probably the main factor. It's a truism that the longer you live, the more chances you have to die. Life is really just one long countdown to death; you don't know when it's coming, but it's always getting closer.

Going by the averages, African presidents are more than seven years closer to their deaths than their European counterparts. The recent record seems to confirms this.

But it's not just about age. Bear in mind too that basic health indicators in Africa are, on the whole, lower than any other continent.

You might think this has nothing to do with presidents, especially when they seek treatment in exclusive foreign hospitals. But healthcare is about more than just immediate treatment. Lifestyle plays a role, and, more pertinently here, so does one's health history. Growing up without access to decent healthcare while quite probably living through some form of rebellion, civil war or chaotic independence movement is bound to have long term implications.

Whatever the reason, it's a disturbing phenomenon. Sudden deaths create power vacuums, and power vacuums can cause huge instability. Sanha's death led almost directly to the coup in Guinea Bissau and the messy transitional arrangement that doesn't look like it's working.

Mutharika's passing also prompted a few tense moments, with members of his party wanting to ignore the consitutional succession process. In the end, everything worked out well, with Mutharika's replacement, Joyce Banda, proving far more effective than he ever was.

But Banda had better look after herself. Being an African president is a dangerous business, after all.

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Analysis: Why Do African Presidents Keep Dying?

Ghana's Atta Mills is the third African Presiden to die this year alone.