How bad are things for some heads-of-state in Africa? Let me tell you three stories that can help answer that question.
One: the president of Mauritania was at his country home over the weekend. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was returning to Nouakchott, the capital, when his car stopped at a checkpoint. Allegedly, one of the soldiers didn’t recognize him, and accidentally shot him in the arm. Or the abdomen. Maybe both. Many people when they heard the story, well they assumed it was a coup that had failed. But no, insisted the president, it really wasn’t. It was just an accident. And other observers in Mauritania ultimately believed him. As a newspaper editor in Nouakchott said, the country’s soldiers are very nervous and live with their fingers on the trigger. President Aziz is now in Paris recuperating from his injuries.
Now, Mauritania is a country where most of the leadership changes since independence in 1960 have happened at gunpoint. I haven’t done a full count for all of Africa, but let’s just say a lot of governments have changed that way since 1960.
Which brings me to this next Africa item: The Mo Ibrahim prize. It was started in 2007 by Mo Ibrahim, a cell phone magnate who was born in Sudan. The idea is to award the multi-million dollar prize each year to an African leader who really delivers on promises, and who democratically transfers power to his or her successor. But this year, it was announced today, there was no winner — because the committee couldn’t find anyone who qualified. Same thing happened in 2009 and 2010. Which makes this final African story all the more poignant.
25 years ago today, one of Africa’s brightest lights was killed — in another one of those barrel-of-a-gun transfers of leadership. Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso, shot by his second in command and presumed best friend on this day in 1987. Some Americans might have remembered Sankara’s speech at the UN General Assembly in 1984. That’s where he stated his immortal words, “without a patriotic education, a soldier is nothing more than a criminal in power.” Kind of rich coming from an army captain president. But he had a lot of the continent rooting for him.
His killing was the first big story I covered in Africa. I stayed in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, waiting for the coup-maker Captain Blaise Compaore to fall. It never happened. And now, 25 years later, Mr. Compaore is still in power.