Monday, January 3, 2011

African Presidents Step Down, Pack Up, and Head Home to Retire!

Since Independence from the undemocratic rule of the colonial governments, many African countries have gone through less than five presidents over a time span of roughly, 50 years. It is very rare that an African leader decides to step down, pack up the state house, and head to their village to retire. They tend to die in office (naturally or via assassination), fall victims to coups, or escape to foreign countries due to imminent threats on their lives. The recent events in Ivory Coast surrounding Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down is the most recent example of an African leader clinging to power undemocratically, but it also touches on the wider issue of the unwillingness of many African Presidents in African democratic and non-democratic countries to admit defeat and/or step down. African leaders have had a poor record of stepping down over the past few years. Notorious leaders that are holding on to power today include Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Omar Bongo (Gabon) and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt). In fact, the situation is so dire that a Sudanese businessman Mo Ibrahim, has offered a monetary incentive for African presidents to peacefully leave office as an incentive for relinquishing power when their time is up through the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has been trying to rebrand Africa through influencing good governance and through rewarding sucessful leaders with an award and money. For many, stepping down poses the risk of being held accountable for past deeds, primarily for ‘disappearance’ of opposition leaders and public funds. When handing over power to someone outside one’s own 'kitchen cabinet', political party or ethnic group, or geographical area, many African leaders know that they need to appoint someone that will not persecute them for their misdeeds whilst in office. Usually, this encourages and establishes the use of coups as a guaranteed or proven method of handing over power. Otherwise many African citizens have to rely on 'waiting' for the often long and protracted death of a dictator. Africa's longest dictator, Bongo, ruled Gabon for 42 years.

There are however, a few African Presidents or dictators have managed to step down peacefully. Notably, these were Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Kamuzu Banda of Malawi. When Nelson Mandela stepped down as President in 1999, after five years as President, he set a precedent in South Africa for Presidents from that country, to continue to step down. Since Mandela, we have seen a succession of Presidents in South Africa after the dictatorial rule of the apartheid regime. In stepping down, he sent a message to the African and International world leaders South Africa was going to continue down a democratic path. Likewise, he showed African citizens in various countries that their own leaders should be able to step down. With few skeletons (if any) in his political closet, it was easy for Mandela to step down. He had no ‘disappearing’ opponents or ‘disappearing’ public funds during his presidency. In the case of Jerry Rawlings, Rawlings took power by means of a coup and ruled as a dictator, from 1981-1992. During this time, he liberalized politics, held elections, was elected in a 1993 fair general election, re-elected in 1997 and retired by 2001 when his term concluded.

In the case of Malawi, Kamuzu Hastings Banda was Malawi's first President but after elected to office, he consolidated his power, had a long and brutal reign but still stepped down after he agreed to a referendum that was held 1993. Banda is touted as one of the worst dictators in Africa in the terms of brutality and acquired wealth yet, despite the nature of his regime, he stepped down after a referendum that ended three decades of totalitarian rule. When Malawi’s Catholic Pastors issued a pastoral letter highlighting the abuses they saw in the country by the Banda Regime in 1992. This was followed by a call towards multi-party state in the same year by Chafuwka Chihana. The Muslims in Malawi joined forces with the Catholics and other Christian groups to work towards change. University students at University of Malawi also began to call for change resulting in the temporary shutdown of the university. The Malawi Army, who may have been the only force in a position to organize a coup during his reign, also appeared to be serving the interests of Malawian law and order and did not attempt a military takeover of power. Through Operation Bwezani, they disarmed his network of unofficial security, the Malawi Young Pioneers, in a peaceful disarmament process. This was followed by referendum in 1993. When Malawians voted for change to multi-partisim, Banda, in spite of his hegemony (which included 33 years of rule), did not try to cling to power. He stepped down after he was stripped of power and helped newly emerging opposition parties and the church through the transition in preparation for the country’s first general elections. It is important to note that Banda was tried for the Mwanza Four murders, where four opposition leaders were killed in 1965 but acquitted due to lack of concrete evidence and his advanced age. Banda, like Rawlings, lived peacefully amongst his people after their presidencies.

Although Malawi’s situation may have some different dynamics since Malawi has negligible ethnic and religious divisions, has had no wars, and a series of civilian presidents, the presence of which may compound political situations in other countries; the case of Malawi may stand as an example to other countries with dictators like Banda that peaceful transitions are possible even after extended periods of dictatorial rule (See: Video on Malawi's Peaceful Transition) . Since Banda stepped down without resistance, Malawi has seen two Presidents in since 1994, and the sitting President is also expected to step down as well. It is important to note that both Malawian Presidents have made attempts at extending their rule thorough the introduction of a third term, but these constitutional amendments have been successfully quashed through constitutional means in Malawi parliaments. Malawians are not prepared to go back to extended or life Presidents like that had under Banda. Malawi's current President, Bingu Mutharika has indicated that he plans on stepping down. As the current chair of the AU, he has also been vocal in encouraging Gbagbo to step down.

Although, the majority of African leaders cling to power, we need to closely examine the exceptions to this rule so that we don’t brand or lump each country unfairly. Also, so that African leaders and citizens see that stepping down is an option and is possible. Mandela, Rawlings and Banda all stepped down without their own resistance albeit having different lengths of rule and/or operating different societal conditions. Mandela did so in a newly democratic country backed by a new constitution; Rawlings began to introduce democratic principles after his coup, adopting a more democratic constitution and setting the stage for him to withdraw; and lastly, Banda did it whilst operating under a completely undemocratic and totalitarian country shroud with political controversies. Hopefully, Gbagbo, his supporters and the Ivorian people, can learn from these recent precedents regardless of what political stage they are in. One also hopes that when their own terms are up or when faced with defeat, the now vocal African leaders that are currently calling for Gbagbo to step down, follow suit by packing up, going home, and returning to their own mansions in their village. 

** To add to the list of presidents that have stepped down in Africa, I would like to add that Julius Nyerere also stepped down in 1984. See: 

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6/2/12

    Bingu (Malawi) is stepping down in 2014, but he want to extend his rule by nominating his brother Peter to be the candidate for his his party in 2014. These african leaders make me sick.