10 Most Corrupt African Dictators in Modern History

10 Most Corrupt African Dictators in Modern History

Stephanie Schoppert - October 8, 2016

When it comes to Africa both during and after colonialism, many states can be recognized as having some of the worst leaders the world has ever seen. African dictators can be some of the richest people in the world and leading a country filled with the poorest. They can kill and starve their people with impunity while lining their own pockets. They treat the land and lives of millions as their own personal playgrounds, making people work to increase the fortune of their leaders while they face brutal reprisals if they don’t work.

Many of these dictators are in power due to military coups and some continued to stay in power due to the proxy wars of the cold war. Even as the outright corruption was obvious, inflation skyrocketed and humanitarian groups were unable to function, these leaders were able to stay in power due to brutal enforcement of their regime. Unfortunately, this list is far from comprehensive as there are many other African leaders that can be considered just as bad or worse, depending on your criteria.

10 Most Corrupt African Dictators in Modern History

Francisco Macias Nquema of Equatorial New Guinea

(1968 – 1979)

Franciso Macias Nguema was the very first president of Equatorial Guinea and he created a bad example for those that would follow him. In 1964 he became deputy prime minister and he became president when he won the only free election the country has ever had in 1968. In 1971, Macias Nguema put forth a decree that bestowed all powers of the government and its institutions to him. On October 18th, 1971 he declared that anyone who threatened the president or the government would be punished with death. Insulting the president or his cabinet was punished with 30 years in prison. During his reign, nearly a third of the population was killed or exiled.

Franciso Macias Nguema was a very paranoid man and one who would relinquish power to no one. He stayed in a hut in his ancestral village and kept all of the national treasury under his bed or in suitcases in his hut. He was also distrusting of anyone who was educated or appeared to be educated (wearing spectacles for example). So he killed or exiled anyone who appeared to be educated and it became very dangerous for anyone to have any books or written papers in their possession.

Francisco Macias Nguema hoarded the money of the state, never taking it out of his suitcases. Government officials and the national guard often went to great lengths without seeing any form of payment but they dared not ask for it. In 1979 members of the National Guard, including Macias Nguema’s own brother requested that they be allowed to take money from the suitcases to pay the National Guard. They were all immediately executed. It was this paranoia that eventually led to the end of Macias Nguema’s reign.

His own nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who was also a member of the National Guard, believed that it was kill or be killed and decided to overthrow his uncle in 1979.

10 Most Corrupt African Dictators in Modern History

General Sani Abacha of Nigeria


General Sani Abacha ruled for only five years but during that time he operated a secretive and brutal regime that left Nigeria in absolute poverty. He obtained power through a military coup on November 17th 1993. The following year he issued a decree that gave him absolute power by placing the authority of his government over that of the courts. He also issued a decree that would allow him to imprison anyone for three months without trial.

On the surface, one might think that Abacha had a successful presidency. He would be able to increase the country’s foreign exchange reserves to $9.6 billion by the middle of 1997. He reduced the country’s debt by $9 billion and reduced the inflation rate to 8.5% which had been previously getting out of control at 54%. His economic achievements were very impressive considering the dire economic straits that the country had been in prior to his leadership. However, the real story is very different.

Sani Abacha is considered to be one of the most corrupt leaders in history because of the amount of money he stole from his own country. The main export of Nigeria was oil and Abacha and his partners took control of nearly every aspect of the industry. The country earned about $10 billion a year from its oil sales and it provides 80% of Nigeria’s government revenue, but that did not stop Abacha from siphoning a large percentage of that revenue for his own fortune. It is believed that he stole more than $4.3 billion from the government for himself in a country where the GDP per capita was less than $3,000.

Human rights abuses were also rampant during his tenure as he was known to kill or imprison any political opposition to his control. Torture and lengthy imprisonments for minor crimes were common. Relatives of those who were wanted by the government would often be imprisoned in order to convince the wanted criminals to turn themselves in.

10 Most Corrupt African Dictators in Modern History

Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe

(1987 – Present)

Robert Mugabe has been President of Zimbabwe for decades and became a well-known figure in Zimbabwe (what was then Rhodesia) after he became the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union. He was imprisoned for 10 years from 1964 to 1974 and when he was released he went to Mozambique to create a rebel force to start the Rhodesian Bush War. He won the election for Prime Minister in 1980 and became Prime Minister when Zimbabwe gained its independence. As soon as he came into power he started to consolidate it by creating a single-party state and employing a North Korean trained security force to deal with dissidents. In December of 1987, he declared himself President and consolidated all powers of the states and gave himself the power to dissolve the parliament and declare martial law.

Mugabe continues to win presidential elections due to widespread corruption and fraud. In the 2002 and 2008 elections, it was known that Mugabe built torture camps to punish anyone that would support his opponent. Many believe that fraud and corruption are the only reasons that Mugabe remains in power as he has driven a once economically successful country into ruin. Zimbabwe has the highest unemployment of any African country with about 70% unemployment. While his personal fortune does not seem like much compared to some of the other dictators in Africa, in a country with a GDP per capita of $953, a $10 million net worth is staggering. It is estimated that the country loses $1 billion of its $13 billion GDP to corruption every year.

Most of his corruption comes from his desires to consolidate power and rig the elections so that he can stay in power indefinitely. Even after agreeing to a power-sharing arrangement and trying to appease the international community, he is still known for looting the diamond deposits and killing or torturing his opposition.

10 Most Corrupt African Dictators in Modern History

Tedodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial New Guinea

(1979 – Present)

The name Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo might sound familiar and that is because he is the one who took power from his uncle Francisco Macias Nguema in 1979. He has held power with an iron fist and remains the longest-serving president in the entire world and the longest-serving leader in Africa. He started his rule on a positive note, saying that his leadership would end the tyranny of his uncle. Political prisoners were released and the governmental system of forced labor was abolished. However, he continues to win presidential elections through fraudulent means winning as much as 97% of the vote. Few members of the international community believe that the elections in Equatorial New Guinea are free. Obiang has also refused to step down from his position as president despite term limits in the 2011 constitution.

There have been numerous human rights abuses including killings done by the government, unlawful imprisonment, torture, and horrible conditions within prisons. There is no free press in the country and the opposition party while legal, often finds themselves facing punishment from the government. Obiang has also created a cult of worship in the state for himself, with streets that commemorate his coup, people wear clothes with his pictures on them and speeches are always ended with giving him well-wishes.

His theft of state funds has increased his personal wealth and the wealth of his family to staggering levels. It is believed that he has a net worth of $600 million which makes him one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state. In 2003 he took control of the treasury because of “widespread corruption” and said that he needed to put half a billion dollars into a bank account that he controlled in order to protect it. Obiang and his cabinet get billions each year in oil revenue but it does not translate to more public spending but rather spending on presidential expenses.

10 Most Corrupt African Dictators in Modern History

Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan

(1989 – Present)

Omar Al-Bashir came to power in Sudan in 1989 after he led a military coup against the democratically elected leader Sadiq al-Mahdi. In 1993 he declared himself President and disbanded all rival political parties. He has held three elections since he took power and was re-elected each time, though each election has been under fire for corruption. In the 1996 election al-Bashir was the only candidate allowed by law to run and therefore he won by a landslide. Even once opposition parties were allowed and South Sudan became semi-autonomous he continues to win elections that the international community finds to be wrought with corruption.

Omar Al-Bashir is currently the only standing president to have arrest warrants issued against him by the International Criminal Court. His warrant is for crimes against humanity largely for the crisis in Darfur in which Omar Al-Bashir was found to be connected to the genocide that occurred there. He was indicted on crimes of murder, extermination, torture, rape, forcible transfer and the war crimes of pillaging and intentionally directing attacks against civilians. These are severe accusations but they have not dampened the adoration of the Sudanese people for their president and many other African nations have spoken against the indictments. Since Sudan and Al-Bashir do not recognize the International Criminal Court he continues to remain president.

His corruption goes far beyond his crimes against humanity, he has also done a great deal of looting the state. Leaked diplomatic cables suggest that Omar Al-Bashir has as much as $9 billion stashed away with the London banks. The cables suggested that if the Sudanese people knew how much he had taken from the national treasury they would view him as a thief and not a crusader for the Sudanese people. The average annual income of a person in Sudan is $960 which shows just how much Omar Al-Bashir may have stolen from the people and how deep in poverty the rest of the country remains.

10 Most Corrupt African Dictators in Modern History

General Idi Amin Dada of Uganda

(1971 – 1979)

General Idi Amin Dada of Uganda first rose to prominence when he took the rank of major general in the Ugandan Army following independence. He became commander of the army and then took power in Uganda through a military coup in January 1971. He was in power for only 8 years but it was some of the worst years in Ugandan history.

When he took power he promised that he was not a politician and he would only stay in power until free elections could be held. However, a week later he declared himself President and suspended numerous parts of the Ugandan constitution. He created a military dictatorship, where military officers were put in top positions of government and the military tribunals were put above civil law. He created the State Research Bureau which would torture and execute any who opposed Idi Amin’s rule.

In 1972, Ugandan exile attempted a coup against Idi Amin. They failed but it made him paranoid. He increased his force and retaliated against the ethnic groups that the rebels belonged to. Thousands were killed or disappeared. Before long other ethnic groups were added to the purge and it is estimated that anywhere from 80,000 to 300,000 people were killed during Idi Amin’s 8-year reign. He believed that Asians and Europeans, whether or not they were Ugandan citizens had no right to Ugandan businesses and he took them away and gave them to his followers. The businesses were mismanaged and failed, which caused the country’s economy to decline.

He redirected most of the country’s money to the military and to himself which left the rest of Uganda to suffer in abject poverty. He took so much of the country’s money for himself that the inflation rate in Uganda rose to 1,000 percent by the time he was driven out of power.

10 Most Corrupt African Dictators in Modern History

Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola

(1979 – 2017)

Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola is the second-longest-serving leader in Africa and is surpassed only by Teodoro Obiang Nguema who came into power two months before dos Santos. He rose to prominence within Angola as part of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola which fought for Angola’s independence. After the country’s independence, he became a member of the Central Committee and eventually served as Deputy Prime Minister. On September 20th, 1979 he was elected as the second President of Angola and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos has repeatedly stated that he will step down as President and that elections will be held but the elections always end with him being re-elected as leader of the ruling party and the majority party’s leader automatically becomes president. While on the surface he has boosted the Angolan economy and developed the oil sector of the country’s industry. He has also worked to increase market cooperation and foreign investment in African diamond industries.

However, as the economy of Angola grows, the wealth of its citizens remains stagnant. Almost 70% of the population exists on only $2 a day while the government budget has grown to $69 billion. It was discovered that $32 billion in oil revenues just disappeared. Not only does dos Santos and his family appear to be looting from the oil revenues but when many industries were privatized after the Angolan Civil War he took control of many of those industries personally. He also took over a number of natural resource industries which continues to build his personal wealth. He has an estimated net worth of $20 billion and his daughter has a net worth of $3.8 billion.

10 Most Corrupt African Dictators in Modern History

Idriss Deby of Chad

(1990- Present)

Idriss Deby started his rise to fame in Chad when he entered the Officers’ School in N’Djamena. He remained a strong and loyal member of the army until the central authority fell apart in 1979. Idriss Deby chose to throw his support behind warlord Hissene Habre who would become president in 1982. Shortly after Idriss Deby was made Commander-in-Chief of the army. Habre led an oppressive regime and eventually Idriss Deby was sent into exile after Habre accused him of planning a coup. In exile, Idriss Deby formed a rebellion aided by Sudan and Libya. He took power in late 1990.

Idriss Deby put Chad on a path to economic growth with the building of an oil pipeline. However, the pipeline ended up bringing the corruption within Chad to the forefront. The revenues from the Chad-Cameroon Pipeline Development and the Pipeline Project were supposed to be used to combat famine within Chad. Instead, Idriss Deby took the funds to buy more weapons for the military in order to combat the numerous coup attempts against him. It was considered by Forbes in 2006 to be the “single most piggish use of philanthropic funds” and they ranked Chad as the most corrupt country in the world that year.

His regime has also been characterized by human rights abuses against his opposition and it is clear that all of the elections that have been held since he took power have been fraudulent. In 2005 he eliminated term limits and said in 2016 he would reinstate them but the people have little hope that he will stand by his word. Coup attempts continue to come after every election as the economic conditions of the majority of the population continue to decline and human rights abuses continue. But there is a good part of his reign and that is that he has been a strong force against Boko Haram in Sub-Saharan Africa.

10 Most Corrupt African Dictators in Modern History

Charles Taylor of Liberia

(1997 – 2003)

Charles Taylor of Liberia was one of the few corrupt leaders on this or any list that resigned from power. He was born in Liberia but went to Bentley College in the U.S. before returning to Liberia as part of Samuel Doe’s government. He was fired for embezzling $1 million into an American bank account and he fled to the U.S., where he was arrested. He escaped custody and fled to Libya where he formed the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. This started the First Liberian Civil War which ended in 1996. Charles Taylor then ran for President with the infamous slogan “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.”

As President, he created his own private army while reducing the size of the Armed Forces of Liberia. He was charged with war crimes for his ties to the violence in Sierra Leone in 2003 which included murder, enslavement and the use of child soldiers. He also was believed to have accepted diamonds in exchange for weapons to support the rebels in Sierra Leone.

His corruption of the treasury and industry was as bad as his human rights abuses. He was known to take revenue from the Liberian logging industry. He used that money not only for his own gain but to fund rebels in other states and to destabilize the region. The logging companies all paid funds to Taylor while also providing a way for him to smuggle arms into the country even after arms embargoes were imposed on Liberia. He was believed to have amassed of fortune of $100 million despite Liberia being a desperately poor country.

In 1999 as he was being accused of being a gun runner and a diamond smuggler. He was indicted on 11 counts of crimes against humanity and in 2003 he was asked to step down by President Bush and the international community. He was later convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

10 Most Corrupt African Dictators in Modern History

Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

(1965 – 1997)

Mobutu Sese Seko was a leader that was able to bleed his country dry while still enjoying the support of countries like the United States because of his anti-communist stance. Mobutu Sese Seko led a coup d’état with the help of Belgium against the democratically elected president Patrice Lumumba. Patrice Lumumba was killed and Mobutu Sese Seko took over the role of army chief of staff in 1960. In 1965 he took power directly and declared himself leader of the Congo. He would later rename the country Zaire but it would become the Democratic Republic of the Congo when Mobutu was ousted from power.

He created a one-party state that concentrated all power in his hands. He created a culture that was based around his worship and he often flaunted his personal extravagance to build up on his cult of personality. His highly centralized government allowed him to loot the state coffers with impunity, leading many to call his government a “kleptocracy” due to the massive amount of funds he stole. He forced all foreign investors from the country and nationalized all foreign-owned firms. The management of said firms was passed to relatives or allies which would just steal the assets of the company. He lived an opulent lifestyle with state funds and amassed a personal fortune of more than $5 billion.

His reign was also filled with human rights abuses. He would imprison, torture and kill his political opponents often publicly. He would lure opponents who went into exile by promising them amnesty only to torture them once they emerged. His reign of terror and theft came to an end with the First Congo War when Laurent-Desire Kabila took control of the government with the support of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.


Sources For Further Reading:

Foreign Policy – How the World’s Hardest-Working Dictator Won Re-election

BBC News – Sani Abacha: 10 Reasons Why Nigerians Go Always Tok About Di Late Dictator

The Washington Post – How Zimbabwe’s Mugabe Clung To Power For Almost 40 Years

The Independent – Mugabe Extends Term To Declare Himself The ‘President-For-Life’

PBS Frontline – Cameroon: Pipeline to Prosperity?

BBC – Chad’s Hissene Habre

DW – Chad Leader Idriss Deby Dies On Battlefield After Winning Reelection

Brookings – The Death Of Chadian President Idris Déby Itno Threatens Stability In The Region

The Conversation – Idriss Déby Itno Offered Chadians Great Hope, But Ended Up Leaving A Terrible Legacy

The New York Times – Hunting for Liberia’s Missing Millions

The Washington Post – Mobutu: A Rich Man In Poor Standing

New York Times – Mobutu Sese Seko, Zairian Ruler, Is Dead in Exile in Morocco at 66