8 African leaders who were assassinated while still in power

The most notable assassinations of African leaders.

Some of the following leaders were democratically elected. Others took power in coups, only to die in subsequent coups. Dozens of countries across the globe have presidential assassinations in their histories. Countries of the African continent are no exception.

Below is a list of some African leaders who were assassinated while still in power:

1. Patrice Lumumba. (DR Congo, 1961)

Patrice Lumumba was announced Prime Minister in June 1961 at the age of 34. He endured a tumultuous tenure plagued by the Congo Crisis, which comprised of mutiny in the Army, secession of important mineral-rich regions-Katanga and South Kasai-with Belgian support, rebellion in some parts of the country, and inter-ethnic fights.

After failing to get the support of the US and the UN in fighting the secession, Lumumba turned to the Soviets-a cardinal sin in the era of the cold war. This led to division within his own government and his subsequent deposition by Army Chief, Joseph Mobutu (a.k.a Mobutu Sese Seko).

Patrice Emery Lumumba was executed by firing squad on January 17 1961. According to Wikipedia, his body was dug up and ‘dissolved in sulfuric acid while the bones were ground and scattered’.

2. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (Nigeria, 1966)

Balewa had a tumultuous reign as Prime Minister with regional factionalism (especially from the ‘wild, wild west’), electoral violence, political and ethnic unrest giving his government a hard time. When on 15 January 1966, a group of officers struck against the political class assassinating amongst prominent politicians, Sir Balewa was top of the hit list.

The exact manner of his death remains uncertain. What is certain, however, is that he was abducted from his official residence on 15 January 1966 and was missing for days. Many historical accounts hold that his body was found days later on the outskirts of Lagos, bullet-ridden and at an advanced stage of decomposition. His remains was laid to rest in Bauchi.

3. Marien Ngouabi, Republic of Congo (1977)

As head of the National Revolutionary Council, Marien Ngouabi came to power when his party became the country’s supreme authority in December 1968. He established the continent’s first Marxist-Leninist state, and founded the Congolese Workers’ Party as the sole legal political party. In March 1977, he was assassinated in a suicide mission, and an interim government was established headed by conservative Col. Joachim Yhombi-Opango.

4. Muhammad Anwar al-Sadaat (Egypt, 1981)

Sadaat was a man of oratory, charm, style and swagger with a knack for risk taking even with the possibilities of potential political cost. Muhammad Anwar al-Sadaat was assassinated at a Military parade in 1981 by a group of officers who were discontent about the Peace deal with Israel, worsening economy, imprisonment of opposition figures, among other things.

5. Samuel Doe (Liberia, 1990)

Doe became the 21st president of Liberia in 1980, serving as the first indigenous head of state in the country’s history. In 1989, the Liberian Civil War broke out after rebels, led by former ally Charles Taylor, entered the country through Côte d’Ivoire and captured Doe in a guerilla war.

Doe was seized by faction leader Prince Y. Johnson after a bloody gun battle at the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group’s peacekeeping headquarters in Monrovia. Doe was tortured before being executed. Taylor assumed the presidency and held onto power until 2003.

6. Juvenal Habyarimana/Cyprian Ntaryamira (Rwanda/Burundi, 1994)

On the evening of 6 April 1994, a Dassault Falcon 50 airplane was shot down as it approached Kigali International Airport for a stopover enroute Bujumbura, Burundi. In the flight were Rwandan President, Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President, Cyprian Ntaryamira.

Habyarimana’s death escalated already heated up Hutu/Tutsi ethnic tensions in a country where tribal identity and allegiance meant everything and could solely determine one’s chances of survival. This sparked off the Rwandan genocide of 1994 which saw almost a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus massacred to death within a space of four months.

Habyarimana’s death is still a subject of controversy in Rwanda. One version-the official version-has it that the plane was taken down by Hutu extremists desperate for an excuse to wipe out Tutsis, another version holds Tutsi fighters (allegedly led or ordered by Paul Kagame-current President) responsible.

Habyarimana, a Hutu, served from 1973 to 1994.

7. Thomas Isidore Noel Sankara (Burkina Faso, 1987)

Thomas Sankara seized power in a popular coup in 1983 in an attempt to break the country’s ties to its French colonial power. He gave the country its new name — Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta.

Sankara had an ambitious agenda to eliminate corruption and encourage economic and social progress, but this resulted in an increasingly authoritarian approach to power.

Though he remained an icon to the poor, his policies aggravated the middle class, as well as traditional tribal leaders. He was overthrown and assassinated in a coup led by the French-backed Blaise Compaoré in October 1987.

8. Laurent Kabila, Democratic Republic of Congo (2001)

Laurent Kabila took power in the DRC in 1997 after overthrowing Mobutu Sese Seko and served for four years before being shot in January 2001 by one of his bodyguards. According to some DRC officials, the assassination was masterminded by Rwanda, though 11 Lebanese nationals were executed shortly after the event. Kabila’s party managed to retain power, and Laurent’s son, Joseph Kabila, succeeded his father eight days later.


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