The often sordid history of toppled and exiled African leaders

Thursday April 23 2015

From left, Kwame Nkurumah, Mengistu Haile Mariam and Francois Bozize. PHOTOS | FILE

Amid mounting clamour for generational change in African leadership, there has been much hullabaloo about some African leaders clinging onto power indefinitely.

Thankfully, however, there is now also clear evidence that many former and serving African leaders would rather retire peacefully and spend the rest of their lives peacefully in their own countries. Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Benjamin Mkapa and Ali Hassan Mwinyi of Tanzania and Daniel arap Moi of Kenya come to mind.

That wish is not surprising, particularly given the sorry tales of earlier generations of African leaders who all died in exile and were buried far away from their home countries. For many such leaders, their legacies have often been steeped in infamy, and calls for the repatriation of their remains have not been universally well received.

Clearly, the prospect of forcible removal from power and possible flight into exile is not everybody’s cup of tea. This has perhaps been most aptly demonstrated by the plight of former Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré, who was overthrown in March 2012 in a laughably convoluted military coup led by one Capt Amadou Sanogo.

In recent times, the deposed Malian president’s supporters have been agitating for his immediate return home from exile in Senegal. In the meantime, though, Mr Touré has been living less than a kilometre away from the presidential palace in a luxurious mansion in Dakar, where he ensconced himself not long after he was deposed.

His relative comfort notwithstanding, the elderly former president himself seems to be desperate to go back home at all costs, and his supporters have even suggested that Mr Touré is prepared to face trial at home if the current government wants to charge him with any offence upon his return.


Further, his loyal supporters have threatened to take the campaign for their man’s return to the regional court in Abuja, Nigeria.

Unapologetic Mengistu

Apparently not so keen to return home is former Ethiopian strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam, who ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist from 1977 to 1991. During his rule, tales were told of how government soldiers rounded up tens of thousands of students and intellectuals and summarily executed them, often in unspeakably gory fashion.

Not surprisingly, the brutal campaign by Mengistu and his cohorts was described by Human Rights Watch as “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa.” Chillingly, it is estimated that about half a million people were killed during what is still referred to as the Red Terror of 1977 and 1978.

Shockingly, Mengistu is alleged to have personally murdered opponents by garroting or shooting, saying that he was leading by example.

Still, after his ouster, the government of Zimbabwe readily offered Mengistu sanctuary. Citing the Ethiopian dictator’s long standing friendship with President Robert Mugabe, Harare made it clear it would not extradite the exiled leader.

For several years after first landing in Zimbabwe, Mengistu reportedly lived a lavish but reclusive life, amid fears over his safety. He resided in a posh Gunhill suburb in Harare. Much as Mengistu kept a low profile, many detested the fact that he was reportedly unrepentant about his past.

In fact, in the very few interviews he gave to the Zimbabwean media, Mengistu said he had no regrets about his rule, arguing that he tried his best for Ethiopia. As matters turned out, not everybody agreed or was happy with Mengistu’s past and he constantly had to look over his shoulder.

For instance, towards the end of 1995, two Eritrean nationals sneaked into Harare, Zimbabwe. Well-armed, they found their way to the exclusive and affluent suburb of Gunhill where Mengistu and his wife lived. Their mission was a simple one: Assassinate Mengistu.

The exiled leader had been living in Zimbabwe since May 1991, having fled Ethiopia after a rebel group led by the late Meles Zenawi overran his Red Army. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) forces advanced on Addis Ababa from all sides, and Mengistu fled the country with 50 family and members of the Derg, the country’s supreme ruling body.

Assassination attempt

Mengistu was later tried in absentia and found guilty of genocide, and in January 2007 was sentenced to life in prison. It was however clear even by the time of the sentencing that the former leader, then aged 69, was unlikely to face punishment, given that he was already in comfortable exile in Zimbabwe.

His two Eritrean pursuers were however determined to mete out their own justice to Mengistu. It was thus that on November 4, 1995, they tracked him down to Gunhill, where he was out walking near his home with his wife, Wubanchi Bishaw.

One of the Eritrean would-be assassins reportedly shot at Mengistu, but he escaped unhurt. One of the alleged assassins, Solomon Haile Ghebre Michael, was shot and arrested by Mengistu’s bodyguards. His accomplice, Abraham Goletom Joseph, escaped from the scene but was later arrested in a police raid.

Solomon was on July 8, 1996, put on trial in a Zimbabwean court for the failed assassination attempt, and pleaded not guilty.

The trial was so high-profile that the Eritrean ambassador to South Africa, Tsegaye Tesfa Tsion, reportedly flew to Harare to attend it. The Ethiopian ambassador to Zimbabwe, Fantahun Haile Michael on the other hand, was quick to point out that his government was not involved in the assassination attempt, and that he had learnt of the incident from the media.

Solomon was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison, while his accomplice Abraham was sentenced to five years. In their defence the two accused men told the court they had been tortured under Mengistu, and after appealing against their sentences, it was reduced to two years in prison each due to “mitigatory circumstances.”

Whatever the fate of his would-be assassins, the attack at Gunhill gave Mengistu and his minders a scare, and he eventually moved out of the area, albeit much later, in 2011. He went to live in the scenic Vumba area, a popular tourist resort to the southeast of the eastern city of Mutare on the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border.

Now aged 77, the former dictator reportedly lives under tight protection, but is said to frequent upmarket restaurants in the Vumba area. In the meantime, the Zimbabwean authorities have continued to shield him from the media, as they have done since his arrival in the country nearly 24 years ago.

Bitter Nkrumah

This camaraderie through thick and thin between African rulers is not unusual, and it is instructive that when former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkurumah was deposed in, he found refuge in Guinea, where his long-time friend the late president Sékou Touré, went as far as declaring Nkrumah his co-ruler.

However Nkurumah’s luck eventually ran out and on April 27, 1972 he died aged 62 from prostrate cancer in faraway Romania, where he had gone for treatment.

According to reports from the time, the erstwhile former Independence hero of Ghana was by the time of his death a bitter, dejected man who could not have ever imagined that he would die so far away from his beloved country.

For the late Ugandan president Apollo Milton Obote, it was no different. He treasured his lifelong friendship with Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere, who apart from offering him comfortable exile in Tanzania, went as far as restoring him to power in Uganda.

The latter happened years after the bloody rule of Idi Amin had become intolerable for the Tanzanian leader, particularly after the Ugandan dictator had dared to invade Tanzania.

As matters turned out, it was not long before the ill-fated Obote faced his second removal from power.

Initially fleeing to Tanzania, he moved to Zambia amid rumours that he would return to Ugandan politics, a matter that was put to rest in August 2005, when the then ailing, Obote announced his intention to step down as leader of the Ugandan Peoples’ Congress.

Unfortunately, he became yet another African president to die in exile when on October 10, 2005 he succumbed to kidney failure in a hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. Amin himself was also to die in exile, just as did former Zaire (now DR Congo) dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

After reportedly suffering from kidney failure, Amin died in a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on August 16, 2003 and was buried at the local Ruwais Cemetery, reportedly in a simple grave.

After Mobutu was ousted from power, he went into temporary exile in Togo but lived mostly in Morocco, where he died on September 7, 1997 in the capital Rabat. He succumbed to prostate cancer, just like Nkrumah. He was buried in the Rabat Christian cemetery known as “Pax.”

Also to die in exile was former Cameroonian president Ahmadou Ahidjo, who after being deposed by President Paul Biya spent his remaining years moving between France and Senegal. He died of a heart attack in Dakar on November 30, 1989 and was buried there.

Remarkably, although the late Ahidjo was officially “rehabilitated” by a law in December 1991, observers of the Cameroonian political scene have been quick to note that the Biya regime made an active effort to erase any visual or audio references to Cameroon’s first head of state.

Consequently, after his exile, few images of President Ahmadou Ahidjo remained in Cameroon, although a stadium in the capital, Yaoundé, was named after him. In fact, Biya for years refused to entertain plans of returning his predecessor’s remains to Cameroon.

On October 30, 2007 there was however a semblance of concession when Biya said, albeit cryptically, that the matter of returning Ahidjo’s remains to Cameroon was “a family affair.” An agreement on returning Ahidjo’s remains was reached in June 2009, but there were no efforts to ensure that happened expeditiously.

Other African rulers who died in exile include Mohamed Siad Barre, of Somalia, who on January 2, 1995 succumbed to a heart attack in Lagos, Nigeria. Unlike Mobutu, Ahidjo and Amin, his body was flown back home and was buried in the Garbahaarreey district of the Gedo region in Somalia.

Given the fate of many former African presidents, it was not surprising when Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete recently described his job as “stressful and thankless.”

Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington DC, the president, popularly known as JK, categorically stated that for him two terms are certainly enough.

“After 10 years, you need to move on,” he reportedly said in a candid moment. “It’s been 10 years since I came to this high profile office. I was very young, just 55. But what I can tell you about this job is that it is stressful and thankless.”