Why Africa’s Dictators Live Long While Its Democrats Die Off Quickly: The Political Gods Have A Naughty Sense Of Humour

Just deceased: Ghana president Atta-Mills.

Ghana’s President John Atta Mills, died on Tuesday aged 68. If the gods of democracy exist somewhere out there, then they are sending very mixed signals to African democrats.

There is now a nearly-established fact of African politics. The strongmen and dictators not only rule longer (naturally), they also seem to live longer than the democratic ones.

In 2007 Nigerians elected Umaru Yar’Adua President. Barely three years later, in May 2010, he died, following a long illness.

Yar’Adua was the first civilian leader in Nigeria to take over from another elected one (former General Olusegun Obasanjo) through an election.

With his death, his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, stepped into his shoes.

Mills is the third African president to die this year. Malam Bacai Sanha, who was the leader of Guinea Bissau, opened the year of presidential deaths in January.

Sanha was 64 when he died on January 9. He was elected in September 2009, so like Yar’Adua, when he passed on, he had “eaten things” for barely three years.

On April 5 this year, Malawi’s president Bingu wa Mutharika died. He was 78. He did much better than Yar’Adua and Sanha, as he was in the last year of his two-terms.

Mutharika had become heavy-handed and a thug in the waning years of his rule, cracking down hard on critics and civil society.

Yar’Adua: Short stint in power before he died.

He also edged out his deputy, Joyce Banda, to make way for his younger brother Peter, to succeed him at the end of his term in 2014.

Despite that, Mutharika had at least respected presidential term limits, and not scrapped them like many African leaders do.

Then came the demise of Mills, who was in the last year of his first term.

Compare that with Libya’s eternal leader Muammar Gaddafi who was butchered in revolutionary rage in 2011 by rebels who had been fighting his rule since the start of that year.

When he staged the coup that brought him to power in 1969, Gaddafi was a “child” of 27.

At the time of his demise last year, he was 69 and had been in power for 42 years. So, while he was about the same age as Mills, he had been in power six times longer.

And if Libya hadn’t risen in revolt, Gaddafi — like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe who is 88-years-old and has been in power for 32 years — looked like the kind of chap who was going to live to the ripe age of 100.

At first glance, the conclusion here seems to be that if you want to live long in Africa, be a dictator, not a democrat.

Obviously, there is no hard scientific reason for the greater perils democratic African presidents face. However, there are a few environmental factors we can examine.

Africa has had many young presidents: Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara became President in 1983 at the age of 35. Liberia’s Samuel Doe was 29 in 1980 when he became President.

And next door in Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi — who is reportedly quite ill — became President in 1991 when he was 36.

Meles was a rebel leader; the others staged military coups. It is nearly impossible for one to become an elected President in Africa when he/she is youthful.

If you want the throne early, you go to the bush and fight for it, or stage a coup.

The democratic route takes long. Thus Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade was 74 (and possibly older) when he became President in 2000 after running — and losing — in presidential polls four times.

President Kibaki was 71 when he came to power at the end of 2002, after two unsuccessful bids.

Guinea Bissau’s Sanah opened the way to a bad 2012 for African presidents when he died in January.

Being a democrat in Africa is very hard work, and you suffer many heartbreaks along the way (not everyone can handle being cheated for three or four times at an election without being messed up).

A soldier or rebel leader grabbing power at 35 begins enjoying the best healthcare his country can buy for him abroad early.

By the time democrats take power in Africa, most of them are old or damaged.

Apart from having been in prison for 27 years, Nelson Mandela was 76 when he became President in 1994 after his release.

He stepped down after just one term — the first and last African leader to do so.

He was smart to get out early. Last week he celebrated his 94th birthday.

•Also published in Daily Nation (http://www.nation.co.ke/oped/Opinion/-/440808/1463222/-/loj6w6z/-/index.html), July 26, 2012.

• cobbo@ke.nationmedia.com / twitter@cobbo3

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