Exile and executions no more - democracy has made Africa a safer place for its Big Men (with revealing graphics)

Between 1960-75 47% of Africa’s leaders were either exiled, assassinated, executed, killed in a coup or imprisoned

AFTER five years of exile in South Africa, Madagascar’s former leader, Marc Ravalomanana, took the plunge and returned to his native country a few days ago. 

Almost immediately Ravalomanana was detained by police and, though his family issued a statement of concern for his well-being, Madagascar’s new president, Henry Rajaonarimampianina, assured the public that the former leader was detained for his “own safety”, and now there are suggestions he will now play a role in the island’s reconcilation process.  

Proving how much it is out of touch with the times, the African Union (AU) rushed to issue a statement strongly condemning Ravalomanana for returning home, accusing him of trying to destabilise the country by doing so!

Though these actions on the face seem rather highhanded, they actually are “good”; they are in fact a pointer to how much Africa has changed for the better.  

Changed Africa

A few decades ago chances are Ravalomanana would have been taken by soldiers, tied to a barrel on a beach somewhere, and shot. Not today.

Even though many individuals still balk at the thought of entering politics in many African countries due to the perceived dangers to one’s safety, it is much safer to be an African leader today than it was in the 60s and 70s. 

After the winds of change swept through Africa and the independence movements gathered pace at the start of 1960s, Africa’s nationalist leaders squirmed to get comfortable in their positions. Unfortunately for many of them this was not to be - over the next 15 years 47% of Africa’s leaders were exiled, assassinated (or nearly assassinated), executed - following a tribunal ruling, killed in a coup or imprisoned. 

The principal reason for this was, to overgeneralise, the lack of democracy. Despite being thrust into power on the back of popular independence movements and eventually being elected into office, a vast majority of Africa’s new presidents quickly usurped power, suppressed opposition and imposed one-party states. This created great instability and those who did not have the military on their side, or were leaning ideologically to the left and at risk of losing support from the West, were particularly in peril. 

Golden age of coups

Throughout the 1960s, right up until the 1980s, the military coup frequently accomplished more transfers of power and influence from an individual or group to another than elections. These military coups were due, in large part, to a lack of democratic institutions and processes occurring in new fragile states where elections were not yet the norm, governance was not inclusionary and the rule of law had not yet taken root. These coups threatened not only the regime but the leader too; between 1960 - 1975 five African leaders were killed in a coup. 

Another situation that led to coups was the lack of economic prosperity following independence. In Togo for example, independence leader Sylvanus Olympio was an economist - educated at the London School of Economics - and sought extreme budget austerity which aggravated the country’s educated youth and unionists. 

This reduced his support base, but the nail in the coffin were his financial restrictions on the military. Olympio intended to keep the military small, not thinking it was necessary for the development of the nation. Leaders in the Togo military tried to get him to increase funding and enlist more of the ex-French army troops returning to the country, but he stood firm. This led to Africa’s first coup in 1963 and the murder of Olympio. His inability to immediately turn the country’s economy around coupled with unemployment of former military men who did not understand that democratic process would eventually bring about change, were his downfall. 

The one-party dictators

Meanwhile in Chad, it was the lack of inclusionary democratic institutions that led to a military coup and the death of independence leader N’Garta François Tombalbaye. Like many independence leaders, once in power Tombalbaye became a dictator - he imposed a one-party state and at elections in 1969 he was the only candidate for presidency. Whilst this happened in many country’s across the continent, in Chad’s case the country was strongly divided between what has loosely been described as the black, Christian south and Arab Muslim north. 

Due to cultural “Africanisation” policies strongly based on southern Chad ethnicity that Tombalbaye imposed, he alienated the already greatly politically excluded North. His authoritarian rule was perceived as a shift of control from French colonials to the south. The country descended into a civil war, the result of which was a coup in 1975 and his assassination. 

Between 1960 and 1975 five African leaders were assassinated. 

For four other African leaders their disregard for basic human rights and penchant to perpetuate crimes against humanity, due to a lack of democracy, led to their demise.  In the case of Francisco Macías Nguema, the first president of Equatorial Guinea, he is regarded as one of the most brutal dictators in post-colonial African history and is believed to be responsible for the deaths of anywhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people. He was eventually overthrown in 1969 and put on trial by the Supreme Military Council for charges including genocide, mass murder and the violations of human rights. He was sentenced to death and was executed by a hired Moroccan Army firing squad in September that year. 

Too popular to kill or let go

For 24 leaders during this 15 year period - it was clear that former leaders did not feel safe in their country or that the fledgling democracies were not sure how to deal with them - they were either exiled or imprisoned. Too popular to kill or let go, leaders such as Mali’s devoted pan-Africanist Modibo Keïta, were jailed and died imprisoned. While leaders such as Cameroon’s Ahmadou Ahidjo left their beloved homelands, often escaping to former colonial states, for their safety on suspicion of plots against them.  

Within the last 15 years this all changed. Between 1999 - 2014 there has been a noticeable change in the fates of Africa’s leaders. 

This can be attributed in great part to democratic dividends from the 1990s. In the 1990s  there were significant improvements brought in during the transitions to democratic governance in Africa as single-party states and old-style authoritarian leaders bowed to external and internal pressure. Today’s democracies are flawed,  some extremely so, but they do function at some levels - an illustration of this is the increase in number of leaders coming to office and leaving it through democratic processes of varying degrees and elections. Between 1999 – 2014 there have been 122 different leaders in Africa - an increase of 50.6% from 1960-75. 

Though many are flawed democracies, with some sliding towards autocracy, their reliance on some of the democratic institutions and reformed laws has meant fewer exiles, assassinations and executions. An increase in political freedoms, more government accountability and an increasing respect for human rights has meant that the 1970s-style dictatorial and brutal regimes that don’t give anything back to the people as some kind of bargain, are less tolerated. 

Popularly elected governments and the promise of change mean there is less necessity for the military to get involved, and improved trust in the rule of law means that former leaders feel less threatened and therefore less likely to flee. 

African democracies are far from strong, but they have clearly provided a safer environment for current and future leaders. The question however is for how long. For now it may work in the government’s favour that they can continue to circumvent true democratic elections by wielding gifts and promises to a poorly educated and hungry electorate - but this will not last much longer. As people continue to be left behind, instability could rise and threaten the status quo, reversing the gains made over the past 54 years. 

•On Friday, we will publish a review of the first 20 years of independence in Africa; the leaders who played a role in that and how they ended; and focus on Zambia as it celebrates its 50th birthday, and reflect on the life of its founding father Kenneth Kaunda, whom Mail & Guardian Africa interviewed.


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