Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Since 1989, Omar Al-Bashir has become one of the most despised figures in African and international civil society. His regime is believed to have perpetuated and inflamed the Darfur genocide, which has terrorized, killed or displaced millions of black Africans. Bashir also has the distinction of being the first sitting head of state to be charged with crimes against humanity by the International Crininal Court.
The reign of King Mswati III, the last monarch on the continent, has been a disaster by any metric. For years, his AIDS prevention policy in Swaziland was an outright ban on sex for women under age 18 (not men), a policy that was rescinded so that he could take another wife—just 17 at the time. He now has fourteen wives and 27 children, for whom Swazis pay $30 million in "royal emoluments" annually.
Forced to share power after a close election in 2007, Odinga and Kibaki are both progressive, pro-democratic leaders who preside over a comparatively stable and prosperous Kenya. But the lack of civility and cooperation between the leaders has caused not only a stalemate in the Kenyan Parliament, it prompted a weeklong sex strike among women's groups claiming that the men who run Kenya need to get it together.
For decades, Qaddafi was a sworn enemy of the United States. In 2003, Libya renounced its nuclear ambitions and resumed diplomatic relations with much of the world's leadership. Obama greeted the long-serving leader at the G8, but after 40 years of rule, Qaddafi may yet be trying to promote the succession of his sons—a move that goes against the new spirit of cooperation with international norms.
The elusive rebel commander has led the Lord’s Resistance Army, a band of insurgents operating in Northern Uganda, Eastern Congo and Southern Sudan, for 20 years. Kony is known for his fervent spirituality and the bizarre and violent practices he requires of militia members. In 2008, he kept journalists and negotiators waiting to sign a hard-fought peace treaty with the Ugandan government sitting in the jungle for three days.
In a continent with a history of dictatorship, the democratic transfer of power is a sensitive subject. So when Tandja tried to dissolve Niger's National Assembly and Constitutional Court in order to stay on as president past his 2009 expiration date, Barack Obama, the African Union and the ECOWAS economic bloc—which Tandja chaired in 2006—said "not so fast."
Called “Africa’s Next Big Man” by western news outlets, Jacob Zuma’s stock has risen considerably since he took the helm of the African nation that leads the continent in both tourism and international trade. He's a big improvement on the indecisive Thabo Mbeki, though his shady past and poor record on AIDS prevention has dimmed his star. President Obama has offered a vote of conficence, agreeing to pay Zuma a visit during the first African World Cup in 2010.
Though he is a regular on the international diplomatic circuit, Obiang has ruled Guinea with a textbook "iron fist" since 1979—promoting family members, winning "elections" with 98 percent of the vote, squashing dissent with extreme violence, and stealing oil monies from his people. Obiang has survived multiple coup attempts—meaning the former Spanish colony is still one of the most impoverished and politically repressed countries on the continent.
Clinging to the tatters of a mandate claimed in Zimbabwe’s 1980 independence movement, Robert Mugabe stole a sixth term as president through violence. Though he's driven Zimbabwe into poverty and embarassment, he epitomizes the respect-your-elders culture that frequently undermines democratic institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. Here's hoping Obama takes a different tack.
Robert Mugabe's brazen theft of the 2008 election in Zimbabwe highlights the plight facing Tsvangirai, the reformist candidate now helping to run a poverty-stricken and economically broken state. Until the despot moves on, his role is limited to being the "un-Mugabe." He's met with allies around the world—including Obama—who have offered warm words but little financial or military support.
As Obama and other observers have stressed, it's not all bad: The story of good governance in Africa is picking up steam and acquiring many more fascinating actors such as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The first female head of state on a patriarchal continent, Sirleaf took office in war-torn Liberia on the backs of thousands of working women who walked to polls and waited in line in order to exercise their democratic rights.
Botswana has been democratically ruled since independence. And under Mogae’s leadership, it's grown into an example of effective state response to the AIDS epidemic and comparatively strong economic growth. After leaving office quietly in 2008, Mogae became the first recipient of the Mo Ibrahim award for good governance in Africa. Here’s Mogae on Charlie Rose in 2004, discussing his commitment to stopping the spread of HIV in southern Africa.
President Obama has praised Ghana’s commitment to the rule of law, and during his visit will give a speech on the importance of reliable social and political institutions. The successful 2009 transfer of power from John Kufuor to Mills is evidence of such national civic progress.