How Much Longer for Africa Forever Presidents?

Jacob Zuma has shrugged. 94-year old Mugabe, broken. They were – or so they portrayed themselves – the lions of Africa.

A Forever President is a man – invariably and always a man – holding power in his iron grasp until death do him part. And many do die, dramatically, like Laurent KabilaMobutu and even Rwanda Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundi Cyprien Ntaryamira. Qaddafi’s horrific sodomy at the very end of his life is immortalized. The conventional wisdom used to be that an African Presidency was a lifetime job, ending in a premature and rather gruesome death.

How do these leaders remain in power despite the global tide moving to the contrary?

Zimbabwe and South Africa are two dramatic, non-violent recent incidents of longtime, corrupt Presidents deposed. The non-violent succession of Presidents is a rara avis in Africa, and clearly something new is happening. 2017 was a big year in African politics: Angola João Manuel Lourenço came to power in September, taking over from Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who spent 37 years in office. There is further reason for some optimism. In Gambia, Adama Barrow came to power last year, beating former President Yahya Jammeh with 22 years in his account, claiming with God's will his presidency could go on for "a billion years.”

The Gods laugh at those who would tempt fate …

All of that having been said, it is hard to argue that real change has come to the so-called Dark Continent with regards to political leadership. So many more Forever Presidents remain firmly ensconced. Paul Biya is probably the most egregious example of a Forever President deeply entrenched. Biya, President of Cameroon, is closer to a dictator than a President as he ruled for 42 years. The 85-year old Forever President very often manages his country from his villa in Switzerland. He calls these events “brief private visits.” An investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) collected second-hand information from Biya’s travels from 35 years of editions of the Cameroon Tribune, the organ mouthpiece of his rule. The report showed that Biya has spent at least four-and-a-half years of his 35-year term on his “brief private visits.” Official trips are excluded from this report, which would add up to an additional year. In 2006 and 2009, the so-called "Roaming President", has spent a third of the year out of the country, noted the OCCRP.

Not to be diminished, the second-longest serving Forever President is Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, President of Equatorial Guinea, who has ruled for 38 years. Similarly to Biya, Obiang is known for his extravagant indulgences, and is naturally one of the most corrupt rulers on the planet. Unfortunately, Obiang is not going anywhere soon despite the aforementioned winds of change.

Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso has served as President since 1979, with only a small period – 1992-1997 – during which he was not in power. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of my native Uganda is a five-times elected benevolent dictator, ruling for 32 years. Nowadays, he is big on jailing opposition. Museveni recently embarrassed himself, proving wholly out of touch, by praising Donald Trump for his “frankness" despite his insulting African nations. Museveni’s ally, Rwanda Paul Kagame, called the Darling Tyrant was re-elected last year, and won with 98% of the votes. Not to question the results and transparency of the elections, 98% seems extremely high nowadays, and more so, for a country which has been ruled by the same person for 20 years. Somehow and at some point in those 20 years, divergence of opinion must trigger a conversation for change. 

Despite the unexpected growth in the Rwandan GDP from $1.73B in 2000 to $8.38B in 2016, which could explain the contentment of Rwandans thus Paul Kagame's reelection – perhaps an homage to his work, there have been evidences of oppression as a means to silence protesters, activists, and anyone opposing these Forever Presidents. According to Politico Magazine, citizens of Rwanda live in terror of being victimized by Kagame's regime in the event they speak up and against. Former Head of Intelligence, Patrick Karegeya, who turned into one of Kagame's zealous opposants was put in jail twice for indiscipline, desertion and subordination. Before going to exile in 2007, he was stripped off his rank of Colonel in 2006, and found murdered in January 2014 in a South African Hotel. The cause of his murder remains unknown, though, the response and comments of Rwanda Foreign Minister raise doubts as far as the government implication.

Forever President - Claude Kabengera 1.png
Forever President - Claude Kabengera 2.png

Furthermore, the response of Rwandan Minister of Defense, James Kabarebe, is not only shocking and strongly inappropriate, but shows a level of comfort, arrogance, and entitlement to this Rwandan regime. 

"Equating Karegeya to 'trash', Gen. Kabarebe said a normal person cannot decide to leave a country like Rwanda which has the kind of security and development prevailing, to go into exile. The Defense Minister was speaking at Ndi Umunyarwanda event in Rubavu district, North West Rwanda bordering DRC.

'Do not waste your time on reports that so and so was strangled with a rope on flat 7 in whatever country,' said Kabarebe, according to Kigali Today, a Kinyarwanda news site in Rwanda.

He added: 'when you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog, and the cleaners will wipe away the trash so that it does not stink for them. Actually, such consequences are faced by those who have chosen such a path. There is nothing we can do about it, and we should not be interrogated over it.' "

Are we now at a turning point in the history of Africa Forever Presidents?

The conditions in Africa at present are not the same as the conditions that led to the Arab Spring. The African GDP grew 3% last year. Youth unemployment across the Arab world at the height of the Arab Spring was nearly 25%.

Despite the relative strength of these leaders and their economies, there is a fatigue in the democratic deficit. Kenya, embattled, is a perfect example of this political trend moving across the continent. Kenyatta, who won a widely criticized election recently, has taken to cutting bureaucracy in his country, a move that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, but might be the key to his keeping power. There is little tolerance for bad leadership in the digital era, where information and measurable data about governance is widely disseminated. Mass protests in Ethiopia recently led the resignation of Ethiopian Prime Minister. "The average African is a lot more enlightened and understands better what good governance feels and looks like,” writes Jude Egbas in The Pulse. The era of Forever Presidents is not over in Africa by any means, but forever depends now on certain political requirements: a good economy and employment opportunities, especially for the youth. These are now expected by populations more knowledgeable than at any other time in history thanks to mobile devices and connectivity, thus the digital exposure to trends and norms in other parts of the world.

The question remains, should a "better" governance justify a Forever Presidency?

Of course not, but let us disseminate this further. There is a saying that goes as such: "where you are is as important as where you are not," in other words, knowing when to step down is equally relevant as having a concrete plan for the country, and bettering its economy. It seems natural to question, however, the intention of any individual comfortable enough to hold power beyond the set terms, and to believe acceptable adapting a country constitution to his personal wants. A true leader, who genuinely takes power to better his country, should also be the type of person wanting to see future generations lead on. A true leader is not defined by power, and does not create terror. And more importantly, a true leader is a visionary –visionaries do not wait for a country to crumble. True leaders have enough discernment to know when to let go. 

So no, doing a better job does not justify clinging to power. We can no longer afford to thank our presidents for doing thier job.