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Africa’s top four disciplinarian presidents

Presidents are supposed to wield their power with as much grace and restraint as possible but sometimes, the commander-in-chief turns into the disciplinarian-in-chief. We’ve made a list of the African leaders who have put the fear of God into their subordinates with forced physical exercise, sackings and – no we’re not making this up – beatings.



Working under the African presidents on our list can’t be the easiest day job in the world. They have little patience for subordinates who won’t tow the line and they always make sure punishment is meted out swiftly. They are disciplinarians at heart and for them, the most important thing is that their orders are followed to the letter.

Yes, some of the presidents on our list are also widely perceived to be dictators and their record on human rights is at best spotty. But, for the purpose of this list, we’re concerned only with the way they have behaved towards their underlings in government. Thus, while not everyone on this list is a tyrant in the classic sense, what they do have in common is their disciplinarian streak. Here, in no particular order, are the leaders who made the cut for our list of Africa’s top four disciplinarian presidents.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda

President Paul Kagame has made no secret of his ambitions to transform Rwanda into an African success story within record time and he is making steady progress. Economically, Rwanda keeps recording impressive GDP growth figures and its ranking on the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness index is the envy of its larger East African neighbours.


Much of this is down to Kagame’s leadership and work ethic. The latter trait is underlined by the fact that, according to a New York Times profile, “he routinely stays up to 2 or 3 a.m. to thumb through back issues of The Economist or study progress reports from red-dirt villages across his country, constantly searching for better, more efficient ways to stretch the billion dollars his government gets each year from donor nations that hold him up as a shining example of what aid money can do in Africa”.

The New York Times profile by the paper’s East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman however also notes an uglier side to Kagame; his tendency to react to his underlings’ blunders with physical violence. The piece relates a disturbing incident witnessed by David Himbara, a former confidant of Kagame’s who now lives in exile in South Africa. Himbara relates how Kagame once called a finance director and army officer into his office in 2009, scolded them about where they had bought office curtains before proceeding to call two guards into his office with sticks. Kagame then told his two juniors to lie face down at which point he started canning them furiously. As per Himbara’s telling, once he was tired, Kagame gave the sticks to the guards to continue beating the men.

Kagame: “I can be very tough, I can make mistakes like that.”

Gettleman says he spoke to several of Kagame’s former subordinates who recalled their own stories of thrashings administered by the president in a furious rage including a former driver who said he was beaten after someone else drove into a pole. When pressed about the beatings by Gettleman, Kagame didn’t deny being physically abusive towards his subordinates. “It’s my nature,” he said. “I can be very tough, I can make mistakes like that.” The only thing the Rwandan leader said that hinted towards some remorse for his actions was that assaulting his subordinates wasn’t a “sustainable” approach. Make of that what you will.


President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria


Like Paul Kagame, President Muhammadu Buhari is on a mission to put his country on a sustainable path to economic growth. Similarly to Kagame, he is a former military man with a reputation of sternness and delivering results. During his first go as Nigeria’s leader (as a military head of state) in 1984, Buhari developed quite a reputation as a strict disciplinarian.

It was during this first stint that he introduced what he called “War Against Indiscipline” in an effort to get Nigerians to adopt basic civility like queuing at bus stops. He achieved this by deploying soldiers with whips at the stations. But the “War Against Indiscipline” also targeted those who worked under Buhari. At the time, civil servants who turned up late for work were forced to do frog jumps to atone for their tardiness.

Now there is talk that Buhari’s current government wants to rejuvenat the “War Against Indiscipline” and introduce it anew. According to Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the new campaign will be branded “Change Begins With Me” and will aim at raising the level of integrity, work ethic and general civil discipline in the country.


If it’s anything like the first one, this new campaign by Buhari’s administration is sure to have more than a few civil servants shaking in their boots.


President John Pombe Magufuli of Tanzania

John Pombe Magufuli currently has, perhaps, the best approval ratings of any president in Africa. Since taking the oath of office in November last year, he has been on a one-man campaign to rid his government of corruption, incompetence, truancy and inefficiency. He cancelled the Independence Day celebrations and led a street cleaning drive on the day instead, cut the budget for the opulent dinner meant to celebrate the opening of parliament by 90% and named 11 less minister’s than were in his predecessor’s cabinet.

The Bulldozer: Tanzania's love President Magufuli approach to government. (Photo: Issa Michuzi via

The Bulldozer: Tanzania’s love President Magufuli’s take no prisoners approach to governing. (Photo: Issa Michuzi via

Tanzanians so love Magufuli’s ‘take no prisoners’ approach they have nicknamed him “The Bulldozer”. His exploits have also intrigued the Twitter community in East Africa which has come up with #WhatWouldMagufuliDo, a tongue-in-cheek hashtag inspired by his penny-pinching ways.


Magufuli has also earned his stripes as a disciplinarian in the short time he has been in power. At times, its almost seems like he is in a hurry to break some sort of disciplinarian-in-chief record. His preferred method of making sure people tow the line is showing them what happens when they don’t. Magufuli doesn’t believe in giving second chances. You mess up, you walk.

Since being sworn in, Magufuli has fired more than 150 senior government officials including Tanzania’s anti corruption boss and the Chief Secretary. Magufuli hasn’t spared his close associates either in his purge. He recently fired Tanzania’s Home Affairs minister Charles Kitwanga, a close friend, for showing up drunk in parliament. Take no prisoners indeed!

Since being sworn in, Magufuli has fired more than 150 senior government officials including Tanzania’s anti corruption boss and the Chief Secretary

President Salva Kiir of South Sudan 

The South Sudanese President makes it to our list courtesy of a Facebook post by Mabior Garang de Mabior, the son of the country’s founding leader Dr. John Garang de Mabior. The young Garang, who serves as the Minister for Water Resources, took to Facebook in early May to grouse about being forced out of a cabinet meeting by the president for – wait for it – wearing a bow tie.

Kiir has apparently imposed a dress code on his ministers and even a bow tie doesn’t cut. It must be a tie. Anyone familiar with Africa’s youngest country’s current problems would hope this is not a sign of misplaced priorities and that Kiir sees the value of a bespoke suit in instilling a sense of purpose in his charges. One hopes.

There you have it folks, those are Africa’s top four disciplinarian presidents, warts and all. Their approach to management is certainly unconventional but no doubt justified (in their minds) by the unique challenges their countries face. In his attempts to justify his actions to Gettleman, Kagame all but quotes Shakespeare’s famous line about the burden of command: “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. Buhari, Magufuli and Kiir would nod in approval.


PS: Could this list be longer? Is there any African leader we missed and you feel should have made the cut? Add their name in the comments section below and all your dreams will come true.”