Long-Serving African Leaders: Time to Consider Exit Strategies

In January, the 10 longest serving African leaders included: Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi of Libya (42 years) , Jose E. Dos Santos of Angola (32 years) , Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mi of Equatorial Guinea (32 years), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (31 years), Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (30 years), Paul Biya of Cameroon (30 years), Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (25 years), Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso (24 years), Zina el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia (24 years) and Umar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan (22 years). Within a short period of eight months, almost a third of them have been removed from power.

But others continue to cling on to power. In their company, there is also Idriss Deby of Chad (21 years), Isaias Afwerki of Eriteria (18 years), Yahya Jammeh of Gambia (17 years) and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia (16 years). The common strategies used by these leaders to hold on to power has in most cases been through imposing restrictions on political competition, the use of force and manipulating the constitution such as amending term limits. For the most part, these strategies have worked for the incumbents, but the events of the last eight months show that they are no longer sustainable.

Although the revolts have so far been limited to North Africa, increasingly there are protests against regimes in sub-Saharan Africa. Whether triggered by economic conditions—food and fuel prices, poor job opportunities or service delivery failures, the mass protests are becoming important and have forced policy changes in many regimes. Slowly but surely, these revolutions are heading south and, unless sub-Saharan Africa’s long-serving leaders pave the way for inclusive governance and relinquish their power, these leaders are bound to face the same fate as the North African ones.

Unfortunately, when the leaders manipulate and abuse their positions to stay in power, they still find support from western governments even though democratic governance is supposed to be the core of their engagement with African nations. This is not only hypocritical but is also sends the wrong signal to Africans across the region.

However, the recent events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya should show sub-Saharan African leaders that western government support will not insulate autocratic regimes from the demands of their people. For the long-serving leaders in Africa, clinging onto power is no longer wise. They would be well-advised to announce their intention to step down before they are forced out of leadership by their citizens. Likewise, treating leadership as a “right” or as family property is no longer a viable strategy. It will no longer be acceptable to the African people.

If we go by recent events, long-serving leaders— especially those whose tenures are sustained by undemocratic means— are also harmful to development. The fact that duration in power is positively related to the likelihood of mass protests and political instability increases investment risk for businesses and donors. Furthermore, extended duration in power often entrenches corruption networks and inequality as some groups are excluded from leadership and sectors of the economy. Therefore long-serving leaders are deceiving themselves if they believe that they are doing good for their citizens’ livelihoods.

To our leaders in Africa who have served for all those many years, I thank you. But I also take the opportunity to inform you that the returns to your continued stay in office are now on the negative side of the ledger. Your voluntary exit from power will be a great contribution to your country and a favor to yourself as you avert the fate that has befallen your colleagues in North Africa. But there is no need to panic—for there is life after you drive out of the state house. Look at Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Arap Moi of Kenya—they are all doing well with lucrative retirement packages.