A recent video clip that went viral was at best painful to watch and at worst an unmitigated embarrassment for African audiences. It showed 90-year-old Cameroonian President Paul Biya who has been in power since 1982 attending a plenary session of the US Africa Leadership Summit that was held in Washington in December 2022. The clip shows President Biya apparently completely unaware of where he was or what was expected of him as the audience of heads of state and senior officials sat waiting for him to address them.
“Who are these people present?” Biya asks an aide, apparently unaware that his microphone was on. “Why? I didn’t ask for this… Are there important personalities among them? Ok you mean I should now speak? Where? Here? Why?” In between asking these inane questions, the president audibly passed wind a number of times.
As this video clip was doing the rounds, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern surprised a retreat of her governing Labour Party by announcing that she was stepping down after six years in office. She said that it was the responsibility of any leader “to know when you are the right person for the job and when you are not.” Thanking New Zealanders for giving her the opportunity to serve in the highest office, she however confessed that she no longer had what it took to do justice to the job, and stated that one of the marks of leadership is “knowing when it’s time to go.” Ardern was first elected into office in 2017 when she was just 37 years old and is leaving office aged only 42.
The above two incidents have shone the spotlight on that age-old question about African leaders who overstay their welcome in office. Why is it that President Biya cannot have the self-awareness that Prime Minister Ardern displayed and acknowledge that he is no longer the right person for the job? Nor is he alone in the club of those long past their sell-by dates who continue to cling on to power.
In 1986, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, upon seizing power, famously remarked, “The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.” But the 78-year-old has long since forgotten about his diagnosis of the problem as he has gone on to stay in power for 37 years and counting, while engineering two “constitutional coups” by changing the constitution to remove term and age limits to enable him to do so.
According to the online hub for youth policy, youthpolicy.org, Uganda has the world’s youngest population with 78% of the population being under the age of 30. The country also has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Africa, which means that despite his arguments to the contrary, the septuagenarian rebel soldier-turned life president is not fit for purpose. But he refuses to go, choosing instead to unleash brutal violence on anyone who poses a credible challenge in every election cycle, first Dr. Kizza Besyige and more recently, Bobi Wine.
It will be remembered that in 1998, Museveni was one of four African leaders whom the then US President Bill Clinton described as a “new breed”” of African leaders who had distinguished themselves as champions of democratic governance and economic reforms. The other “new breed” club members were Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, and Paul Kagame of Rwanda. They were apparently to be contrasted with the old-guard of African leaders who headed autocratic regimes and ruled their countries as presidents for life.
It is sadly instructive that a quarter of a century since Clinton hailed this new breed, and five US administrations later, three of the four “new breed” African presidents remain in power, and the fourth, Meles Zenawi, died in office and would presumably still be in power were he still alive. In addition to this, a number of other African presidents have been in power for over three decades, many of them, like Museveni and Kagame, engineering “constitutional coups” that abolish term limits to allow them to rule their countries indefinitely.
So, what causes African Presidents to overstay in power even when, as the video of Paul Biya so clearly demonstrated, they no longer have anything in the tank to do their jobs justice?
First, many of them tend to suffer from an acute case of liberation hero syndrome. Museveni, Kagame and Afwerki fall into this category. They led their countries through existential crises (stopping a genocide, overthrowing a brutal dictatorship, and winning a war of independence) and having done so, they seem to believe that they are the only ones with the blueprint on how their nations should be governed.
However, it is usually the case that independence heroes don’t usually make the best post-independence leaders. This is because building a new nation requires a different skill set from that needed for fighting an oppressive colonial regime or overthrowing an autocratic ruler. Such leaders also assume office with an attitude of entitlement, believing that their countries owe them a debt of gratitude for their role in delivering them from oppression.
Nelson Mandela understood this reality and served only one term as President even when his people would have gladly extended his mandate to stay in office. Even in the biblical narrative, God did not allow Moses to cross over into the Promised Land after leading the Hebrews to freedom from enslavement in Egypt and through their forty-year wilderness journey to Canaan.
Second, power is addictive, especially in emerging democracies with their weak institutions where the President’s word is law and his every whim is attended to by a coterie of court jesters and fawning hangers on. When one gets used to being driven in mile-long motorcades, flying around in executive private jets, being guarded by the best trained elite security details, living like royalty, and receiving the best of everything, all at taxpayer expense, one can easily get drunk on power and convince themselves that they are indispensable while in actual fact they cannot imagine themselves living as ordinary citizens after leaving office.
Third, in legal systems where the President is immune to prosecution while in office, the longer one stays in power, the more likely they are to commit crimes including abuse of office, unjust enrichment or corruption, and the more they are reluctant to let go of power fearing that they would then be held to account for crimes committed while in office. It is also the case that the longer one is in power, the more the powerbrokers, corruption networks and other cartels calcify around him and hold him hostage in office because they know that any change in regime would deprive them of the privileges of being so close to power and leave them exposed to criminal prosecution.
But like the circulation system is to any healthy body, leadership transition is critical in any democracy. It allows the body politic to renew itself and benefit from the best of a number of options presented in a competitive democratic process through which comes the infusion of fresh ideas, new policies, and effective solutions to ever more complex problems that face every country and the global community of nations.
This is why Jacinda Ardern, who was only two years old when Paul Biya became president of Cameroon, has got it right and so many African leaders have got it wrong when they continue to hold their countries hostage to their misguided ego trips that they try so hard, albeit unsuccessfully, to dress up in the garb of enlightened leadership.