The Rise & Maintenance Of The African ‘Leader For Life’

In the immediate wake of the ouster of Burkinabe leader Blaise Compaor?, the topic on African ?leaders for life? once again surfaced. It is important at this juncture to assess their utility to the continent. Compaor? came to power in 1987 amidst a coup d?etat, which saw the death of former Burkinabe leader Thomas Sakara. Since then, Compaor? remained in office for twenty-seven years until an attempt to amend the constitution to allow his re-election led to widespread protests, culminating in his resignation.


The concept of long serving heads of state is in no way unique to the African continent, the same could be said of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and many others in South America, the Middle East, and some parts of Asia and Europe.

So what does Africa have to gain from leaders who do not wish to leave? One would argue that a long serving leader who has indeed brought prosperity and advancement to his people would be a sufficient justification for the length of time necessary to achieve such tasks. However, the biggest gains seem to be diverted right into the pockets of these leaders for life who claim to be fighting for the common man.

Consider for instance African leaders such as the late Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He held onto power from 1965 to 1997 following the killing of Patrice Lumumba. Coming into power on the heels of promises to help the common man, the country, then known as Zaire did not fare as well as expected. Take as a second example, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. He did indeed enter power as a true African hero, after leading the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) against colonialism. Since then however, popular sentiment has been mixed with many calling for an end to the multi-decade rule citing economic collapse, alleged widespread corruption and rigging, and Mugabe?s old age. And yet another example: Idi Amin Dada of Uganda. He needs no formal introduction and can easily be cited as an African dictator who demonstrated why dictatorship could be a really, really bad idea.

It seems that there is a clear pattern among the ?leaders for life.? Most of them ascend to power with lavish promises of freeing their country from colonialism, oppression, imperialism and other such terms. They promise to liberate their people and empower the masses. Typically they do eventually ?liberate? the people either through winning a war of independence, or by assassinating the interim head of state. Shortly afterward they declare themselves leader, and after a brief civil or military unrest they institute democratic reforms to feign legitimacy, allowing elections which are mostly viewed as shams: rigged and fraudulent.

So what benefit does Africa derive from ?leaders for life?? One could argue that the original intentions of the young leaders were positive; however the hunger for power has left them hanging on far beyond the useful days of their original liberation ideals. Despite a lack of progress or even a regression, they refuse to cede power to younger and more vibrant leaders with new ideas and enthusiastic ambitions. The state becomes more or less personal property and almost requires a revolution of its own to unseat a dictator who often commits crimes against humanity. After all, a true fight for the people must involve all the people, and most certainly must not involve just one individual person.

It is beneficial for African leaders to do their best for the people, and then to allow the baton to be passed on to others. Despite achievements and/ or failures, it is in the best interest of the people that their leaders are occasionally shuffled to avoid the trap of complacency and stagnancy. If the leaders are delivering results for the people, then there is no problem with re-contesting multiple elections in the future, provided that the elections are indeed free, fair, and devoid of coercion.

Suffice it to say, will the continent ever break the ?Leader for Life? cycle?

Image: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images


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