/ 18 September 2021

Photos capture Africa’s mighty as they fall

Guinea's president Alpha Conde surrounded by soldiers.

It is not a particularly good photograph. The lighting is wrong, the resolution is poor and the framing is not balanced. Yet, of the thousands of photographs of Alpha Condé, the one above is the image by which he will be forever defined. 

It shows the former Guinean president in the immediate aftermath after the military coup which deposed him two weeks ago. Surrounded by soldiers, Condé is slouched on a couch. His shirt is not buttoned properly and he is clearly seething. 

The photo is so compelling because it captures the moment when Condé realises that everything he has worked for has been taken away from him; that the power is no longer his. He has fallen from grace, and this intimate image — stripped of the pomp and ceremony and grandeur of a typical presidential photograph — shows just how far he has fallen. 

Condé is not the first president to have his humiliation captured on camera. The images are often grainy — mutinous soldiers make for poor photographers, or perhaps they are stills taken from video footage — but what they lack in clarity they make up for in emotional heft. 

Robert Mugabe (seated) with his wife Grace.

Other classics in this genre include Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, on the sofa next to his wife Grace, surrounded by the “friends” who have been sent to persuade him to step down. On the coffee table in front of them — alongside the box of tissues provided to mop up their tears — is a folder containing the resignation letter Mugabe will sign just seconds after the picture is taken. 

Gambia’s defeated leader Yahya Jammeh waves to supporters as he departs at Banjul airport on Jan. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Then there’s Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, face battered and bloodied, in the minutes before his death at the hands of the opposition fighters who found him cowering in a drain pipe. The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh is clutching on to the last remnants of his status and dignity as he boards the private plane that will ferry him into unhappy exile. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is in a cage in a Cairo courtroom, being made to answer for his crimes.

Former South African president Jacob Zuma.

South Africa’s Jacob Zuma has shock and fury written all over his face, as Cyril Ramaphosa is announced as the next leader of the ANC. The Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo is photographed being arrested, at home in his vest, after failing to convince anyone except his own diehard supporters that he won the 2010 Ivorian election. 

Laurent Gbagbo as he is captured.

There is something fascinating about seeing these once all-powerful presidents in positions of powerlessness; the schadenfreude, yes, but also the reminder that nothing on this Earth is permanent or immovable.