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“why do African presidents keep dying?”

3 August 2012

Earlier this week, allAfrica.com featured a story, “Africa: Why do African Presidents Keep Dying?” The story was published a week after Ghana’s President, Professor John Atta Mills, died in office. And, as haba na haba readers know, it was just a few months ago that Malawi’s former President, Bingu wa Mutharika, died while in office. Earlier in 2012, Guinea-Bissau’s President Malam Bacai Sanhá died during his tenure (and the former President of Guinea-Bissau, João Bernardo Vieira, was assassinated in 2009).

The allAfrica.com article suggests there is something special about Africa, that its presidents are more likely to die in office:

…other continents aren’t affected in the same way. Since 2008, Africa has lost eight heads of state. There are only 54 states. That’s a presidential mortality rate of nearly 15%… Contrast this with other continents. In the same time period, there was just the one presidential fatality each from Asia (the Dear Leader from North Korea), Europe (Poland’s Lech Kaczyński, in a plane crash), and North America (David Thomson of Barbados, from cancer). South America’s leaders all somehow managed to keep themselves alive, an impressive feat especially considering Hugo Chavez’s increasingly shaky public appearances. Same for Australasia.

The analyst points to age: African presidents are dying in office in greater numbers because they’re older:

Perhaps it’s something to do with age. Political success tends to come later to African leaders, a function perhaps of some holding on to it for too long and a long tradition of veneration for one’s elders. The average age of African heads of state is 62.5. That’s pension time, or nearing it, in most countries. To give you a bit of context, the European equivalent is just 55. This is also the average age of American presidents at the time of their inauguration. Barack Obama is 50. David Cameron is 45.

First, I’m not sure where he gets the average age of African heads of state. In writing a paper about presidential death and succession on the African continent, I calculated the age of African leaders. No matter how I slice the data, I can’t come up with 62.5 years old:

  • Average age of all executive leaders in the world: 60.3;
  • Average age of all non-African executive leaders: 59.8;
  • Average age of all African executive leaders (includes North Africa and the island countries): 61.8;
  • Average age of all sub-Saharan African executive leaders (includes the island countries): 61.5; and
  • Average age of all continental sub-Saharan African executive leaders: 62.0.

Second, the analyst fails to put into context that African leaders aren’t much older than their counterparts in the rest of the world (certainly, the differences aren’t statistically significant). Sure, the European average is rather low, but around the world, the average non-African executive leader is 59.8 years old, merely two years younger than the average African leader.

Finally, I’m not convinced there should be a cause for alarm if, in fact, African presidents are dying at a rate higher than their counterparts. In the current democratic period, death of a president doesn’t necessarily mean chaos or turmoil in a country. To put things in context, since the independence period in Africa (and before Mills’ death), there were 49 deaths in total, 26 in the period from 1960 to 1990 and 23 in the period since 1990. In our paper, we find that a majority of successions following an incumbent’s death in the post-1990 period followed a constitutional process (12, or 52.2%); this is in contrast to the 34.6% of post-death successions in the pre-1990 period that were constitutional. Coups d’état were nearly three times as likely to follow an executive’s death in the pre-1990 period (23.1%) than in the post-1990 period (8.7%). Sure, the transition process wasn’t exactly smooth in Malawi in 2012, but power was eventually handed over to Malawi’s VP, Joyce Banda. And, in Ghana, there was no delay in anointing Mills’ VP, John Dramani Mahama, as president.

Still, I think there’s an interesting cross-regional comparison that can be made of the health of leaders and their life expectancy once taking office.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Abdu adon permalink
    23 August 2012 1:32 am

    We are in a political and economic turmoil where anyhing by cladestine organization is possible to control the activities by chineese to control the natural resources already mapped by west or Europeans. From 10 countries currently economicaly doing well in the world, seven of them exist in Africa. There are many countries not happy about that, and many African leader should aware of the threat and should be vigillant and keep their eyes wide open – and that’s one way to control the progress…

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