When President Omar Bongo passed on June 8, 2009 at a clinic in Spain; he was arguably Africa’s longest serving president. He came to power in 1967 after the death of Gabon’s first president, Leon M’ba. His rise coincided with an oil boom that saw the country become Africa’s third-biggest petroleum producer; this wealth however, benefited France more than it did Gabon. He is credited with keeping the nation peaceful despite the mix of various ethnicities that make up the country, and avoiding conflicts that have beset the West African region. Political analysts state that he squandered billions of dollars in oil wealth on patronage and personal comforts. Almost half a century after gaining independence, Gabon has more miles of oil pipelines than it does of roads. Most of the country’s population lives in poverty. Bongo’s passing has meant that Muammar Gaddafi is now Africa’s longest serving president. Reuters compiled a list of the longest serving African presidents and gave their brief biographies:
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi (Libya, 40 years): Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is the current Chairman of the African Union (A.U). He seized power in 1969 in a bloodless military coup, and thereafter saw the rapid development of a poverty-stricken Libya. Up until 2003 when Libya promised to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programmes; it had for long been sidelined as ‘pariah’ by the International community. In 2008, Libya agreed to settle with the United States the compensation claims for attacks including the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing. Gaddhafi is known for his trademark female bodyguards and is the brains behind the push for a United States of Africa; a dream for a single continental government that has met stiff resistance from several African heads of State.
Eduardo Dos Santos (Angola, 30 years): Eduardo Dos Santos aged 65, assumed the presidency of Angola in 1979, after the death of Agostinho Neto, who was Angola’s first president. MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) forces under Dos Santos were engaged in a civil war against UNITA( National Union for the Total independence of Angola) led by Jonas Savimbi during the Cold War crisis where the former was backed by capitalists and the latter communists. The country experienced a period of peace in 1992 when Savimbi decided to cease fire and took part in multi-party elections that Dos Santos narrowly won. Savimbi took to the bush again and was killed in 2002, bringing the rebellion to a halt. Angola is sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest producer of diamond and petroleum.
Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe, 29 years): Robert Mugabe is perhaps one of the most criticized of African leaders. Mugabe who is 83 became Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister in 1980 after independence elections, when he was hailed as a model African democrat. Formerly a Marxist guerrilla, who pushed out the minority white rule under Ian Smith’s UDI party, Mugabe has held fast to power despite a deep political and financial crisis that threatened to ruin the country he fought so hard to free. His land reclamation policies that saw many white farmers lose their farms to blacks was widely condemned and they pushed the once bread-basket of Africa to the brink of starvation with a runaway inflation that stood at a whooping 7982 percent in September 2008. After disputed elections last year, Mugabe was pushed into a power-sharing agreement with the rival Movement for Democratic Change under Morgan Tsvangirai, whom he named Prime Minister.
Hosni Mubarak (Egypt, 28 years). 79 year old Hosni Mubarak became president of the Arab world’s most populous country after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Sadat was killed by muslim militants angered by his foreign policy and domestic repression. Mubarak was sworn in 2005 as president for the fifth six-year term. He has survived two assassination attempts. He has also been accused of widespread corruption with his sons who own large stakes in major companies in the country. Analysts believe he’s grooming his son Gamal to take over from his as president. He has also made it hard for opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to operate by confiscating the property of their funders and jailing many of the leaders, under the pretext of a draconian Emergency Law. Mubarak is seen as being very warm to the West; this year he banned the Cairo Anti-War conference; a pressure group that criticizes his lack of action against Israel. In June, he played host to President Barack Obama who delivered a speech to the Muslim world from Cairo.
Paul Biya (Cameroon, 27 years): Biya 74, took over in 1982 from President Ahmadou Ahidjo and won the elections for another seven-year term in October 2004. He holds a diploma in International Relations from a Paris Institute. He is married to Chantal Biya who is 30 years his junior. After being re-elected in 2004, Biya was barred by the constitution from running again after his mandatory two-year term limit ending in 2011. However, in a New Year address last year, he indicated his desire to have the constitution amended to remove the limits. Though this was greeted by protests in February, in April of the same year the National Assembly voted to have the term limits removed.
Denis Sassou Nguesso (Congo Republic, 30 years): Sassou Nguesso 64, seized power in the Congo Republic in a 1979 coup, but then lost the country’s first multi-party elections in 1992 to scientist Pascal Lissouba. In 1997, government forces attacked his home in Mpila, near the capital Brazzaville attempting to arrest two of his supporters accused of violence. Instead, fighting broke out between the soldiers and his supporters tagged ‘Cobras.’ This culminated into a civil war and in October of the same year, with help of Angola, Nguesso captured power. He then embarked on a democratic path, holding elections in 2002, which he won with over 90 percent of the vote. His rivals were barred from campaigning. He has been mentioned in the media as being investigated by French police on claims that he used millions of public funds to acquire properties in France.
Yoweri Museveni, (Uganda 23 years): Yoweri Museveni, 63 years, declared himself president in January 1986, when he seized Kampala on April 26 after a guerrilla struggle that lasted five years. He banned multi-party politics shortly after taking power. Under his movement system, he ruled the country in virtually a single-party arrangement until 2005 when he was compelled to free the political space. He has twice faced his former bush war physician, Dr Kizza Besigye, in presidential elections that were declared unfair and not free by the Supreme Court. In 2005, faced with the possibility of bowing out of power courtesy of a constitutional two-term limit, he facilitated MPs from his ruling NRM party with Ugandan shs 5 million each to change the law. This was done opening him to the possibility of ruling until he reaches 75, the maximum age limit for a president, according to the law.
King Makhosetive Mswati III (Swaziland 22 years): King Makhosetive Mswati III is 39 but has ruled the Swaziland for 22 years. He was crowned in April 1987 and is described as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. Political parties had been banned in land-locked Swaziland since 1973. The king introduced a new constitution in 2006, but the ban on political parties remained and he kept control over the legislature in a country plagued by food shortages. A parade of young virgins is conducted every year, from which Mswati picks a new bride.
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali (Tunisia 22 years): Ben Ali, 71 of Tunisia came to power 22 years ago, in 1987. Since then, he has overseen successful economic reforms and crushed an Islamic fundamentalist opposition. He is credited with making Tunisia the healthiest and best-educated nation in North Africa. His latest term ends in 2009 but his supporters predicted that he will seek another mandate.
* Caroline Achieng Otieno is the Director and Founder of Operation Girl-Child based in Nairobi, Kenya. She may be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org