Nigeria’s General Sani Abacha , front left, attends an event in Abuja in 1988.File picture: Jerome Delay/AP
Nigeria’s General Sani Abacha , front left, attends an event in Abuja in 1988.File picture: Jerome Delay/AP

Five of West Africa's worst ever leaders

By Brenda Masilela Time of article published Jul 25, 2020

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Pretoria - African countries are generally recognised as having produced some of the worst leaders the world has ever seen, both during and after colonisation.

African dictators are among the world's wealthiest people while the people they rule are among the world's poorest and remain mired in poverty. They persecute and even kill and starve their people with impunity while lining their own pockets.

Most of these dictators seized power in military coups and some have ruled with an iron fist for decades after rapidly consolidating their grip on power to make it very difficult to remove them. Africa has generally drawn very little benefit from the continent's untold mineral wealth and it remains one the poorest on the globe, engulfed in corruption and cursed with inept leadership.

These are some of the West African leaders responsible for dragging their countries into an abyss of poverty and squalor.

Nigerian military leader General Sani Abacha is shown in September 1993 file photo. Picture: Independent Media archives

NIGERIA

Former Nigerian military ruler Sani Abacha ruled Africa’s largest oil producer from 1993 until he died of a heart attack in 1998. He ruled the country with an iron fist and his rule was marked by gross human rights abuses. He disdained democracy, banned all political activity, purged a large portion of the military, took control of the press, and assembled a personal security force of over 3000 men.

Before his death, he and his family embezzled over US$3 billion, most of it held in European banks and in the United States. Corruption watchdog Transparency International estimates that he stole as much as US$5 billion of public money during his years in power. In May this year, the US and the British channel island dependency Jersey repatriated more than US$300 million to the Nigerian government. This was just some of the funds stolen by Abacha.

He was never charged with corruption during his lifetime and Nigeria has been fighting for years to recover the money he stole. Companies linked to the Abacha family have gone to court to prevent repatriation, alleging infringement of their rights to a fair trial.

Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh, who fled into exile after an election loss. File picture: Jerome Delay/AP

THE GAMBIA

Former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh was one of the world's most eccentric and ruthless leaders. He came to power in 1994 as a 29-year-old army lieutenant and went on to rule for 22 years.

He portrayed himself as a devout Muslim with miraculous powers, including the power to cure people of Aids and infertility. He was also known for his virulent opposition to gay rights and once threatened to behead gay people.

According to human rights activists, Jammeh's two-decade rule was marked by arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. Witnesses have testified before an ongoing Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission about being forced to carry out summary executions at his behest.

The Gambia's current President Adama Barrow estimated that in 2017 Jammeh stole about US$90 million in public funds. According to the international NGO Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Jammeh stole an estimated US$1 billion during his rule. The Janneh Commission of Inquiry is currently probing financial misconduct during his rule. Jammeh has never been charged and fled into exile in Equatorial Guinea in 2017 after losing the election.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is seen at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in Leidschendam, the Netherlands in 2010. File picture: Vincent Jannink/Reuters

LIBERIA

Charles Taylor was the 22nd president of Liberia - which declared independence in 1847 - from 1997 until he was finally forced into exile in 2003. He was widely held responsible for the country’s devastating civil war during the 1990s and for crimes committed during the civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Before assuming the presidency, Taylor was director of Liberia’s general services administration under president Samuel Doe. In 1983, Doe accused Taylor of embezzling almost US$1 million, and the following year Taylor fled to the US, where he was jailed.

Before he could be extradited, he escaped and reappeared in Libya, where he formed the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a militia group that invaded Liberia in late 1989. Taylor’s NPFL forces took the country's capital Monrovia in 1990. Doe, along with more than 200,000 people were killed during Taylor's invasion, with the violence spilling over into Sierra Leone.

In 1996, a peace pact led to elections in 1997 which Taylor won with 75 percent of the vote. Critics accused Taylor of unfair tactics, including handouts to the largely impoverished and illiterate electorate.

As president, Taylor restructured the army, filling it with members of his former militia. Conflict ensued between Taylor and the political opposition, and Monrovia again became the scene of wholesale gun battles and looting.

Following widespread international condemnation, Taylor agreed to go into exile in Nigeria. In March 2006, the Liberian government requested Taylor’s extradition and he tried to flee Nigeria, but was quickly captured.

He was charged in the International Criminal Court near the Hague with crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Taylor denied the accusations, but 115 witnesses, including victims of rape and mutilation, testified against him. In May 2012 he was sentenced to 50 years in prison and is serving his time in a British prison by agreement.

President of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo attends the 28th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government of the African Union in Ethiopia in 2017. File picture: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

EQUATORIAL GUINEA

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is Africa’s longest serving ruler. He has been in power in the oil-rich West African country for four decades since he seized power in 1979 by overthrowing his uncle Francisco Macias Nguema in a bloody coup. The former leader was tried and executed.

Equatorial Guinea is one of the continent’s largest oil producers and has one of the world's highest per capita incomes, but this has not translated into prosperity for the country's about 1.3 million people. The country ranks very poorly in the United Nations human development index.

In 2012, he appointed his son Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue as his deputy. The president's son is notorious for his expensive tastes, spending millions in state funds to finance his lavish lifestyle which reportedly included luxurious properties in the US, Europe, and South Africa, a Gulfstream jet, Michael Jackson memorabilia, and a car collection worth billions.

In November 2014, he was ordered by the US justice department to forfeit his US-based property and belongings. In 2016, prosecutors in Switzerland seized over 20 luxury cars, among them Lamborghini, Ferrari, Bentley, and Rolls Royce, which were sold at auction for about US$27 million.

In 2018, Brazilian police seized more than US$16 million in cash and luxury watches in the luggage of a delegation accompanying Obiang Mangue. A Paris court in February upheld a three-year suspended jail term against him and handed him a US$32.9 million fine for using public money to buy a six-floor Paris home and luxury car. He has always denied that his assets were obtained from his impoverished country through a variety of alleged schemes.

Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo at the ICC in The Hague. File picture: Peter Dejong/EPA

CÔTE D'IVOIRE

Former Côte d'Ivoire president Laurent Gbagbo rose to power in 2000 and remained in office five years beyond his legal mandate before a presidential election was finally held in 2010. When he lost, he took up arms to stay in power, while the winner of the election Alassane Ouattara was trapped in a hotel in Abidjan.

The situation dragged on for five months until French and United Nations troops forcefully installed Ouattara as the new president. This led to a standoff that plunged the country back into a civil war that left over 3000 people dead and 500,000 displaced.

Gbagbo was captured and charged with four counts of crimes against humanity, murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and persecution and other inhumane acts. He denied the charges, claiming they were politically motivated.

In 2019, after seven years in prison, the International Criminal Court ordered his release after acquitting him on charges of crimes against humanity. Judges said prosecutors had failed to satisfy the burden of proof, but added their decision could be reversed on appeal. In June, the United Nations tribunal appealed Gbagbo's acquittal, arguing that the court erred in clearing him.

African News Agency (ANA)

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