African Leaders Who Died in Office

Compiled by Eric Elezuo and Jane Efagwu

It is almost believed that when one achieves the highest position in the land, he is in the best position to take absolute care of himself. However, death does not answer to greatness or position. Consequently, many high profile leaders in Africa have died while occupying the exalted first citizen position. Most of these people have bowed to illness, and some to other factors.

Below is a compilation of some African leaders that died while in office:

Umaru Musa Yar’dua (Nigeria)

Yar’Adua was born into an aristocratic Fulani family in Katsina on August 16, 1951. He inherited the chieftaincy title of Matawalle (or custodian of the royal treasury) of the Katsina Emirate from his father, a former Minister for Lagos during the First republic. He attended Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria from 1972 to 1975, obtaining a B.Sc. degree in Education and Chemistry, and then returned in 1978 for an M.Sc. degree in Analytical Chemistry.

He was elected President of Nigeria in 2007. However, Yar’Adua left Nigeria on 23 November 2009, and was reported to be receiving treatment for Pericarditis at a clinic in Saudi Arabia. He was not seen in public again until May 5, 2010 when he was reported dead at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa. His absence within this period created a dangerous power vacuum in Nigeria.

John Evans Atta Mills (Ghana)

The first Ghanaian head of state to die in office, John was a legal scholar and politician who ruled Ghana from 2009 to 2012. Just like the others on this list, the real cause of John’s death is still under speculation. While he was said to have been suffering from throat cancer, his brother, Dr. Cadman Mills mentioned at his graveside that the President had died of massive haemorrhagic stroke. According to former minister Elizabeth Ohene, Mills had denied being ill and dispelled rumours of his death saying he was fine. The 68 year old died on 24th of July at the 37 Military Hospital, three days to his death.



Sani Abacha (Nigeria)

Sani Abacha was born on September 20 1943. He was a Nigerian Army general and politician who served as the de facto President of Nigeria from 1993 to 1998. A Kanuri from Borno, Abacha was born and brought up in Kano, Nigeria. He attended the Nigerian Military Training College and Mons Officer Cadet School before being commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in 1963.

Early in 1998, Abacha announced that elections would be held that August, with a view toward handing power to a civilian government on 1 October. It soon became apparent, though, that Abacha had no intention of permitting an honest election; by April he had strong-armed the country’s five parties into endorsing him as the sole presidential candidate.

Abacha died on June 8 1998 while at the presidential villa in Abuja. He was buried on the same day, according to Muslim tradition, without an autopsy. It is reported that he was in the company of two Indian prostitutes imported from Dubai. It is also thought that the prostitutes laced his drink with a poisonous substance, making him feel unwell around 4:30am. He retired to his bed and was dead by 6:15am.


Malam Bacai Sanha (Guinea-Bissau)

Born in Dar Salam, Sanha was the president of Guinea- Bissau from 8th of September, 2009 to 9th of January, 2012. He was a diabetic. Amidst several denials of illness and death rumors to several admissions to hospitals due to his drop in haemoglobin, Sanha died on the morning of 9th of January, 2012. The government of the country decreed a seven days mourning period during which no concerts and festivities were held.


Aguiyi Ironsi (Nigeria)

Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was born on March 3 1924. He seized power in the ensuing chaos following the January 15, 1966 military coup, serving as the Nigerian Head of State from then until his murder on July 29, 1966 by a group of mutinous Northern army soldiers who revolted against his government in what was popularly called the July Counter Coup.

On 29 July 1966 Ironsi spent the night at the Government House, Ibadan, as part of a nationwide tour. His host, Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, Military Governor of Western Nigeria, alerted him to a possible mutiny within the army. Ironsi desperately tried to contact his Army Chief of Staff, Yakubu Gowon, but he was unreachable. In the early hours of the morning, the Government House, Ibadan, was surrounded by soldiers led by Theophilus Danjuma. Danjuma arrested Ironsi and questioned him about his alleged complicity in the coup, which saw the demise of the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello. The circumstances leading to Ironsi’s death still remain a subject of much controversy in Nigeria. His body and that of Fajuyi were later discovered in a nearby forest.



Lansana Conte (Guinea)

The second president of the republic of Guinea, Lansana was a Muslim who ruled from 1984 to 2008 when the cold hands of death snatched him from the people of the republic. Conte died after suffering an undisclosed illness which left the citizens trying to guess what actually happened. During this time, a newspaper published a picture of the former president suggesting that he was ill and in bad form. This led to the editor’s arrest after which the newspaper was required to publish a picture showing Conte in good health.

Muammar Gaddafi (Libya)

He is one whose name will forever be unforgettable in the history of leadership and military rule. Gadaffi was a revolutionary, an author and a ruler. However all these came to an end in 2011 when he retreated to Sirte after rebels had seized Tripoli. Although several mysteries surround his death, Gaddafi is widely believed to have fallen out of a pickup truck and taken in an ambulance to Misratan hospital after being tortured by a Misratan militia. On getting there, Gaddafi was discovered dead. The 69 year old remains one of the most influential men to have ever walked the earth.

Micheal Sata (Zambia)

Micheal Chilufaya Sata was the fifth president of Zambia who ruled the country from 23rd of September, 2011 till his death on the 28th of October, 2014. He was one of Ghana’s most extroverted leader till date. The period preceding Sata’s death was characterized by his absence at major events. Micheal missed an important speech the United Nations general assembly. Days before the 50th anniversary of Zambia also saw Sata missing in action. He died in London after receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness. The 77 year old was succeeded by his Vice President, Guy Scott.



El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba (Gabon)

Born Albert-Bernard Bongo, Omar was a Gabonese politician who ruled as the President of Gabon for 42 years from 1967 to 2009. After his wife’s death in 2009, the Gabonese president announced that Bongo has suspended his official duties to mourn his wife  and rest in Spain. Reports which the Gabonese government denied, began to surface  suggesting that he was seriously ill. On 7th of June that year, reports began to roll out stating that Bongo had died of intestinal cancer. This was again denied by the Gabonese government until 8th of June when the Prime Minister, Jean Eyeghe Ndong confirmed that he had died of a heart attack before 12:30 GMT on that day. He died at 73 years old.

Meles Zenawi (Ethiopia)

Born in Northern Ethiopia, he became the president of the transitional government of Ethiopia before he became the prime minister in 1995. Rumors of his health issues began to circulate in 2012 when he didn’t attend African Union summit in Addis Ababa. Opposition groups claimed that Meles might have died on 16th of July while undergoing a treatment in Belgium. His prime minister, Haile Mariam Desalagne put the rumors to rest stating that he was absent due to a minor illness. Meles was finally confirmed dead on 20th of August after contracting an infection in Belgium.

Joao Bernado Viera ( Guinea-Bissau)

Joao had ruled as President of Guinea-Bissau three times. He described himself as “God’s gift” to Guinea-Bissau during his tenure in office. Viera was killed by soldiers on 2nd March 2009 in retaliation to a bomb blast that killed Guinea-Bissau’s military chief General, Batista Tagme Na Waie. The Army took responsibility after the military denied the allegations. A state burial was held on 10th of March that year during which no foreign leaders were present.

Levy Patrick Mwanawasa (Zambia)

Levy was the republican president of Zambia. He ruled from 2002 to 2008. On 18th of August, Vice President Rupiah Banda said that Levy’s health has deteriorated and serious medical intervention was necessary. The intervention proved successful but on the 19th of August, a family member who craved anonymity disclosed that Mwanawasa had died that morning. That morning, Banda confirmed the death via a national broadcast. He said that the president has died at the Percy Hospital, Paris. Mwanawasa died at 59 years old.


Bingu Wa Matharika (Malawi)

He was a Malawian politician who ruled the country as the President from May 2004 till the time of his death. He was the president of the Democratic Progressive Party which he founded in February 2005. Mutharika died at the age of 78 on 5th of April 2012 after suffering from cardiac arrest. The former president was flown to South African hospital after power outages in Lilongwe. Mutharika’s death was confirmed publicly on the 7th of April.

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