• Nicky, Digital Researcher, Africa Analyst

Most Autocratic Regimes in Africa


The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines autocracy as "government in which one person possesses unlimited power", and as the saying goes "absolute power corrupts absolutely". As unlimited power usually brings out the beast even in the best of leaders, autocracies more often than not are brutal regimes.


This system of government has never been in the best interest of the citizens, as most autocratic regimes are found on the bedrock of selfishness and power-grabbing. Autocratic form of leadership is notoriously common with dictators and tyrants who used authoritarian means to threaten the people under them into subjection.


Across Sub-Saharan Africa, since 1960, (the year of independence that witnessed the apparent emancipation of a good number of African countries from the rule and dominations of the colonialists) several heads of state have grabbed power with both hands and tenaciously held on to it for several decades.


The African continent has had more than a fair share of authoritarian government and dictators; both under the military and the civilian government. There is something that goes beyond the intoxication of power peculiarly associated with African leaders, and this is evident in the unwillingness to leave office or resign in the face of incompetence or incapacitation.


Judging from the number of African heads of state that have made the seat of presidency their permanent possession, it won't be too harsh to say that once some African leaders taste power they never want to let go. Some leaders that rose to the forefront of powers after colonial administration have manipulated their ways to life presidency, remaining in power for close to thirty years or even more.


The ugliness of the authoritarian government of these rulers is made manifest in the gross dictatorship, corruption, reckless embezzlement of public funds, economic stagnation, human rights abuse, extrajudicial killings, that characterize such administrations.


Presently, most African countries are practicing democracy, a peculiar and undemocratic version of it the media have dubbed as "demo-crazy". A crazy demonstration of democracy.


The fierce quest to remain in power for decades is still there, the impunity and reckless lack of regards for national constitution is waxing stronger, and the manipulation of the constitution "constitutional coup" to support the president's ambition of securing longer terms in office is still very much at work. But for the pressure from international observers and civil societies, the system of "president for life" might have become the constitutional order of government for most African nations.


From the postcolonial days to now, over a dozen and half African heads of state have held power for at least ten years. Currently in 2020, according to the Economist’s 2019 Democracy Index, more than twenty countries in Africa are besieged with authoritarian government.


Here are some autocratic regimes Sub-Saharan Africa have witnessed from the 1960s till date.


Mobutu Sese Seko of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (1965 - 1997)


The DRC suffered civil wars, gross corruption, embezzlement, economic decline and neglect of public infrastructures under Mobutu's thirty years of dictatorship. He was overthrown after the First Congo War in 1997.


Ombar Bongo of Gabon (1967 - 2009)


Topping the chart as the longest-ruling leader in Africa is Ombar Bongo of Gabon who spent a whooping 41 years in office.


Bongo was the second President of Gabon, a position he held from 1967 until his death in 2009. After his death, his son Ali Bongo, who occupied key ministerial responsibilities during his father's regime, was "elected" to continue where his father stopped.


Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (1987 - 2017)


Through bouts of constitutional amendments Mugabe carved unrestricted power for himself, weakening opposition and winning elections time after time. Zimbabwe, a hitherto rich country, went into reverse mode and the economy dwindled. Mugabe's embezzlement of federal funds and maladministration of public office led to economic stagnation, drop in life expectancy, chronic hunger and underdevelopment in the country. In November 2017, after thirty-seven years of reign he was forced to vacate the presidency by a military coup.


Jose Eduardo dos Santos (1979 - 2017)


Up until August 2017, Jose Eduardo dos Santos held the position of the president of Gabon. Only stepping down after thirty-eight years in office.


Omar al-Bashir of Sudan (1989 - 2019)


Rising into power on the wings of a 1989 military coup, Omar through gross irregularities in the electoral processes had sat put in office. His reign was marked with wars, massacres, human rights abuse and fraud. He was eventually pushed out of office in April 2019 by the armed forces and arrest warrants issued against him by the International Criminal Court.


Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi (2005 - 2020)


Nkurunziza stayed in office from 2005 till his demise in June 2020. He had maneuvered his way into victory through three successive presidential elections and was scheming to run for a fourth term before he died of heart attack.


Paul Kagame of Rwanda (1994 - Present)


Paul Kagame is the current President of Rwanda, a position he assumed in 2000. Since then he has tenaciously held on to power and obviously not about to let go any time soon.


Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (1986 - Present)


President Yoweri Museveni has ruled Uganda for 34 years, since 1986. He is contesting again in next years election, having been nominated by his party as their "choice candidate" for 2021 presidential election.


Paul Biya of Cameroon (1982 - Present)


President Biya has been in power since 1982, and has “won” seven presidential elections to remain as President of Cameroon. He will be turning 92 at the end of his 7th term in 2025. There is no assurance that he won't be contesting again to continue his reign as absentee president, spending more time in the UK than he did at home.


Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (1979 - Present)


President Mbasogo took over power from his uncle Francisco Macias Nquema in 1979, and has held on to it with an iron fist. He is reputed to be the longest serving president in the entire world and his reign reeks of human rights abuse, extrajudicial killings, unlawful imprisonment, suppressions, torture, and corruption.


Isias Afwerki of Eritrea (1991 – Present)


There are few leaders as enigmatic as Eritrea’s President, Isaias Afwerki. Eritrea often dubbed the "North Korea" of Africa, has been independent since 1993 but has no constitution and no parliament. No budget has ever been published. Elections have never been held and Isaias’s opponents languish in jail. Eritrea is a nation living without freedom. It is “the country that’s never had an election” and is today among the most repressive states in Africa.


The regime’s human rights abuses are well documented. Since Isaias rules without reference to a constitution or parliament, and without an independent judiciary, one can only conclude that these abuses are instituted at his insistence. The president surrounds himself with a small coterie of military and party officials who do his bidding.


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