Ex-Presidents: Is Africa’s Latest Resource a Blessing or a Curse?

Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith
Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith

In roughly one short decade, a new political phenomenon has spread across the African continent: Where ex-presidents once were rare, now they are plentiful.

More than a dozen make up the short list, which includes some of the biggest African names of the past half century: Rawlings, Kaunda, Mandela, Moi – and now Nujoma and, later this month, Chissano.

Encouragingly, most were forced from office by constitutionally imposed term limits – a measure of how entrenched democracy has become in Africa in the 15 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And while most have resisted the temptation to try to retake the national political stage, at least overtly, the growth of this august class of African statesmen begs a question: Do they represent a new resource that can, and should, be exploited more deliberately for good?

Out from exile

Back during the heydays of post-colonial strong-man rule, when it required the law of force rather than the rule of law to dislodge an occupant from State House, post-presidential career options were minimal. Exile was the only safe bet for deposed leaders such as Idi Amin, Mohammed Siad Barre and Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Change by ballot box has brought new options for former leaders. Some, to be sure, still try to pull the strings of power. In Malawi, for example, former President Bakili Muluzi remained national chairman of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) after his chosen successor, Bingu wa Mutharika, won the April 2004 election with 35% of the vote. The same thing happened in Zambia, where former President Frederick Chiluba remains leader of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) more than two years after Levy Mwanawasa took office in July 2002. Namibia is heading into a similar situation. The country’s founding president, Sam Nujoma, hand chose his successor in last month’s election and will retain control of the ruling Swapo.

That trend is potentially destabilising. Both the UDF in Malawi and the MMD in Zambia are now factionally divided. In the latter’s case, Mwanawasa has attempted to neutralise his predecessor by getting parliament to lift Chiluba’s immunity from prosecution on more than 60 charges of corruption and theft. In Namibia, incoming President Hifikepunye Pohamba is a lifelong loyal comrade of Nujoma’s, ensuring that there will be little room in the ruling party or government to adopt policies Nujoma rejects. As Graham Hopwood of the Windhoek-based Institute for Public Policy Research points out: ‘Pohamba has always done what Nujoma has told him.’

But for every possibly worrying example, there are positive ones, too. Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda has actively encouraged African leaders to take a more pro-active response to HIV/AIDS. Botswana’s Ketumile Masire oversaw the complex peace talks on the Democratic Republic of Congo. And South Africa’s Nelson Mandela has lent his formidable negotiating skills to a myriad of problems both on and off the continent.

Later in December 2004, Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano will be the next long-serving African leader to bow to the mandate of presidential term limits. He’ll retain the leadership of the ruling Frelimo until 2007 and his chosen successor, Armando Guebuza, has a clear shot at the presidency. But Chissano has already signalled his desire for pursuits beyond State House. Sometime in the new year, he has announced, he’ll start a peace foundation bearing his name.

A proposal

Across the border in South Africa, senior officials of the ruling African National Congress at least openly hope that President Thabo Mbeki will retain a leadership role in the party even after term limits force him to step down from the presidency in 2009. Sbu Ndebele, a prominent ANC cadre, makes the point that the ANC will still need Mbeki’s ‘skills, wisdom and vision’ and that ‘there is no political and constitutional reason to give it up’ at the party level.

Fair enough. But Mbeki will still be a relatively young statesman when his second terms ends in 2009, and since he has established himself as an eloquent advocate for parity between the wealthy North and developing South, there’s every reason to believe that he’ll play new roles on the international stage after he leaves the presidency.

In the meantime, here’s a thought: As a sitting president, Mbeki could establish a constructive precedent for African leaders by despatching a team of former presidents through the auspices of the African Union to defuse Zimbabwe’s political crisis by gently talking President Robert Mugabe into retirement. Africa has a new resource. It would be a shame not to tap into it.

25 Apr 2008