Africa’s near-perennial problem with leaders who will do just about anything to hold on to power after their best years are well behind them is well-documented. Gerontocracy, a form of government by leaders who are much older than the rest of the adult population, seems to have become the default system of government in many African countries, with Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea readily coming to mind.
However, things were not always like this.
In the early days following independence from colonial governments, many African nations were led by young, vibrant, and idealistic leaders who held the promise of a continent truly on the march toward greatness.
In celebration of the past and as an inspiration to Africa’s bustling youth population, we take a look at some of the youngest leaders to have emerged from the continent over the course of the last two centuries.
- King Mswati III (18 years old), Swaziland
As a boy, Mswati III attended Masundwini Primary School and later Lozitha Palace School, where he excelled in mathematics and English. He later developed an interest in the military and eventually became the first young cadet to join the Umbutfo Swaziland Defence Force.
Mswati was only a 14-year-old boy at the Sherborne School in London, when his father, the king, died and he was selected by a council of elders as the next king. While he pursued his studies in the U.K., his mother served as regent in his place until he turned 18.
At barely 18 years old, Prince Makhosetive was crowned as King Mswati III of Swaziland and head of the country’s royal family in April 1986. His enthronement earned him the title as the youngest monarch/sovereign in the world at the time of his coronation.
2. Muammar Gadhafi (27 years old), Libya
Muammar Gadhafi was born to poor Bedouin parents in a village near the town of Sirte. He embraced Arab nationalism while schooling in Sabha and would later enroll at the Royal Military Academy in Benghazi.
Col. Gadhafi became Libya’s leader, after he led a group of army revolutionaries to seize power in a military coup on September 1, 1969.
After he seized power, he proclaimed Libya a republic, ejected western colonialists, and strengthened ties with other Arab nationalist governments.
Fiery and confrontational, he was constantly at loggerheads with Western governments. Gaddafi would later unsuccessfully advocate for a Pan-Arab political union. Following the failure of his Pan-Arab union, he turned his attention to Africa and became one of the biggest supporters of the African Union project.
3. Yahya Jammeh (28 years old), Gambia
Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh was born in Kanilai, a small village in the west of the Gambia to a wrestler Father and a housewife Mother. As a Muslim of the Jola ethnic group, the young Jammeh attended school in Kanilai and Bwiam, where he excelled and won a government scholarship to study at the Gambia High School in Banjul in 1978.
In July 1994, Jammeh became Gambia’s leader, after he overthrew the government of President Dawda Jawara in a bloodless coup d’etat.
In 1996, he resigned from his military position to contest and win the Gambian presidential election. He was re-elected in 2001, 2006, and 2011.
And while Jammeh tried to make his government both nationalist and Pan-African, his administration was constantly accused of rights abuses and the suppression of the political opposition.
In December 2016, Jammeh was defeated by businessman Adama Barrow in a landmark Gambian presidential election. He moved to the Equatorial Guinea two months later where he now lives in exile.
4. Joseph Kabila (29 years old), DR Congo
Joseph Kabila was born and raised in a remote part of the Democratic Republic of Congo while his father, Laurent, led his rebel forces, waging war against the government of DR Congo’s (then Zaire) strongman Mobutu Sese Seko.
He would later spend part of his childhood growing up in Tanzania, where he completed his primary and secondary education.
After high school, Kabila received military training in Tanzania and at Makerere University in Uganda. He would later join his father’s Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) army in 1996 and fight in the campaign to oust Mobutu from power; records reveal that he commanded a kadogo (child soldier) unit in the battle for Kinshasa.
In 1998, at age 26, his father appointed him deputy chief of staff of the AFDL, and by 2000, he had risen to the position of chief of staff of the DR Congo’s Land Forces.
By the age of 29, Kabila was sworn in as the leader of the DR Congo in January of 2001, 10 days after his father was assassinated. Kabila later contested and won the DR Congo presidential election in 2006.
He was again re-elected in 2011 for another 5-year term.
5. Samuel Doe (29 years old), Liberia
Sergeant Samuel Doe became Liberia’s head of state in April 1980, after he led a violent coup that killed President William R. Tolbert Jr. and ousted his government from power. Doe proceeded to disband the Constitution and headed the country’s military junta for the next five years.
In 1985, Doe contested and won a presidential election, thus becoming the 21st president of Liberia. Doe adopted a capitalist ideology, which won him the support of the U.S. government and equally opened up the country to massive foreign investment from Canada, China, and Europe.
By the late 1980s, however, Doe had fallen out of favor with Washington, causing the U.S. government to cut off its supply of critical foreign aid that compounded an already growing public resentment in Liberia about Doe’s government.
Doe was eventually overthrown in 1990, when rebel troops entered from the neighboring Ivory Coast, took control of the capital, captured, and then executed Doe.
Credit: Face2Face Africa