Some thoughts on African leaders

The typical African political leader is old, male and in many cases of questionable legitimacy. Of 90 presidents, prime ministers and other top rank politicians on the continent, only two are female. The median age is 62 years, compared to a median age of 19 for the entire population of the continent. Of the 57 politicians who can be considered to lead their country's respective executive branch of government (including those of Somaliland, the Sahrawi Republic and the Chair of the African Union Commission), 25 originally came to power under extra-constitutional circumstances like coups and fraudulent elections, changed constitutional term limits to their own benefit, or were preceded by a close relative, usually their father, in office.

These are some of the results of our updated and extended collection of data on African leaders. While there is considerable variation between individual office holders and countries, the overall picture the data paints is pretty clear: Africa has serious structural problems when it comes to its leadership.

The most striking aspect is the almost complete lack of women in the continent's top leadership. Even in the two countries that feature a female leader, the women in question (Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa of Namibia and President Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia) hold an office of secondary importance in their respective countries' political pecking order and are reliant on the goodwill of a male chief of the executive. This is not to belittle the accomplishments and work of these women. Rather, the continent as a whole is surely worse off for more or less completely ignoring more than half of the talent pool of the population when it comes to filling top political posts. While we have no data on the gender of cabinet members, anecdotal evidence suggests that the situation is only marginally better there.

While the absolute monarchy of Eswatini's Mswati III is an extreme outlier, most African political systems still favour a strong executive with a large measure of concentration of power within the hands of the country's top political office, usually the presidency. Presidents often have the power to appoint their governments at will, with only weak influence accorded to legislatures. In many countries, presidents can effectively rule by decree if they so wish, or at least veto any laws and restrictions imposed on them by parliaments. There are some positive counterexamples, like South Africa and Botswana, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Of course, this is not the first time that these issues have been remarked upon. And it is certainly not "Africans" per se who face these unfortunate leadership challenges, but a certain set of political institutions that have little to do with geography or genetics, but are the results of a specific history that many countries on the continent share. Still, the lack of diversity in leadership, the concentration of power in the hands of the few and a lack of incentives to give up this power is a challenge to the wellbeing of the continent as a whole. We are looking forward to keeping this data up to date and extending it further, to better understand the political leadership of Africa now and in the future.