Home The Washington Diplomat April 2019 Continent’s Longest-Serving Leaders Stay Put While Lining Their Pockets

Continent’s Longest-Serving Leaders Stay Put While Lining Their Pockets

Continent’s Longest-Serving Leaders Stay Put While Lining Their Pockets


In 2005, Sudanese-British entrepreneur Mohammed “Mo” Ibrahim sold the mobile phone company, Celtel, that he’d built from scratch into a business with 24 million subscribers in 14 African countries — nearly a third of the continent. With part of the $3.4 billion he netted from the sale, Ibrahim set up a foundation that bears his name. The aim of the foundation is to encourage better governance in Africa.

Two years later, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation awarded the first Ibrahim prize for achievement in African leadership to Mozambique’s former head of state, Joaquim Alberto Chissano. Elected in 1994 when Mozambique held its first multi-party elections after a brutal 15-year civil war, and re-elected in 1999, Chissano was selected for the prize, which has purse of $5 million over 10 years, $200,000 annually for life after that, and up to $200,000 a year for 10 years for public interest activities and good causes. The panel that selected him also praised him for not seeking a third term in office in 2004, even though he could have under Mozambique’s constitution.

The following year, Festus Mogae of Botswana won the Ibrahim prize “for his role in maintaining and consolidating Botswana’s stability and prosperity in the face of an HIV/AIDS pandemic which threatened the future of his country and people.”

But for more than half of its existence, the Ibrahim prize has not had a winner. No one was awarded the prize in 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 or 2018. In an interview with Forbes magazine in 2014, Ibrahim said he was disappointed by how few African leaders are worthy of the prize. “It goes to show that governance and leadership in Africa is miles away from where we want it to be. It’s a work in progress,” he said.


Slim Pickings

One reason the pickings are slim for the Ibrahim award is that laureates have to be former heads of state, but leaving office at the end of their terms is something many African leaders seem to have a hard time doing.

a2.africa.congo.kerry.nguesso.storyBy way of illustration: If you were to add together the years that Africa’s five longest incumbent leaders have been in power, and subtract them from this year, you’d be taken back to 1842, or 1835 if you count the seven years Cameroon’s Paul Biya served as prime minister before becoming president. That’s at least a generation before America’s Civil War. In total, the top 10 longest-serving leaders in Africa have held power for over 300 years.

African leaders also disqualify themselves from the Ibrahim prize on other counts. They have to have left office in the three years preceding their nomination for the prize, have been democratically elected, served their constitutionally mandated term and have demonstrated exceptional leadership. The longest-serving president in Africa, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has been in power in Equatorial Guinea for nearly 40 years. He’s disqualified because he came to power through a coup in 1979, is still in power, and the many elections that have returned him to power have been regarded by observers and opponents as fraudulent and undemocratic.

The third longest-serving African leader, Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, has been president of the smaller of the two Congos since 1997 but was also president from 1979 to 1992. The government formally abandoned its one-party system in 1990 and held multiparty elections in 1992. Sassou Nguesso placed third while Pascal Lissouba was democratically elected as president. Sassou Nguesso served as an opposition leader until he returned to power in 1997, during Congo’s second civil war, when forces loyal to him ousted Lissouba.

Sassou Nguesso went on to win a largely uncontested presidential election in 2002 and was re-elected in 2009 to what, under Congo’s constitution, should have been his last term in office. But, as many African presidents have done, he changed the constitution to allow himself to run again by eliminating term limits. Sassou Nguesso officially garnered more than 60 percent of the vote in the 2016 election, which sadly, like many elections in Africa, was dismissed as fraudulent by observers and opposition figures.

a2.africa.uganda.museveni.storyLikewise, in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, who’s been in office since 1986 and once even blamed Africa’s ills on leaders “who overstay in power,” changed the constitution to eliminate age caps, effectively allowing him to remain president for life.

Even Rwandan President Paul Kagame, once hailed as the poster-child of reform and good governance by the West, amended the country’s constitution to stand for re-election. Kagame, who first came to power in 2000, could now potentially remain in office until 2034.

There is little doubt, however, that Kagame, who has been transformative in helping Rwanda recover from the 1994 genocide that tore the country apart, enjoys legitimate popular support at home. And despite allegations that he’s stifled political dissent, Kagame insists that the majority of Rwandans agree that the country needs a strong, steady hand to ensure continued progress and security.

Likewise, Serge Mombouli, ambassador of the Republic of Congo, says stability and development take precedence over democracy for many Africans. Speaking at The Washington Diplomat’s Ambassador Insider Series discussion on Feb. 28, Mombouli lamented that Western media often paint Africa in a negative light while ignoring the significant strides the continent has made — particularly in the face of tremendous historical injustices. “Nobody talks about colonization, nobody talks about slavery, which are the pasts of Congo and are the pasts of Africa,” he said.

He also argued that the West places a microscope on African leaders while overlooking other leaders around the world who have been in power for long stretches of time, such as Lee Kuan Yew, a key U.S. ally who governed Singapore for three decades. “They single out Africa too much,” he said.

Above all, Mombouli — who himself is one of the longest-serving ambassadors in Washington — says democracy is not a priority for many Africans in the face of daily struggles. What Africa’s people need from the U.S. is investment, not criticism, he insisted. “They need food, they need doctors so that they survive, they need water they can drink. All of that costs money.”

Yet some experts say the argument that economic development should come before democracy doesn’t hold water.

“In the past 10 years it has become fashionable to argue that democracy is not good for development in Africa,” wrote Nic Cheeseman in a Feb. 22 article for Mail & Guardian. “But this is wrong. Instead, nine times out of 10, authoritarianism is bad for development and the quality of governance,” he said, citing a report by the Bertelsmann Transformation Index.

And while African nations certainly aren’t the only ones with rulers who’ve overstayed their welcome, the continent is home to a disproportionate number of these so-called leaders for life — roughly half of the top 20 longest-serving leaders in the world are, in fact, from Africa.


Uneven Change

a2.africa.zimbabwe.mugabe.storyChange does occur, but sometimes only because even the longest-serving leader can’t escape one inevitable reality: their own mortality. That was the case with Gabon’s Omar Bongo, who died in office after nearly 42 years in power, and Togo’s Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who died after nearly 38 years in power; in both cases their sons took the reins of power.

Other times, change does come voluntarily, albeit gradually. Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after 38 years in office. He was succeeded by João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, who has since made strides in tackling the country’s entrenched corruption.

Other departures are decidedly involuntary. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe clung to power for 37 years, but even his own party elite became fed up with the aging ruler and ousted him in 2017.

While Mugabe went peacefully, others did not. The Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 saw longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi killed and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak imprisoned.

Mubarak has since been released and the hopeful fervor of the Arab Spring has largely been stamped out. But frustration with Africa’s entrenched elites continues to simmer and occasionally explodes into the open.

Following a wave of protests across Algeria, the country’s enfeebled, wheelchair-bound president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, reversed course and decided not to run for a fifth term. Bouteflika, 82, has been in power for 20 years but has rarely been seen in public since he suffered a stroke in 2013. Under intense pressure, he postponed elections that were set for April, but it remains to be seen how long Bouteflika will stay in office until new elections are called and whether the ruling elite will allow a free and fair poll.

Meanwhile, in Sudan, demonstrations that began to protest a hike in the price of bread have morphed into a nationwide movement to oust President Omar al-Bashir, who has ruled the impoverished nation with an iron grip for 30 years. So far, though, Bashir has refused to back down in the face of the protests, declaring a state of emergency and jailing hundreds of demonstrators.

a2.africa.sudan.bashir.storyLikewise, clashes erupted in Burundi when President Pierre Nkurunziza flouted the constitution to run for a third term in 2015. His move triggered deadly unrest in the already violence-weary nation and sent a surge of Burundians fleeing to neighboring countries. In 2018, Burundians voted in a referendum to increase the presidential term from five to seven years, but limit presidents to two consecutive terms — unless their name is Pierre Nkurunziza. The incumbent, who’s been in office for 14 years, is allowed by the constitutional amendments to run twice again, even though he’s currently in his third term. Nkurunziza has vowed, however, that he will step down in 2020, much to the chagrin of his skeptics.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), President Joseph Kabila, who took over the vast, troubled country after his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated in January 2001, first delayed elections that were supposed to be held in December 2016. Then, according to numerous sources, he skewed the results once the vote was finally held in December last year.

The surprise winner, opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi, was sworn in as the DRC’s new president in late January despite numerous indications that another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, won the race. Speculation has since been rife that Kabila struck a backroom deal with Tshisekedi to rig the election as a way of preserving his influence. Now a senator for life, Kabila has not ruled out running for president again in 2023.

“U.S. Ambassador Michael Hammer heralded the moment as the ‘first-ever peaceful, democratic transfer of power’ in the country,” wrote Michelle Gavin, a former U.S. ambassador to Botswana and current senior fellow for African studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It may have been peaceful, but it was democratic only in the way that a movie set’s facades are actual buildings. They look right at a glance, but once you peer inside, there is nothing there.”


Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Why the allure to stay in an African presidential palace once they’re in? Because, explains George Ayittey, an economist in residence at American University and founder and president of the Washington-based Free Africa Foundation, many African leaders see government as a vehicle “not to serve, but to fleece the people.” Once in power, they quickly understand “that they could use the enormous power vested in the state to amass private wealth, punish their rivals, and perpetuate themselves in office,” Ayittey wrote in his book, “Applied Economics for Africa.”

In many African countries, government has been “hijacked by a phalanx of unrepentant bandits and vagabonds in Ray-Ban goggles, who used the machinery of the state to enrich themselves, their cronies and their tribesmen,” Ayittey said in a TED talk. “The richest people in Africa are heads of state and ministers. Where did they get their money? By creating wealth? No. By raking it off the backs of their suffering people.”

It’s difficult to calculate accurately how much wealth African leaders had before coming to power and after they left, because of the way they came about their wealth — through corruption and stealth, said Ayittey. But amass it, they did. Mobutu Sese Seko, the despotic, eccentric leader who ruled Zaire (the name he gave the Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1965 to 1997, illicitly raked in between $1 billion and $5 billion for himself and his family. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was just over $200 in Zaire in 1985. By 1997, when Mobutu was chased from power and out of Zaire by Laurent-Désiré Kabila (Joseph’s father), per-capita GDP had fallen to around $139, according to the World Bank.

a2.africa.cameroon.annan.biya.storyCameroonian President Paul Biya is estimated to be worth some $200 million. Much of his wealth is in European real estate, according to Quebec-based website TheRichest.com. In contrast, per-capita GDP in Cameroon in 2017 was $1,450 and, as of 2001, around a third of the country lived in poverty, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo is believed to be worth between $200 million and $400 million. The president’s lavish spending was on full display during the 2006 U.N. General Assembly, where he and his entourage racked up a $400,000 hotel bill for a five-night stay. In 2008, France launched an investigation into property acquisitions by Sassou Nguesso and his family. The French probe also targeted President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and Bongo, Gabon’s then-president and the father of current President Ali Bongo.

The wealth amassed by Obiang during his long reign in the tiny, oil-rich central African nation has been estimated by Forbes magazine to be around $600 million. His son, Teodorin, was sentenced in absentia by a French court in 2017 to three years in prison. He was also given a suspended fine of €30 million for embezzlement, money laundering, corruption and abuse of trust, and he had his €107 million mansion near the Champs-Elysées confiscated.

“Obiang, who was appointed a vice-president by his father, was accused of spending more than 1,000 times his official annual salary on the six-story mansion in one of Paris’s most exclusive postal codes, as well as a fleet of fast cars and artwork, among other assets,” Angelique Chrisafis of The Guardian newspaper wrote. “The house was decorated with more than €40m [million] worth of furniture, including a €1.6m Louis XV desk, a Rodin sculpture and a dozen Fabergé eggs. Obiang owned two Bugatti Veyrons, the most expensive and fastest street car in the world, costing about €1m a piece and capable of reaching 250 mph — part of luxury fleet that filled the garages around the cobbled courtyard of his mansion.”

And yet, wrote the British newspaper, “In 2000, when Obiang began building up his car collection, Equatorial Guinea was on paper the wealthiest African country per inhabitant, yet a majority of its people lived below the U.N. poverty line.”


Like Father, Like Son

a2.africa.libya.gaddafi.storyObiang and Sassou Nguesso aren’t the only African leaders who have showered their sons and other close relatives with riches. Gaddafi did it in Libya. Mubarak in Egypt. Eyadéma in Togo. Bongo in Gabon. In fact, the public sector in Africa “is packed with cronies, relatives and party hacks in a multiplicity of parallel institutions and ministries with overlapping functions,” Ayittey told The Washington Diplomat by email. They’re royally paid and have perks that would make many Western government workers seriously consider moving to Africa. And there’s a reason for that: It keeps them loyal to the president.

Many African countries also have top-heavy bureaucracies. Take Ghana, where Ayittey originally hails from. The West African country had 110 cabinet and regional ministers, along with deputies to the ministers, in 2017. It also had a redundancy of ministries: a ministry of aviation, ministry of roads and highways, ministry of roads and transport, ministry of ports and railways — all of which could have been incorporated into a single ministry of transport, which also existed, said Ayittey.

In each ministry, there are principal secretaries, deputy principal secretaries, assistant deputy principal secretaries and so on. Then, there are governors, regional ministers and their deputies, senators and members of parliament. The U.S., by comparison, has 20 cabinet officials, including Vice President Mike Pence. But the big difference between the U.S. and other wealthy nations, and many of the low- and middle-income countries in Africa (and Asia and South America) is not how many government officials there are but how much they’re paid.

a2.africa.top10.sidebar.storyIn many African countries, even officials who are not given free rein to buy sumptuous mansions in Paris are paid handsomely and enjoy enviable perks. In South Africa, one of the more transparent countries in Africa, the president was paid roughly $198,000 a year in 2017, cabinet members received an annual salary of $168,000 and deputy ministers received about $138,000, according to AfricaCheck.org. By comparison, a member of the U.S. Congress made $174,000 in 2017.

Political Perks 

In addition to African politicos’ and bureaucrats’ base salaries, they get numerous perks. In South Africa, these are outlined in a document called the Ministerial Handbook, which is supposed to be secret, but which journalists got their hands on and published several years ago. In 2007, the handbook showed that ministers got 25 percent of their salary to put toward the purchase, maintenance and insurance of a private vehicle — whether or not they bought a car. They were entitled to buy two other official cars valued at no more than 70 percent of their salary for use in Pretoria and Cape Town; and could maintain two houses.

South Africa’s cabinet was expanded by former President Jacob Zuma (estimated net worth of $20 million) when he took office in 2009. That expansion continued during Zuma’s second term.

“We are very concerned about the size of our cabinet, which is among the biggest in the world,” Kaizer Nyatsumba, CEO of the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa, said in a statement. “A developing country like ours, with a small tax base and whose economy has been seriously under-performing, cannot afford such a bloated cabinet.”

Zuma stepped down in 2018 after being dogged for years by allegations of corruption and crimes, including rape. Reports in South Africa say that he, like his predecessors, will continue to receive a very comfortable salary until the day he dies. When Cyril Ramaphosa took office in 2018, he announced that he would downsize government to make it more efficient. He has yet to make good on that promise, but just saying it makes Ramaphosa a rare bird among African leaders because, as Nyatsumba said, “Cabinet appointments offer the president an opportunity to reward his supporters.”

And the rewards they’re given help to buy their loyalty. Many countries’ elites, including top government officials, are essentially in the pocket of the president, said Ayittey. In many cases, the perception of these officials and anyone else who gets a government salary is that if the president were to go, so would their luxury lifestyle. “Government officials and bureaucrats get excellent perks. That is why they remain so loyal to the incumbent,” said Ayittey.

In many countries, those perks extend to the head of the electoral commission, who can then be persuaded to swing an election in favor of the guy who’s giving him those perks, i.e. the president. “The electoral commissioner in the DRC gets some nice perks,” so when Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the candidate handpicked by Kabila to succeed him in office, made a poor showing in the December 2018 elections, “the election was swung in favor of Felix Tshisekedi instead of Martin Fayulu, who had vowed to chase and prosecute the corrupt,” noted Ayittey.

Buying off supporters trickles down through the ranks and isn’t a uniquely African phenomenon. In crisis-ridden Venezuela, where food and medicines are scarce, inflation is untethered, the once-buoyant economy is in freefall and a seething political crisis is unfolding, most of the military is still on the side of embattled President Nicolás Maduro. They, like many soldiers in Africa, are “bought with fat paychecks,” said Ayittey.

Moreover, soldiers who have perpetuated human rights abuses on behalf of their bosses — whether in Venezuela or Zimbabwe — are reluctant to abandon the ruling government for fear of being prosecuted for their crimes under a new government.

Lucrative Business

a2.africa.equatorial.guinea.obama.obiang.storyLongtime African leaders are also reluctant to leave because “occupying the presidency is a lucrative business,” said Ayittey. “State controls allow African leaders to extract resources which are used to build personal fortunes and dispensed as patronage to buy political support.” Few, if any, leaders in Africa come from a business background. “None of them made their wealth in the private sector, creating or producing something,” Ayittey charged. “So they cannot teach the youth anything about wealth creation. By contrast, the richest person in the U.S. is Jeff Bezos, who has Amazon.com to show for his wealth.” Even Donald Trump made his money as a businessman.

In contrast, many long-serving African leaders have military backgrounds and although they come into the presidency with modest sums in their bank accounts, they’re often millionaires by the time they leave. During his nearly five-year reign, Nigerian Gen. Sani Abacha, for example, oversaw “a web of corruption that Nigerians and oil industry sources say plundered billions of dollars from the country,” wrote James Rupert in The Washington Post on the day in June 1998 when Abacha died.

“While he ruled Nigeria from a fortified presidential villa in Nigeria’s capital … he and a circle of aides and business partners tapped virtually every stage of the oil business, Nigeria’s most important industry and the source of 80 percent of its government revenue,” Rupert wrote. “They took kickbacks from foreign companies for licenses to search for oil in the basin and delta of the Niger River and offshore. They got bribes from construction firms that won contracts to build drilling rigs and pipelines.”

By siphoning off money intended to allow Nigerian state-owned refineries to turn crude oil into exportable, revenue-producing fuel, the Abacha regime created a domestic gasoline shortage that forced Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer, to import refined fuels. Citing a political scientist who asked not to be named, Rupert wrote that “in Nigeria, corruption isn’t part of government, it’s the object of government.”

Africans have been seeking the solution to their predicament since independence from colonial rule in the 1960s, but few countries have found it. The West, including the U.S., hasn’t helped to remedy the problem. The U.S. propped up Mobutu in Zaire because the strongman was staunchly anti-communist during the Cold War. For years, American lawmakers applied the motto that “he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch” to a string of long-self-serving dictators including Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza DeBayle, Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, South Korea’s Syngman Rhee, China’s Chiang Kai-shek, Indonesia’s Suharto and Iran’s Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, among many others.

Also no help to countries trying to oust corrupt leaders is the fact that the U.S. and other wealthy nations currently have leaders who themselves are hardly paragons of virtue (also see “So Much for the Swamp” in the March 2019 issue of The Washington Diplomat). But countries like the U.S. still have checks and balances to deal with self-enriching leaders while most African countries do not.

“The presidency in African countries is lucrative so there is intense competition to capture it — competition which often degenerates into civil war,” Ayittey said.

“In many cases, reform is synonymous with political suicide,” he added. “Africa remains poor because the elites go into government not to serve but to fleece the people.”

About the Author

Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.