IN just under five months Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe will blow out the candles on his 91st birthday cake, and shortly on in April 2015, mark 25 years as the country’s most powerful politician.
He has also shown interest in contesting the country’s next general election in 2018 - when he would be 95 - despite a vicious succession battle raging behind the scenes. If this comes to pass, it would extremely upset his many critics, most of who blame his controversial land redistribution programme and corruption for the unraveling of what was once a model post-independence African economy. If only he would relinquish his long and tight hold of power, that beloved trait of African leaders who will only leave in a wheelchair, all would be well, many of them say.
Further fuelling the longevity view, this 2012 story noted that while it is rare for the leader of a country to die in office, since 2008 it has happened 13 times—and 10 of these had been in Africa (curiously, no other African leader has died in office since then, suggesting this was a golden age of sorts—before 2008 only four of the 31 world leaders who died in office were African).
Indeed Mugabe is now the world’s oldest serving state leader—a term that covers heads of state or government—after Israel’s Shimon Peres called it a day in July at the age of 90.
But are leaders in Africa, more than any other region, given to “hanging on forever” and a love for office? On the surface it would appear so—the continent is after all home to long-ruling A-listers such as Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Swaziland’s King Mswati III, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Cameroon’s Paul Barthélemy Biya.
However a closer look at the numbers suggests otherwise. Of the 10 oldest serving world leaders, this time counting even monarchs—Mugabe is the only entrant from Africa. Asia has five, and Europe has three, including Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
Africa again leads if we focus on the oldest ever leaders of state, with the resounding 1994 electoral loss of Malawi’s Hastings Kamuzu Banda coming when he was at the official age of 96 (many believe he was at least 100 years old). But of the ten world leaders in this class, Banda has only Mugabe for African company; Europe has four representatives.
Africa’s pre-independence history is however dotted with monarchies, and surely this would be a good bet for continental leaders who went on and on ahead of global peers? Wrong. Of the 50 longest-ruling monarchs on record, only one was from Africa. Again, the region takes the top position—Swaziland’s King Sobhuza II was verifiably in office for only 82 years, starting 1899.
But only when you extend the count to 170 leaders do you find another African representative—Burundi’s King Mwambutsa IV, a man who lived mostly in Switzerland but still managed to weigh in with 50 years. Europe has the lion’s share, followed by Asia.
Time to abandon easy explanations
A widespread problem for historians has been the fudging of years. If the reigns of leaders which cannot be verified are counted, Africa takes its now customary top position, with Pepi II Nefekare of ancient Egypt believed to have been in office for 94 years, ending in 2184 BC. But there is no other leader from Africa in the top 25 of this category, while only seven make it into the top 100.
What about the leaders who lived longest? Of the top ten there is none under Africa, suggesting life expectancy also applies to the region’s otherwise immortal leaders, despite accusations that they live lives that are far removed from the reality of their subjects.
While the trappings of power—cutting edge medications, specialist doctors at beck and call, evacuation to the best hospitals abroad - might be more obvious, experts have noted that even these do not compensate for a tough early childhood, and indeed might even be a bit of a “culture” shock to an African body unused to having so much all at once.
Seemingly in support, no African leader makes the list of the ten leaders who lived longest, carved up neatly between the West and Asia and who all marched past a century.
Of those who are still alive, only Benin’s Émile Derlin Zinsou who was in office for only a year (1968-69) makes it from Africa among the top ten leaders. He is currently 96. As expected the West dominates, with four uber-veterans, while Asia has three.
The overarching sentiment is that the tendency for African leaders for overtime is an easy explanation for the continent’s ills, but a closer look suggests we should perhaps look elsewhere for an answer—such as the actual quality of governance, or the conflation of non-reformist policies with marginalisation and the inequitable distribution of resources.