The African leadership transitions tracker: A tool for assessing what leadership change means for development

Editor’s Note: In this blog, Vera Songwe introduces the African Leadership Transitions Tracker, a new interactive that aims to start a broader conversation about leadership transitions and what they mean for the region and beyond.

On March 28, Nigerians voters will go to the polls to participate in their nation’s fifth election since the military handed over power to civilians in 1999. As Africa’s largest economy and an important oil exporter, this election comes at an important time for Nigeria and for the continent as a whole.

Events around this election have generated significant debate around electoral and voting processes on the continent such as the importance of a constitution, the cost, the frequency and level of contestability, and the power of incumbency in African elections. However, amid this dialogue, much less consideration has been devoted to where this election stands within the continuum of leader transitions Nigeria has experienced since it first gained independence in 1960. Nigerians have, in fact, gone through 18 leadership transitions in the last 55 years, including the untimely death of former President Umaru Masu Yar’Adua in May 2010, the multiparty elections that brought President Olusegun Obasanjo to power in 1999, and the first presidential elections that brought President Shegu Shagari to power in 1979. Nigeria’s high rate of leadership changeover should not, however, be considered illustrative of Africa’s overall story. On the contrary, a high level of diversity exists among countries in the region on this measure, with countries like Angola having had only one leadership transition since it achieved its independence in 1975, and Benin, on the other hand, undergoing an election, coup, or other type of leadership transition nearly every two years in the country’s 55-year post-independence history. However, overall in Africa today there are more peaceful and competitive leadership transitions than there have been over the last six decades. This contestability process is gaining ground across the continent, and while coups d’etat appear to be fading revolutions are gaining ground where competition has not taken hold.

The recent passing of Singapore’s 30 year-long leader Lee Kwan Yew credited with having taken Singapore from a third world country to a fully developed country in less than a generation, has brought the question of leadership and leadership transitions back to the fore. A 2010 report by Michael Spence’s Growth Commission heralds Lee Kuan Yew as the hero of Singapore’s growth story. The African Leadership Transition Tracker hopes to launch a dialogue on what the frequency, nature, and scope of leadership transitions mean for African countries’ growth, stability, and development trajectory overall. Moreover, how have transition trends in the region changed from the time of the African founding fathers and the tumultuous years of the 1960s to the present day?

As an initial step towards thinking this question through, Brookings’s African Growth Initiative is today launching the African Leadership Transitions Tracker as a resource both to inform readers about African political history and a tool to initiate analysis on what leadership changeover might mean (or not mean) for development. The Transitions Tracker specifically records all changes that have occurred at the head-of-state level in every African country between the end of the colonial period and the present day. We are hoping that recording this information and presenting it visually (and as a downloadable data set) will help start a broader conversation and support additional work on these issues. Brookings will update this data on a regular basis, and we welcome your feedback as we further refine this interactive. Moreover, the information we present today is by no means the full story—key variables are needed to complement this study, including, for example, the various political party affiliations of leaders within a country or cross tabulations with resources that seek to measure the level of citizen participation and engagement in these transitions. However, as further analysis takes place, we are hoping that the African Leadership Transitions Tracker will enrich dialogue about developments occurring in the region and place current news on elections or other types of changeover events within the broader context of the continent’s leadership story overall.  Over the next few months, we will be running a series of articles based on this data.  

Special thanks to Ehui Adovor, graduate student at George Washington University and the many AGI research assistants, analysts, and program staff that have supported this project, including Jessica Pugliese, Brandon Routman, Christina Golubski, Andrew Westbury, and Amy Copley.