Notable African deaths of 2019

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A look back at some of the figures on the African continent who we said farewell to this year.

January

  • Oliver Mtukudzi, Zimbabwean musician, 66:
Oliver Mtukudzi

He came to prominence in the 1970s as one of voices of the revolution fighting white-minority rule. Affectionately known as “Tuku”, his lyrics often carried social messages about HIV/Aids and coded political commentary. 

  • Houari Manar, Algerian singer, 37:
Houari Manar

One of Algeria’s most popular and flamboyant singers of traditional folk music rai. He died as he was undergoing cosmetic surgery. His critics did not like the way he addressed socially sensitive topics in his lyrics, such as homosexuality. 

  • Hugh Lewin, South African writer and anti-apartheid activist, 79:

He won the 2003 Olive Schreiner Prize for his prison memoir Bandiet Out of Jail about his imprisonment for seven years during apartheid, when he kept a secret record of his experiences and those of his fellow inmates on the pages of his Bible. 

  • Ahmed Hussein-Suale, Ghanaian investigative journalist, 31:
Ahmed Hussein-Suale

Shot dead near his family home in capital, Accra, he was a member of Tiger Eye Private Investigations and had investigated corruption in Ghana’s football leagues. Police believe he was killed because of his work. 

February

  • Bisi Silva, Nigerian art curator, 56:
Bisi Silva

The founder of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos and the Asiko Art School, she created influential shows about African art across the world and told the BBC in 2014 about the importance of her project to preserve the work of photographer JD Okhai Ojeikere, who she said documented cultures and traditions that are dying out. 

  • France-Albert René, ex-president of the Seychelles, 83:
France-Albert René

He seized power in a coup in 1977 – the year after independence from the UK – and ruled the Indian Ocean archipelago for 27 years. Supporters credit him with introducing a socialist development programme, but critics say he ran an oppressive regime that crushed dissent. 

  • Dorothy Masuka, Zimbabwean-born South African jazz singer, 83:
Dorothy Masuka in 2016

One of the most famous township singers in 1950s South Africa, she wrote some of the biggest hits of that decade. But when she dared to write political songs – one named after apartheid Prime Minister Daniel Malan and another speculating about the death in 1961 of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, she was exiled for more than 30 years. 

  • Caroline Mwatha, Kenyan human rights activist, 37:
Caroline Mwatha

Known for her work documenting extrajudicial police killings, she was missing for five days until her body was found in a morgue registered under a different name. The authorities said she had died after complications from an illegal abortion. Amnesty International said her death “dealt a heavy blow” to Kenyan human rights defenders. 

  • Charles Mungoshi, Zimbabwean writer, 71:

A prolific and internationally celebrated novelist and poet, he twice won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize of Best Book in Africa – in 1988 and a decade later. His first collection of short stories, Coming of the Dry Season, published in 1972, was banned by the white-minority government at the time. 

  • Chris Kantai, Kenyan hip-hop star, 40:
• Chris Kantai,

Also known as “Katanda”, the rapper is regarded as one of the pioneers of hip-hop music in Kenya, first rising to fame through street rap battles. His lyrical prowess and masterful delivery made him a huge favourite in the early 2000s. 

March

  • Med Hondo, Mauritanian film director, 82:

Seen as one of the founding fathers of African cinema, he first won critical acclaim with his 1967 film Soleil O. It is about a young African migrant in Paris, exposing pervasive racism in France. According to Okay Africa, he was also known to do the voiceovers for French releases of Hollywood films for actors such as Eddie Murphy and Morgan Freeman. 

  • Okwui Enwezor, Nigerian curator, 55:
Okwui Enwezor

He is credited with getting African art taken seriously across the world. Born in Calabar, he left Nigeria to go to university in New York where he founded Nka, a journal about contemporary African art in the early 1990s. In 2015, he became the first African curator of the Venice Biennale in its 120-year history. 

  • Bernard Dadié, Ivorian writer, 103:
Bernard Dadié in 2010

Known for his satiric works about living under colonial rule, his poem Dry Your Tears, Afrika was set to music by John Williams for Steven Spielberg’s film Amistad about a mutiny on a slave ship. 

  • Gabriel Okara, Nigerian poet and novelist, 97:

Regarded as the first modernist poet of Anglophone Africa, he rose to prominence in 1964 with The Voice, an experimental novel in which he translated his native language of Ijaw into English. 

  • Simaro Lutumba, Congolese musician, 81:
Album cover or a Simaro Lutumba album produced by the record label Ngoyarto

A popular rumba guitarist and songwriter, he was considered one of the best composers of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a career spanning six decades. He was a member of TPOK Jazz band when it dominated the music scene from the early 1960s. According to The New Yorker, his passing marks the end of an era. 

  • Pius Adesanmi, Nigerian-born Canadian academic, 47:
Pius Adesanmi

The director of Carleton University’s Institute of African Studies in Canada, he died in the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi that crashed. He had a huge following on social media, where he was often critical of Nigeria’s elite. 

April

  • Richard Mouzoko, Cameroonian doctor, 42:
Richard Mouzoko

He was shot dead at a hospital in Butembo in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he was treating Ebola patients. The World Health Organization (WHO) paid tribute to the medic, saying he passionate about public health and “was always ready to go where people would need his help most”. 

  • Alfred Taban, South Sudanese journalist, 62:
Alfred Taban

He was the founder and editor-in-chief of the Khartoum Monitor, Sudan’s first independent English-language paper, launched in 2000 and renamed the Juba Monitor after South Sudan became independent. He also reported for the BBC and was repeatedly jailed by the authorities in Khartoum and later by those in South Sudan for his determination to tell the truth. 

  • Papy Faty, Burundian footballer, 28:
Papy Faty
Papy Faty made 28 appearances for Burundi

Suffering from a long-standing heart condition, he collapsed during a match in Eswatini. He made his international debut in June 2008, scoring three goals in 28 appearances for The Swallows. 

May

  • Binyavanga Wainaina, Kenyan writer, 48:
Binyavanga Wainaina

He won the Caine Prize for African writing in 2002 and was best known around the world for his satirical essay How to Write About Africa. He was also named among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014 for his gay rights activism and was one of the first high-profile Kenyans to openly declare he was gay in a country where homosexual relations are illegal. 

  • Reginald Mengi, Tanzanian media mogul, 75:
Reginald Mengi

Through his manufacturing, mining and media conglomerate IPP Group, he owned newspapers and radio and TV stations. In 2014, Forbes estimated his wealth at $560m (£430m). The origins of his business empire were in a ball-point pen assembly plant. 

  • Fred Brownell, designer of South Africa’s national flag, 79:
Fred Brownell,

His multi-coloured flag symbolised South Africa’s post-apartheid rebirth – showing the convergence of different cultures into one nation. “You gave us our identity as the nation,” Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa said in his tribute. Brownell also designed Namibia’s flag. Read more about how South Africa’s flag came into being here.

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June

  • Mohammed Morsi, ex-president of Egypt, 67:
Mohammed Morsi in 2012

The country’s first democratically elected leader, he was ousted by the military in 2013 after one year in office. A top figure in the now-banned Islamist movement Muslim Brotherhood, he was on trial for espionage when he collapsed in a courtroom and died. 

  • Seare Mekonnen, Ethiopia’s army chief, 64 or 65:
Gen Seare Mekonnen's funeral in June 2019

He was shot dead by his own bodyguard in the capital, Addis Ababa, as he tried to prevent a coup attempt. He had only served as head of the military for a year having being appointed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who made sweeping changes in the security services after he took office in April 2018. 

  • David Koloane, South African artist, 81:
David Koloane

A pioneering figure during and after apartheid, he spent his career creating opportunities for black artists. Also a writer, mentor and curator, his paintings, drawings and collages showed everyday life in Johannesburg and its townships – and featured in the South African pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013.

July

  • Bob Collymore, Kenyan-based businessman, 61:
Bob Collymore

The Guyana-born Briton was chief executive of one East Africa’s most successful companies, Safaricom, which pioneered M-Pesa – the mobile phone service that allows those without a bank account to transfer funds by sending a text message. President Uhuru Kenyatta said: “His inspirational life will remain a great legacy, not just to Kenyans, but also to the whole world.” 

  • Nomhle Nkonyeni, South African actress, 77:
Nomhle Nkonyeni in 2016

A veteran of stage and screen, she was a founding member in the 1960s of the Serpent Players, a political protest theatre group that collaborated with white playwright Athol Fugard, often performing in defiance of the apartheid regime’s strict racial laws. She said she was the first black actress to perform on stage at the Cape Performing Arts Board (Capab) theatre and later appeared in some internationally acclaimed films. 

  • Mandla Maseko, would-be astronaut from South Africa, 30:
Mandla Maseko with his spacesuits in Mabopane, near Pretoria, South Africa. Photo: 9 January 2014

Nicknamed Afronaut and Spaceboy, the air force pilot died in a motorbike accident. He won the chance to be the first black African in space in 2013, beating one million entrants to win one of 23 places at a space academy in the US. But the company organising the flight reportedly went bust.

  • Hodan Nalayeh, Somali journalist, 43:
Journalist Hodan Naleyah is seen during a BBC interview

She died in an attack by militants on a hotel in Kismayo. Having grown up in Canada, Nalayeh returned to Somalia last year determined to show its positive side through Integration TV, her online platform aimed at the Somali community in Canada and the wider Somali diaspora. 

  • Marc Batchelor, South African former footballer, 49
Marc Batchelor pictured in 2011

The former striker, who once played for top South African clubs the Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns, was shot dead outside his Johannesburg home. He was a colourful and controversial individual. 

  • Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s president, 92:
Beji Caid Essebsi

He was the world’s oldest sitting president when he died, having been seen by his supporters as a safe pair of hands who maintained Tunisia’s strong secular tradition. He served under two autocratic rulers before becoming the North African state’s first freely elected president in 2014. 

  • Johnny Clegg, South African musician, 66:
Johnny Clegg (R) performing in 1988

Known as the “white Zulu”, he was a vocal critic of the white-minority government that ruled until 1994 and uniquely blended Western and Zulu music. His best known hit Asimbonanga, released in 1987, was dedicated to anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela when he was still in jail. 

August

  • Kacaman (real name Darcy Irakoze), Burundian YouTube star, six:
Darcy Irakoze

He found fame with his comedy sketches and had performed with some of Burundi’s top comedians. The primary school pupil died of malaria a day after being diagnosed with the disease – which is one of main killers of children in Africa. 

  • Uyinene Mrwetyana, South African university student, 19:
A photo of Uyinene Mrwetyana at her funeral at the University of Cape Town

Her brutal rape and murder in a post office in Cape Town sparked large protests over the high levels of violence against women in the country. Her killer was later given three life sentences. 

  • John De’Mathew (real name John Ng’ang’a), Kenyan musician, 52:
John De'Mathew

Famous for wearing a white cowboy hat, he died in a car crash. He was dubbed the “King of Kikuyu music” as he only sang in Kikuyu – one of Kenya’s main languages. He reportedly produced more than 50 albums in a three-decade career. 

  • DJ Arafat (real name Ange Didier Huon), Ivorian singer, 33:
DJ Arafat

Referred to as the king of coupé-décalé dance music, one of his biggest hit songs, Dosabado, has more than eight million views on YouTube. He died after a motorbike accident and had come to symbolise the flashy well-dressed lifestyle associated with the music, which features fast percussion, deep bass and hip-hop-style vocals. 

  • Sir Dawda Jawara, The Gambia’s first democratic leader, 95:
Dawda Jawara in 1969

The vet-turned-politician led his country to independence from the UK in 1965 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth a year later. He was in power until a coup in 1994. He lived in exile in the UK for several years, before returning home to live out his retirement. Asked by the BBC in 1988 if he made a better vet or president, he said: “That’s a debatable point.” 

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September

  • Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s first post-independence leader, 95:
Robert Mugabe in 2007

The man who ended white-minority rule in Zimbabwe died in a hospital in Singapore. He had been ousted in a military coup in 2017 after 37 years in power. For some he remained a revolutionary hero who stood up to Western imperialism, but others criticised his violent repression of political opponents and overseeing Zimbabwe’s economic ruin. 

  • Chester Williams, South African former rugby player, 49:
Chester Williams during a training session in 1994

The former wing was the only black player in the Rugby World Cup-winning team that defeated rivals New Zealand 15-12 24 years ago. “Chester was a true pioneer in South African rugby,” SA Rugby chief Mark Alexander said. For although the World Cup win came after the end of apartheid, rugby still held the perception of being a sport for the country’s white population. 

  • Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, ex-president of Tunisia, 83:
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2010

He was ousted in 2011, in the first of the Arab Spring protests, after 23 years in power – going into exile in Saudi Arabia, where he died. Credited with delivering stability and a measure of economic prosperity, he failed to deal with youth unemployment and received widespread criticism for suppressing political freedoms. 

October

  • Isaac Promise, Nigerian footballer, 31:
Isaac Promise in 2014

The captain of the Super Eagles side that won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he signed with US team Austin Bold last year after 12 seasons playing in Turkey. 

  • Andile Gumbi, South African actor, 36:
Andile Gumbi on poster for The Lion King musical

He played the adult character of Simba in the stage version of The Lion King musical for 10 years from 2003 in Australia, Shangai, Johannesburg, London and on Broadway in New York. He died after suffering a heart attack in Israel while on the set of Daniel The Musical. 

  • Bernard Muna, Cameroonian lawyer, 79:
Bernard Muna - archive photo

The deputy prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda from 1997 to 2002, he was seen by fierce defender of human rights at home where he often worked pro-bono. He ran for president in 2011, coming 10th with less than 1% of the vote. 

November

  • Bogaletch Gebre, Ethiopian anti-FGM activist, 59:
Bogaletch Gebre in 2005

Awarded the King Baudouin Prize in Belgium in 2013, she is credited with reducing cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) in parts of Ethiopia from 100% of newborn girls to less than 3%. Her determination to stop the cultural practice came after one of her sisters died after being circumcised. 

  • Xolani Gwala, South African broadcaster, 44:
Xolani Gwala

The talk show host was very open about his battle with colon cancer, launching the #Change4Cancer campaign last year. President Cyril Ramphosa paid tribute, saying he carried with him the values of South Africa’s “transition to democracy – the values of listening and being open to views that conflict with or offend your own, and a focus on solutions”. 

  • lmaas Elman, Somali-Canadian activist:
Almaas Elman

From a prominent family of peace campaigners, she was brought up in Canada during the civil war. The authorities says she was killed by a stray bullet while travelling in a car inside the airport compound in the capital, Mogadishu. Her father Elman Ali Ahmed was shot dead in the city in 1996. 

December

  • Rashied Staggie, South African gang boss, 59:
Rashied Staggie pictured in 2013

The leader of the notorious Hard Livings gang in the Cape Flats townships was shot dead outside his home. In 1996, his twin brother Rashaad Staggie, co-leader of the gang, was shot and then burnt to death by People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) – a vigilante group.

  • Ahmed Gaid Salah, Algeria’s military chief, 79:
Ahmed Gaid Salah,

He pushed veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign in April after protests, becoming the de facto leader. As one of the last veterans of the 1954-62 independence war against France still in power, he backed December’s presidential polls, despite an opposition boycott, saying the vote was necessary to avoid the country descending into chaos. 

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