Why don't African leaders die more often? And why do Africans die so much?

A recent AllAfrica.com piece wonders why African leaders keep dying. It does seem to happen a lot – Bingu here in Malawi, Mills just recently in Ghana, and Yar’Adua in Nigeria in 2010 come to mind immediately, and there are many other examples as well. The piece speculates that this is due to their more advanced age – playing to the stereotype of the President-for-life African strongman. dadakim counters with the surprising fact that African leaders aren’t in fact much older than executives from elsewhere, given the famous examples of extremely long tenure here. This is a really encouraging sign of improving governance.

Given that age is a non-starter, the next place to look is population-average mortality in Africa. I know that it’s high, although I didn’t know offhand exactly how much higher it is than in other places. Fortunately it’s easy to look up: according to Anderson and Ray (2010) , the age-specific mortality for men age 60-64 is 37.2 per 1000 people in Africa and 14 in developed countries.* In percentage terms, those are 3.72% and and 1.4% respectively.¬† The AllAfrica piece argues that the mortality of African presidents is 15% since 2008 (8 deaths since 2008 for 54 countries). I’m dubious about this kind of analysis since you can cherry-pick start and end dates to get any kind¬† of impressive number you want. For example, if we start and end this analysis on last week Tuesday, the mortality rate of African leaders was 2% per day, or 675% per year. If we pick Wednesday instead, the mortality rate is a much more reassuring 0% per year.

But let’s roll with it. 4.5 years have passed since January 2008. Sticking with a linear approximation, we get an approximate annual mortality for African leaders of 3.28% over that period. So the answer is that African leaders are about half a percentage point less likely to die in any given year than their non-executive countrymen of the same age range.

So a better question to ask is why Africa’s leaders don’t die more often? The obvious answer is that they have better access to healthcare than their countrymen. But that doesn’t always work out too well for them – Bingu’s desperate attempt to get to a South African hospital was a failure – which highlights the risks, even to elites, of having a low-quality health care system.

You might have noticed above that the average person in a developed country, aged 60-64, faces a mortality risk of just 1.4% per year. In a very real sense, it is better to be a random American or European than even an elite in a low-income country. High mortality is a part of life here, showing up both in the news and in the huge numbers of coffin shops you pass on the side of the road. From a vast burden of disease to poor early-childhood nutrition to shoddy, under-staffed, and under-stocked hospitals to even the low quality of roads, the reasons for this are legion.

*kim estimates the average age to be 62, and if I understand the history correctly, which I probably don’t, there are only 2 female leaders in African history, Sirleaf since 2006 and Banda starting this year.

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