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LIST: 10 Most Severe But Famous African Heads Of States (Dead or Alive)


Like most other countries in the world, Africa has had its fair share of leaders that seem to go a little mad with the power and turn into tyrants of the worst sort – not to mention a handful that were like that from the start! Few days ago, we recently published an article we titled 10 Worst Dictators of Africa. In this article, we are going to take a look at ten of the most famous of these dictators, in chronological order by birth.

1. Hastings Kamuzu Banda (c. March/April 1898 – 25 November 1997)

Hastings Kamuzu Banda - famous african dictators

Banda became prime minister of then Nyasaland, a British colony, in 1963 and took it to independence as Malawi a year later. Two years after that he declared himself president of the new Republic of Malawi and then made it a one-party state under the Malawi Congress Party. He was made President for Life of the MCP in 1970 and President for Life of Malawi itself in 1971.  He was something of a split personality, however – some hailed him as a hero for improving his state’s education system and infrastructure dramatically and supporting women’s rights, while others called him a corrupt tyrant for the 6,000 (at least) people that were jailed without trial, tortured and even killed during his regime (some put the figure nearer 18,000) and for supporting apartheid in South Africa. In 1993 his one-party state was ended when international protest prompted a referendum, and he was stripped of all positions and most powers by a special assembly immediately afterwards. To give him his due, he did run for president in the following democratic elections – aged ~96 years! – but did not win.  He died in South Africa three years later, in 1997.

2. Jean-Bedel Bokassa (22 February 1921 – 3 November 1996)

Jean-Bedel Bokassa - famous african dictator

Bokassa was born in French Equatorial Africa and served in the French colonial army for 21 years, but when David Dacko, a distant cousin, became president of the country as the newly independent Central African Republic (CAR) in 1960 he was invited to head their armed forces – and six years later ousted his cousin and declared himself president, then President for Life in 1972, and finally emperor (of the “Central African Empire”) from 1976 to 1979.  His ceremony investing himself as emperor cost $20 million and nearly bankrupted the country!  His rule was a reign of terror, with him taking all important government posts for himself and instituting judicial beatings and punishments such as the loss of body parts for minor convictions.

He had hundreds of school children arrested for refusing to wear uniforms he had made, and is reported to have had 100 of them massacred – while he watched.  He was deposed by French paratroopers in 1979, reinstating his cousin as president and the country as the CAR again, and he went into exile in France with a fortune he had embezzled. He was tried for treason and murder, convicted and sentenced to death in absentia and when he returned in 1986 this was put into effect, although the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment – then in 1993 he was freed, to live as a private citizen in the CAR until he died.

3. Ahmed Sekou Touré (9 January 1922 – 26 March 1984)

Ahmed Sekou Touré

Touré, born in the French colony of French Guinea, started in politics where he was working when in 1945 he joined the Postal Workers Union (PTT), and he worked his way up to become the leader of the Guinean Democratic Party in 1952.  He was instrumental in Guinea becoming the first of the African colonies to gain its independence from France in 1958 (the rest joined it in 1960), but the French were quite nasty about it when they left Guinea. In 1961 Touré was elected president for a seven-year term; having declared his party the only legal one and as its leader, he was of course unopposed; he then repeated this at the next three elections.  His policy was based on Marxism and maintained by arresting and jailing or exiling any opposition – somehow this won him the Lenin Peace Prize in 1961!  His tyranny developed slowly; by the end of the 1960’s people in opposition were taken by secret police to detention camps.

His relations with France were sour from the start, but gradually those with the Soviet Union, United States and most other countries began to follow; he even blamed Washington and the CIA when a Guinean delegation was imprisoned in Ghana.  Eventually his paranoia made life so unbearable for the Guineans (around 50,000 are believed to have been executed) that they began leaving the country in tens of thousands. Despite this, he was re-elected unopposed for a fourth term in 1982 and then things began to improve, probably because Guinea needed Western investment to develop its resources! Touré collapsed in Saudi Arabia in 1984 and was rushed to America for cardiac treatment, but died there anyway, on 26 March.

4. Robert Mugabe (21 February 1924 – present)

Robert mugabe

Good things came to Mugabe late in life, but he seems to taking full advantage despite his advanced age – he became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe at 56, President at 63 and is still going strong in office in 2013, having been re-elected six times, at the age of 89!  His political career first came to the world’s notice when he became Secretary General of the Zimbabwe African National Union during its conflict with Ian Smith’s white minority conservative government in the 1960s; and he became a political prisoner in Rhodesia 1964-1974.  Once released he, with Edgar Tekere, fought in the Rhodesian Bush War until it ended in 1979, becoming a hero to many Africans – and stood in the 1980 general elections, to become the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Zimbabwe.

He has generally been a force for peace, intervening in various local wars to help settle them (although some have called this a tactic to control the areas’ natural resources and thereby bolster Zimbabwe’s economy), but since the turn of the 21st century his government has been forcefully correcting the inequitable distribution of land between the white minority and black majority that was a legacy of the years of colonial rule.  This program was enforced more and more firmly, including economic sanctions, and the policies have (predictably) been condemned both nationally and internationally by those on the losing side, whilst being praised by other African nations with similar inequities …

5. Idi Amin Dada (c. 1925 – 16 August 2003)

Idi Amin Dada

Another notorious but famous African dictator was Idi Amin Dada.Amin served in the British Colonial army in Kenya and Somalia from 1946, rising to be a Major General in Uganda’s army, and then its Commander, after Uganda gained its independence.  In January 1971 he deposed then President Milton Obote and seized power in a military coup (promoting himself to Field Marshal a while later).  Amin was very much a tyrant, with estimates of people killed during his regime ranging between 100,000 and 500,000, and nepotism, corruption, economic mismanagement, ethnic persecution and human rights abuse being rife throughout.  He finally ‘shot himself in the foot’ when he tried to annex a province of Tanzania in 1978 and this, along with growing dissent within Uganda, led to the Uganda-Tanzania War and caused the downfall of his regime the following year.  He was forced to go into exile, first to Libya, then to Saudi Arabia where he died.


6. Mobutu Sese Seko (14 October 1930 – 7 September 1997)

Mobutu Sese Seko

Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga was born as Joseph-Desiré Mobutu in the Republic of the Congo, which he renamed Zaire in 1971.  He was installed and supported by the West, mostly Belgium and the US, because of his strong stance against communism, but once in, the power apparently went to his head and his regime became notorious for the usual corruption, human rights abuse and nepotism – and also, in his case, amassing an enormous personal fortune, partly through embezzlement of US funds, that led some to nickname his rule a ‘kleptocracy’. Eventually in 1997, after six years of promising to help stop economic deterioration and unrest by sharing power with opposition leaders while at the same time using the army to prevent anything changing, Laurent Kabila and a rebel army forced him out of the country and took power, leaving him in exile in Morocco, where he died three months later from prostate cancer.

7. Laurent Kabila (27 November 1939 – 18 January 2001)

Laurent Kabila

Having studied political philosophy in France and Yugoslavia, Laurent Kabila no doubt seemed a much more likely prospect to lead Zaire, now newly renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, out of the dark days of Mobutu’s reign of terror and into the light of the modern world in, but unfortunately things didn’t work out quite that way.  When the Congo gained independence in June 1960,Kabila was an officer in the youth wing of the Balubakat (the General Association of the Baluba People of Katanga), aligned with the first democratically elected President, Patrice Lumumba, and continued to support that side of the political forum even after Lumumba was assassinated in Mobutu’s coup mere months later.  He helped to organise a revolutionary army in eastern Congo, but despite some support from Che Guevara the rebellion failed.

Kabila then turned to running a bar in Tanzania, with the occasional bit of smuggling on the side.  In 1967 he and his supporters founded the People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP) and formed a secessionist Marxist state west of Lake Tanganyika in South Kivu province.  Over the next twenty years he amassed considerable wealth through extortion and robbery, then suddenly disappeared in 1988, believed to be dead – and reappeared in 1996, no longer a Marxist, to begin the First Congo War.  This culminated a year later in his taking over the country, but unfortunately he behaved just as badly as Mobutu had, and within months he was being denounced as “another Mobutu”.  Not surprisingly, therefore, he was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards just four years later, and succeeded by his son, Joseph, who is still president of the DRC at the time of writing (2013).

8. Colonel Gaddafi (c. 1942 – 20 October 2011)

Colonel Gaddafi

Libyan Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi became interested in politics while still at school before attending a military academy and then joining the military itself – and once there he formed a revolutionary cell and, in September 1969, took over the country from then-king Idris in a bloodless coup at just 27 years of age!  He immediately dissolved the monarchy, declared a republic and began ruling by decree, with the intent of making his country an Islamic socialist one.  Both in 1973’s ‘Popular Revolution’, which included the start of the General People’s Committees (GPCs), and in 1977, when he dissolved the Republic in favour of Jamahiriya (a ‘state of the masses’, part-governed by the GPCs), he retained personal control of the major decisions.

He claimed to rule by his ‘Third International Theory’, as detailed in his publication ‘The Green Book’.  His hostile attitude to other countries (and alleged blame for the Lockerbie bombing) got Libya labelled an ‘international pariah’, and his relations with the UK and US eventually caused economic sanctions to be imposed.  Then, when civil war broke out, NATO gave military support to Gaddafi’s opponents, finally bringing down Gaddafi’s rule in August 2011.  He retreated to Sirte where he was captured and killed by some of the anti-Gaddafi rebels that had just defeated him.  He ruled Libya, mostly as “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya”, for 42 years.

9. General Sani Abacha (20 September 1943 – 8 June 1998)

General Sani Abacha

Born in Nigeria, Sani Abacha was destined for a military life; he attended a Military Training College (in Nigeria) and the Mons Officer Cadet School (in England) before getting his commission as a 2nd lieutenant in 1963.  He helped plan the July 1967 countercoup (and possibly the 1966 phases too) and over the next three decades he was a prominent figure in most of the major coups in his country (of which there were several), in the process becoming Chief of Army Staff in 1983 and in 1990, Minister of Defence.  Finally , in November 1993, after General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the June 1993 elections (because he didn’t win), Abacha took over the interim government – then the following year gave his regime absolute power and effectively became the country’s dictator.

However, Nigeria didn’t stand for the human rights abuses and corruption that came with his government for as long as some had – and when it became obvious that although he’d announced elections would be held in August 1998 he had no intention of letting the votes be counted honestly, unrest started to build up.  Then things got weird – a paster asked the people not to demonstrate over the elections, saying that Abacha would not benefit from them – and a few weeks before the elections Abacha died mysteriously, out of the limelight, and was buried immediately, without autopsy, per Muslim tradition.  So the pastor was right, but exactly how Abacha died will never be known.  Best guess is thought to be that he was poisoned by political rivals via the prostitutes with whom he was keeping company; but officially it was merely a sudden heart attack.  After his death it came to light that he had embezzled some USD 3-4 billion during his short rule – most of which the family eventually agreed to return … but not all!

10. Charles Taylor (28 January 1948 – )

Charles Taylor

Liberian politician Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor was a slightly more civilised dictator than some – rather than simply killing loads of people as and when he felt like it, he merely committed ‘war crimes’ and embezzlement …  He started out working for the Liberian government straight from college, but was chucked out for embezzlement; he subsequently went to Libya, trained as a guerilla soldier and returned to Liberia at the head of a Libyan resistance group to start the First Liberian Civil War.  He overthrew the current administration headed by Samuel Doe and executed him (it was the same administration that had fired him years earlier) then ruled large chunks of the country as a warlord until a peace deal ended the war and he coerced the country into electing him president in the 1997 general election.

Then accusations of war and humanitarian crimes began to surface while he was in office, eventually causing the start of the Second  Liberian Civil War and finally forcing his resignation in 2003.  He went into exile in Nigeria, but in 2006 was extradited back to Liberia and held in the Hague until 2012, when he was tried for various charges, including terror, murder and rape, and sentenced to 50 years in prison, where he remains to this day.

Maybe crime doesn’t pay, after all. In the end, anyway.


Written by How Africa

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