By Jackie Edwards
They come to power for a limited period of time but they stay for life. Africa has its full share of despots who have been ruling unchallenged for decades. Whether they were freedom fighters or they assumed power through elections, they always find a way to hang on to office. Over the years they develop a taste for power and slowly turn into the very oppressors they once fought to overthrow. From Zimbabwe to Uganda and Chad, these power-hungry rulers keep clinging to their seats encouraged by malleable opposition and non-existent term limits. Here’s a breakdown of some of the longest-serving African leaders:
More than 15 years
Despite the recent changes in Africa and its volatile political scene, there are still rulers who totally ignore their constitutions or the fact that they are elected presidents and therefore, are bound by the rule of law and the wishes of the electorate. One of those is Joseph Kabila who took office in the Democratic Republic of Congo just 10 days after his father was assassinated in 2001. At the end of his second term in 2016, new elections were postponed till 2018 which casts serious doubts about Kabila’s commitment to a democratic rule of law.
To the east and in the tiny country of Djibouti, Ismail Omar Guelleh has been ruling for 18 years. He was handpicked to succeed his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who has been ruling Djibouti since its independence in 1977. Guelleh is nicknamed the dictator, and for a good reason as his reign is criticized for its brutality and human rights abuses. Not unlike Paul Kagame who has been the de facto leader and president of Rwanda for the past 23 years, he was elected for a third term in 2017 and changed the constitution to extend this term until 2034.
More than 25 years
This group of seasoned leaders includes rulers of Eritrea, Congo, Uganda, and Sudan to name but a handful. In Eritrea, which is a relatively new state, there has been only one president and his presidency is almost as old as the young country itself. Isaias Afwerki fought for the independence of Eritrea in 1991 and became its only president since 1993. He rules unchallenged in a one-party system. To the west and deep in the heart of the Sahara, Idriss Déby of Chad led a rebellion in 1990 against then president Hissène Habré and replaced him. He’s been ruling for 26 years and fending off civil wars, rebellions and attempted coups against his autocratic regime. In 2006 he abolished term limits and has been winning elections since then. Not to be outdone, Yoweri Museveni has been president of Uganda since 1986. That’s 32 long years of civil wars, conflict with neighboring DRC, and domestic crises that culminated in his abolishing term limits, thus prolonging his rule.
More than 35 years
Among presidents, the rulers in this group are kings. They have been at the helm for so long that generations of their subjects grew up only knowing one name as leader of their country. Robert Mugabe is probably the most famous, though he’s not the longest-serving president in Africa. He’s been ruling Zimbabwe for 37 years. The controversial and divisive politician was recently in the news when the World Health Organization’s naming him a goodwill ambassador which drew severe criticism from several organizations including the British government. The nomination was later revoked.
In oil-rich Equatorial Guinea on the west coast of Africa, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo led a military coup against his uncle in 1979 and replaced him as president. He’s been in power for 38 years rife with corruption and abuse of power. But it’s Paul Biya with 42 years in power both as prime minister and then president of Cameroon who gets the distinction of the longest serving non-royal leader in the world. The 84-year-old is still going strong winning elections with fraud and intimidation.
Most of these names started as young idealistic revolutionaries who fought for their country’s freedom and justice for their countrymen. But as the 19th-century politician Lord Acton once said ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’; many of those leaders are a living testament to how much power corrupts even the purest ideals.
Jackie Edwards is a freelance writer, based in Africa.