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Murders & pilot errors: 6 African heads of state & gov't who died in plane crashes

Throughout history, numerous African leaders have tragically lost their lives in plane crashes, leaving an indelible mark on their nations and the continent.

An AI generated image depicting a crashing plane

These incidents not only cut short promising careers but also left nations grappling with sudden leadership voids and political turmoil.

From vice presidents to prime ministers and presidents, the list of African heads of state and government who perished in aviation disasters is a sombre reminder of the fragility of life and the immense impact of such tragedies on national and regional stability.

One of the recent and heartbreaking incidents involves Malawi's Vice President, Saulos Chilima. On June 11, 2024, Chilima and nine others perished in a plane crash.

The military aircraft carrying Chilima went missing on Monday morning during a 45-minute flight from Lilongwe to Mzuzu, a journey that usually takes less than an hour. The plane was unable to land at Mzuzu due to poor weather conditions and was advised to return to Lilongwe. However, contact with the aircraft was lost, and it disappeared from radar.

The wreckage of the plane was discovered in a mountainous region in the northern part of the country after an extensive search that lasted over 24 hours. President Lazarus Chakwera confirmed the devastating news, stating that all on board had perished in the crash.

Chilima, aged 51, was a potential contender for next year's presidential election and had recently faced corruption charges, which were dropped last month.

The victims included seven passengers, consisting of members of Chilima's staff and security detail, former first lady Shanil Dzimbiri, and three crew members. The group was en route to attend the funeral of a former government minister.

The international community responded with offers of assistance, including the U.S., the U.K., Norway, and Israel, who provided specialised technologies.

On October 19, 1986, a Tupolev Tu-134 jetliner carrying Mozambican President Samora Machel and 43 others crashed near the Mozambican-South African border, resulting in the deaths of 37 people.

The incident occurred during a return flight from a summit in Mbala, Zambia, where Machel had attended a meeting to pressure Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko over his support for the Angolan opposition movement UNITA.

The plane, registered as C9-CAA, departed from Maputo and flew over Zimbabwe before refuelling at Lusaka in Zambia.

After a day of discussions, it took off again, heading back to Maputo. At around 20:46, the radio operator contacted Maputo Air Traffic Control, reporting their position over the VOR (Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range) signal.

However, the crew made several critical errors, including failing to identify the VOR and ignoring the GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System) warnings, which ultimately led to the crash.

The South African government established the Margo Commission to investigate the incident, which concluded that the accident was caused by pilot error.

The report was accepted by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), but rejected by the Mozambican and Soviet governments, who suspected foul play.

They believed that the plane was intentionally lured off course by a decoy radio navigation beacon set up by the South Africans.

Despite the controversy surrounding the crash, the official investigation concluded that the accident was a result of pilot error and poor decision-making.

On May 27, 1979, a plane carrying Ahmed Ould Bouceif, the Prime Minister of Mauritania, crashed off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. Bouceif was on his way to attend an African summit when the accident occurred.

Bouceif a senior military officer had seized power in a coup d'état in April 1979, becoming the 2nd Prime Minister of Mauritania.

However, he died just a month later in a plane crash.

The de Havilland Canada DHC-5 Buffalo aircraft crashed into the sea near Dakar, killing Bouceif and all other passengers on board.

After the crash, Col. Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah emerged as the main strongman in Mauritania's new government.

On the evening of April 6, 1994, a devastating plane crash in Kigali, Rwanda, claimed the lives of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira.

The tragic event marked the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, which would ultimately result in the loss of over 800,000 lives, primarily among the Tutsis and Hutus.

The aircraft carrying the two presidents, both Hutu, was shot down as it approached Kigali's airport.

The news of the crash was initially reported as an explosion of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) ammunition dump, but it was quickly confirmed that the plane had been struck by a missile.

The UNAMIR Force Commander, Dallaire, ordered a patrol to investigate the crash site, and numerous people began calling UNAMIR seeking information, including Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and Lando Ndasingwa.

The crash led to widespread panic and chaos in Rwanda. The Presidential Guards, described as "nervous and dangerous" by a UNAMIR report, set up roadblocks near the Hotel Méridien, stopping and disarming a UNAMIR patrol sent to investigate the crash site.

The situation in Burundi, however, remained peaceful, with the government declaring the plane crash an accident and appealing for calm.

The assassination of Habyarimana and Ntaryamira sparked a chain of events that would ultimately lead to the Rwandan genocide.

The RPF, led by Paul Kagame, who is now the President of Rwanda, was accused of orchestrating the attack.

However, a recent French investigation concluded that the missile responsible for downing the plane originated from a distance of up to 1km from the aircraft, which was under the control of the Rwandan military at the time.

This led to speculation that Habyarimana's troops or French troops stationed nearby could have launched the missile.

Barthélemy Boganda, the first Prime Minister of the Central African Republic, died in a plane crash on March 29, 1959, while en route from Berbérati to Bangui.

The Nord Noratlas plane, owned by Union Aéromaritime de Transport, went missing and its wreckage was discovered the next day in the Boda District. All nine people on board, including Boganda, were killed.

A French investigation team found traces of explosives in the plane's wreckage, but a full report was never published.

Many Central Africans believed the crash was an assassination, suspecting expatriate businessmen from Bangui's Chamber of Commerce or Boganda's estranged wife Michelle Jourdain, who had a large insurance policy on his life, were involved. Historian Gérard Prunier wrote that "the probability of foul play was very high".

Boganda was the country's most popular nationalist figure and had been instrumental in drafting a constitution for the republic.

Joël Rakotomalala, the 9th Prime Minister of Madagascar, died in a helicopter accident on July 30, 1976.

He was 47 years old at the time of his death. The accident occurred during a short flight with the chief of staff, Alphonse Rakotonirainy, in an Aérospatiale Alouette III transport helicopter.

The helicopter took off from Antananarivo but crashed at the third stage of its flight, around noon.

The cause of the crash was attributed to inadequate maintenance of the aircraft, which led to engine failure and a forced landing, destroying the aircraft.

All four people on board, including Rakotomalala and Rakotonirainy, were killed in the accident.

On October 29, 2006, a Boeing 737 aircraft operated by ADC Airlines (Flight 053) crashed near the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, Nigeria, killing most of its passengers and crew members.

The flight was headed to Sokoto, where the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Maccido, was returning after meeting with then-President Olusegun Obasanjo in Abuja.

The plane, which carried 105 people, including the Sultan, his son Senator Badamasi Maccido, and other prominent figures, crashed into a field about two kilometres from the runway.

The crash resulted in the deaths of all but seven passengers and five crew members13. The Sultan of Sokoto, who was the spiritual leader of Nigeria's 70 million Muslims, was among those killed.

His son, Senator Badamasi Maccido, was also on the flight. Other notable passengers included Abdulrahman Shehu Shagari, the son of former President Shehu Shagari, and several government officials.

The crash was attributed to the pilot's decision to take off in unsuitable weather conditions, with the presence of wind shear posing a significant risk to the aircraft's ability to fly.

The investigation also revealed inadequate company oversights on wind shear recovery training and a lack of teamwork among the pilots.

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