Mugabe, Moi and now Mubarak; death favours Africa’s strongmen

Wednesday February 26 2020

Former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak died on Monday in Cairo at the age of 91. A former Air Chief Marshal in the Egyptian air force, Mubarak was president for 30 years before the Arab Spring uprising swept him out of office in February 2011.

He was then detained and tried on charges of murdering protesters but his conviction was overturned and he was acquitted by a higher court in 2017. Mubarak and his sons were, however, convicted in May 2015 of corruption.

I was a student at the American University in Cairo when Mubarak, Egypt’s longest-ruling president, who came to be dubbed “Pharaoh”, was The Man. But we didn’t call him Pharaoh.

There was then a popular Egyptian cheese with a drawing of a laughing cow and the street agreed it looked like Mubarak. As a result, among young urban Egyptians, he was known as the “laughing cow”. You could tell a friend to bring you back “a Mubarak” from the shop. But that was the only laughing matter about him; he ruled with an iron fist.

With his death at 91, we need to look afresh at the connection between authoritarian rule and longevity of African rulers.

In the past seven months, three former African strongmen have died. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, who wrecked a fine country, died in September 2019. He was ejected by his ruling Zanu-PF in alliance with the army in November 2017. Mugabe was 95.


Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s strongman from 1978 to 2002, when he stepped down after 24 years in power, died on February 4, 2020. He was 95 — although some people claimed he was over 100.

The likeable vegan and accordion-playing former president Kenneth Kaunda is going at 95. He ruled Zambia as a one-party state (1964-1991) when he lost the election upon the country’s return to multipartyism.

In Senegal, former president Abdoulaye Wade is 93. He ruled from 2000 to 2012 and was disgraced at the ballot after he tried to change the constitution and cling on.

One of the rare democrats, who went out in their nineties, was South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. He died at 95 in December 2013. He became president at 76 in 1994 and left in 1999 after one term. But in many ways, Mandela was South African president for 30 years. For most of the 27 years that he was detained by the apartheid regime, he ruled the conversation about South Africa and became a global deity. Hundreds of songs were sung about him; plays were performed; a flurry of art about him, concerts and street names in his honour flowed almost endlessly.

It made sense to retire after one term in formal office; his most dominant leadership was when he was in jail.

Democrats and reformed dictators die generally younger — when they are below 80. Guinea’s president Lansana Conté, an autocrat who became a democratic convert, died in 2008 at 74. Zambia’s Michael Sata, a democrat, died in office, in his first term, in 2014 at the age of 77.

Ghana’s John Atta Mills, a democrat, died during his first term in 2012, aged 68. Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika, a democrat of sorts, died in his second term in 2012 at 78. Guinea’s Malam Bacai Sanha, a democrat, checked out in 2012 at the age of 64, in his first term.

One of the few Iron Men to die early was Ethiopia’s implacable Meles Zenawi, in 2012. In the wider scheme of African rule, he was a baby — just 57 years old.

You get the picture. So, why does fortune seem to favour Africa’s former and current strongmen, dictators, and half-hearted democrats? It’s a subject that requires serious research and more scientific study, but there are clues.

There is a view that a strongman who assumes a godlike status like Mubarak (and other Big Men who are still around, whom we shall not name out of fear), gets a big high, an adrenalin rush, which is generally good for your health. Consider, for example, being Egypt’s autocrat Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and when you come to Parliament they roll out a red carpet for your car.

Contrast that with South Africa’s democratic President Cyril Ramaphosa, who comes to deliver the State of the Nation speech in Parliament and the opposition MPs are throwing things, heckling, and the session has to be suspended. Sisi is more likely to outlive Ramaphosa.

If you are a half-democrat or dictator, you are able to capture and redirect significant resources for your nutrition, medical care and general welfare in ways that a democrat, fearful of the people and losing the next election, just can’t.

By negative example, the longevity of our dictators is proof that high spending on nutrition and health programmes — albeit on one man and his family — are a good investment. They need to be made available to the many.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site @cobbo3