Between 2005 and 2012, 11 African leaders have died of natural causes or Killed while serving as Heads of State. 2012 alone saw the deaths of four sitting African presidents. These deaths can create instability in their respective countries and regions, while nations are often thrown into a period of mourning.
There are a number of theories about why African leaders are dying in office with such frequency; however most of them have their critics. The more pertinent fact is that most of the leaders we looked at were treated in (and in many cases spent their final moments in) hospitals outside their homeland. This is a stinging indictment of healthcare on the continent and one wonders if many of these leaders would still be at the helm if they had access to better healthcare sooner.
Where leaders died in office there was usually a period of national mourning and a fittingly grand state funeral. The most recent deaths of sitting African leaders have been followed by relatively peaceful transfers of power – prompting Africans to hope the continent’s democracies have matured in recent years.
Gnassingbe Eyadema, President of Togo (2005)
Eyadama, who was 69 at the time of his death, was the president of Togo from 1967 to 2005. He came to power following a coup, and survived several assassination attempts while in office. He also survived a 1974 plane crash and had a monument constructed to commemorate his survival. He falsely claimed to be the only survivor of the clash. The eccentric leader had an entourage who sang and danced his praises, a comic book depicting him as a superhero and a bronze statue of his likeness in the capital. In 1998 Ivorian novelist Ahmadou Kourouma wrote a novel called Waiting For The Wild Beasts To Vote, the novel was inspired by Eyadema and proved to be a satirical indictment of the dictator’s rule.
On 5 February 2005, at the time the longest-serving head of state in Africa, he passed away from a heart attack while on board a plane. He was reportedly on his way to receive emergency treatment abroad.
John de Mabior Garang, vice-president of Sudan (2005)
Born on June 23, 1945 at Wagkulei in Jonglei (Sudan). He lost his father at age of nine and her mother at eleven years. When Sudan gained independence on January 1, 1956, he was only ten years. In 1970, he joined the Sudanese Armed Forces. The peace agreement signed between the Anya-Anyas and President Gaafar El-Nimeiri* integrates guerrillas Anya-Anyas in the regular army. In 1972, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. He served respectively in the province of Upper Nile, Bahr el Ghazal, in Torit Garrison before being assigned to the Military College of Sudan as an infantry instructor. In 1974, he returned to the United States for military training at Fort Benning in Georgia, then resumed his studies at Iowa State University. In 1981, he earned a doctorate in agricultural economics before returning to Sudan. From 1976 to 1977, he was appointed to the agriculture and director of military research headquarters in Khartoum, the Sudanese Armed Forces Military Division. Responsible for bringing the rebels to reason, he becomes their leader and founded the People's Liberation Movement (S.P.L.M.) and its armed wing: the People's Liberation Army (S.P.L.A.). His main objective is to secure the formation of a non-discrimination and the right to self-determination of the peoples of South Sudan (Dinka, Nuer, Nuba, Shilluk ...) secular government.
Pascal Yoadimnadji, Prime Minister of Chad (2007)
Yoadimnadji was only the Prime Minister of the North African nation for two years when he was felled by a brain haemorrhage in Paris. The former lawyer served as the head of the National Electoral Commission for two years, a role that saw him oversee the 1996 presidential election in Chad. Thereafter he served in several ministerial roles. His portfolios included Minister of Mines, Energy and Oil; Minister of Tourist Development; Minister of the Environment and Water and Minister of Agriculture. He also served as the President of the Constitutional Council for five years until he was appointed Prime Minister by President Idriss Deby.
In February 2007 Yoadimnadji suffered a heart attack which landed him in a coma. He was then flown to Paris France, where he later died of a brain haemorrhage. He passed away at Val de Grace military hospital at the age of 56. His death was followed by a week of national mourning in Chad.
Lansana Conte, President of Guinea (2008)
In 2008, after 24 years in power Guinea’s second president passed away after years of battling what is believed to have been heart disease and diabetes. Conte came to power on 5 April 1984 following a coup. A career soldier Conte served three years with the French army before he spent more than two decades in the Guinean Army where he attained the rank of general. His rule started out well with positive economic reforms; however his rule was increasingly marked by electoral fraud, popular riots and successive assassination attempts. In the three years prior to his death he left the country seeking medical care in Morocco and Switzerland on several occasions. 40 days of national mourning was declared following his death and his body was displayed at the parliament buildings and at the national stadium.
Following his death a military group called National Council for Democracy and Development seized power and announced their intention of ruling for two years.
Levy Mwanawasa, President of Zambia (2008)
Zambia’s third president and a highly respected statesman, Mwanawasa died as a result of complications following a stroke. Mwanawasa was a high profile lawyer before becoming Vice President in 1991. That same year he was involved in a serious car accident, reportedly an assassination attempt, which resulted in him being hospitalised for three months. In 2001, he won an election in order to succeed corrupt former president Frederick Chiluba. As president Mwanawasa was fearless in his pursuit of corrupt government officials. His anti-corruption drive drew a massive amount of debt relief and foreign investment to the country, helping the country’s economic growth to improve by 6% a year. He was also a vocal critic of President Robert Mugabe of neighbouring Zimbabwe.
In July 2008, while attending the African Union summit in Cairo, Mwanawasa was evacuated to France by air ambulance following a stroke. There were conflicting reports about his health, with some sources claiming he had died while official statements claimed he was recovering well. He was reported dead on 19 August, seven weeks after the stroke. The country went into 21 days of national mourning.
Vieira, João Bernardo, president of Bissau-Guinea (2009)
Born on April 27, 1939, president of Guinea-Bissau (1980-99, 2005-09). A pioneer of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, he was sent to Conakry, Guinea, for military training. On his return, he built up a legendary reputation for skill and bravery as a guerrilla leader in the long war against the Portuguese. In 1961 he went on a guerrilla instruction course to China and later received further training in the U.S.S.R., Algeria, and Cuba. Military chief of Catió (1961-64) and of the southern front (1964-65), he developed tactics that were a key factor in defeating the Portuguese. After Guinea-Bissau became independent in 1974, he was appointed state commissioner for the armed forces and president of the National Assembly. In 1978 he became prime minister. On Nov. 14, 1980, two days after the Assembly had adopted a new constitution that virtually denuded the office of premier of its powers, he led a coup that overthrew Pres. Luís de Almeida Cabral. It was seen as a move by the blacks of the mainland to separate themselves from the mestizo-dominated Cape Verdians. It took some time for him to establish his position firmly; this was greatly helped after he released Cabral from prison in January 1982. He legalized opposition parties in 1991 and legitimized his rule in Guinea-Bissau's first multiparty elections in 1994. A period of instability led to an army rebellion in June 1998 and eight months of fighting between loyalists of Vieira and the army chief, Gen. Ansumane Mané, who overthrew Vieira in 1999. He then lived in exile in Portugal but returned April 7, 2005, to be an independent presidential candidate in the June 19 elections. He came second in the first round but won the runoff on July 24. He was killed in his palace by renegade soldiers in 2009.
Omar Bongo Ondimba, President of Gabon (2009)
Bongo, who had served as president of Gabon for 41 years at the time of his death in 2009, was a petite stylish man. Gabon was ruled by his regime until 1990 when he conceded to public pressure and introduced multi-party politics. For most of his rule Bongo had a close relationship with Gabon’s former colonial masters France. He managed to bring many opposition leaders on board, sometimes by negotiation but mostly by bribing them with a slice of the nation’s vast Oil wealth. Bongo reportedly rigged elections in 1993, 1998 and 2005; although by 2005 the opposition was lacklustre. His 41-year rule is the fifth longest for a non-royal national leader since 1870. In 2009 he was found to have 33 properties in France with a combined value of more than 125 million pounds in addition to 86 million pounds in US bank accounts.
In 2009 reports emerged that Bongo was receiving treatment for cancer in a hospital in Barcelona. According to an official statement from the Gabonese Prime Minister Bongo died of a heart attack on 8 June 2009. His body lay in state for five days before his state funeral on 16 June.
Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, President of Nigeria (2010)
In office for just shy of three years, Nigerian President Yar’Adua passed away aged 58 after receiving treatment for pericarditis in Saudi Arabia. Yar’Adua came to power following the controversial elections in 2007. He was the first Nigerian leader in 40 years to have been University educated with a B.Sc. degree in Education and Chemistry as well as a M.Sc. degree in Analytical Chemistry. He went on to become a chemistry teacher, before holding various board positions in the corporate world. He became involved in politics in the 80s and won his first position in 1998. Yar’Adua won 70% of the vote in the 2007 presidential election; however observers and opposition parties vehemently claimed the election had been rigged in his favour. While president of Nigeria he gained the scornful nickname Baba-go-slow, however the quiet chain-smoker was also responsible for targeting corruption and reforming banking in Nigeria. He also negotiated a ceasefire in the troubled delta region.
His presidency was marked by ill-health with several visits to Germany and Saudi Arabia for treatment of a chronic kidney condition. He returned to Nigeria in February while reportedly on life support and passed away on 5 May. Seven days of national mourning were observed following his death.
Malam Bacai Sanha, President of Guinea Bissau (2012)
Following two and a half years in office, Guinea Bissau president Malam Bacai Sanha died in Paris aged 64. Sanha was a prominent figure in the West African country’s liberation struggle after he joined the African Party of Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) as a teenager. He started his political career as a governor in the Gabu and Biombo regions. He went on to hold down several cabinet positions. He was appointed acting president of Guinea Bissau from 14 May 1999-17 February 2000 by a military junta following a Civil War as a result of his critical stance on former president Joao Bernardo Vieira. He won the 2009 presidential elections and immediately introduced reforms to tackle the cocaine trade. This resulted in an attempted coup. Following the coup he was forced to accept one of the leaders of the rebellion, Bubo Na Tchuto, as head of the navy – this was despite Tchuto being named one of the stalwarts of the cocaine trade in Guinea Bissau.
His struggled with diabetes throughout his presidency, and a stint in a Senegalese hospital was followed by treatment in the Val-de-Grace military hospital in Paris. He passed away in the French hospital on 9 January 2012.
Bingu wa Mutharika, President of Malawi (2012)
Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika passed away on 5 April 2012 aged 78 after just under eight years in the top job. Mutharika had a distinguished career as an economist, working as a Loans Officer at the World Bank as well as a Director of Trade and Development Finance at the United Nations Economic Commission of Africa, and as Secretary General of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (CO.M.E.S.A.). Mutharika was believed to have ambitions of holding the presidency for decades before, he ascended to the top job. He launched a failed presidential bid in 1999, although five years later he managed to secure the presidency and was re-elected in 2009. During his first term Mutharika was a glowing example of good governance as he spearheaded ambitious agricultural initiatives, overhauled Malawi’s foreign policy and promised political reforms. He was also the chairman of the African Union from 31 January 2010 -31 January 2011. In 2010, his behaviour grew erratic and repressive, growing intolerant towards critics and seeking constitutional reforms in order to secure a third term as president. At this time Malawi was being hit hard by the global recession, and inflation had risen to triple figures. Following the deaths of 18 protesters at the hands of soldiers and police firing live bullets at a demonstration, international donors removed aid to the nation.
Mutharika died on 5 April 2012 in a South African hospital, however his death was only officially confirmed two days later when Vice-President Joyce Banda was sworn in as Malawi’s president.
John Atta Mills, President of Ghana (2012)
Ghanaian president John Atta Mills passed away aged 68 on 24 July 2012. Mills had a long and distinguished academic career. He earned a law degree from the University of Ghana, an LLM from the London School of Economics followed by a doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
He was also a Fulbright scholar at Stanford University. Mills played for the national hockey team, and he was an avid football fan. He then became a Professor of Law at the University of Ghana. He served two terms as Vice-President of Ghana, serving under Jerry Rawlings. He stood for two presidential elections, in 2000 and 2004, but was unsuccessful on both occasions. Finally in 2008 the man affectionately known as ‘The Prof’ or won the election by a margin of less than one percent and was inaugurated the following year. He started an austerity programme and oversaw Ghana’s first commercial oil production.
Throughout his presidency there were rumours of his death, with Mills even joking that such rumours were ‘exaggerated’. He travelled to the U.S.A. for treatment for throat cancer earlier in 2012, before passing away on 24 July 2012 at the 37 Military Hospital in Accra. His body lay in state for three days before a state funeral which was attended by numerous international dignitaries as well as over 50 000 people. The following day was declared a national day or mourning and it is estimated that the funeral drew a television and online audience of well over 20 million people.
Based on the Article of Kate Hodges, published in Nigeria Intel on January 10, 2013.