When an African president dies or steps down: Who's most likely to take over the throne?

You might actually be better off as an outsider if you are in a larger economy

AFRICA is increasingly become a stomping ground for relatively youthful presidents, from Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta to the leaders of Burundi and DR Congo, but some trends usually associated with the Big Man club have continued to hold.

One of them is the official secrecy surrounding presidential illnesses. A clutch of countries from Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Algeria to Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Malawi have recently experienced this, leading to rife public speculation.

Zambia is the latest arena, with president Michael Sata not having been seen in public for over two months. Sata, usually a voluble man (he was once nicknamed “King Cobra” for his quick temper), dropped out of sight on June 19, when he was pictured on state television meeting visiting Chinese vice president Li Yuanchao.

News agency AFP notes that he has since then missed key events such as the US-Africa leaders’ summit in Washington, last week’s Southern African Development Community high-level meeting, and rather tellingly, the opening of a bridge in Chiawa to the east.

The bridge no-show would be as good a sign as any that there is something amiss—African leaders rarely skip the opening of “development” projects, especially those named after them.

 Zambian media are now reporting a big power struggle to succeed the 77-year-old leader, with his deputy Guy Scott, who is of Scottish descent, ineligible to take over as both his parents were not born in Zambia.

‘Blue-eyed’ boys and girls

The southern African country has previous—and interesting experience of this—president Levy Mwanawasa was on July 1, 2008 evacuated from an African Union summit in Egypt to a Paris hospital after he was taken ill.

He died seven weeks later, but the intervening period served up heavy speculation despite regularly optimistic government updates.  Sata, then in the opposition, called for a team of doctors to travel to ascertain Mwanawasa’s health.

The secrecy around a president’s health in Africa is almost always on the instigation of the inner circle and is largely meant to manage succession jockeying and safeguard interests. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has had a difficult time keeping hopefuls in check in what has at times threatened to degenerate into all-out war, and has lately seen First Lady Grace Marufu enter active politics in what is seen as a way of influencing the succession.

For years, the feeling has been that you are better placed to succeed the main man if you were the regime’s blue-eyed boy, or were in the ruling family.

Successions in Gabon and Togo have largely followed this script. Ali Ben Bongo, the son of Gabon’s late long-serving leader Omar Bongo was never really in any danger of being run out of the succession, and went on to win an early election in 2009, in what was seen as classic patronage politics at work.

In Togo, Faure Gnassingbé was named by the army to succeed his late father Gnassingbé Eyadéma in 2005, despite the constitution providing for the Speaker of Parliament to take over, with the military arguing that the latter was out of the country.

A day after, parliament changed the constitution to regularise Faure’s completion of his father’s term. He then won elections called in 2005 after international protest.

In Mozambique former Defence minister Filipe Nyusi will run as the ruling Frelimo’s candidate in October elections, with incumbent Armando Guebuza’s constitutional time limit set to expire.

Nyusi triumphed in an internal party debate that had pitted Guebuza loyalists against supporters of former prime minister Luisa Diogo. 

Often a bumpy ride

In Zambia and Malawi the deputy presidents eventually took over, but it is never that straightforward despite being set in law, as the smooth Ghana succession of 2009 would appear to suggest.

In the days after the death of Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika, his body was secretly flown to South Africa as his brother Peter Mutharika, who was foreign minister, allegedly maneuvered to prevent Joyce Banda from being sworn in.  

Banda did manage to take over, but the younger Mutharika is now president, having trounced her in an election in May.

In Zambia a camp allied to Guy Scott is seen as having the upper hand, while Namibia’s current president Hifikepunye Pohamba, who was seen as the chosen successor of liberation hero Sam Nujoma, shook off the challenges of strong candidates.    

These kind of succession battles are nothing new, but it is not always that being in the inner circle gives you an outright advantage—“outsiders” also manage to beat the odds. This is especially seen more in Africa’s larger economies.

Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan was a relative unknown when he succeeded Umaru Yar’Adua, who died in office in 2010. Jonathan as the vice president took over in acting capacity, but was seen as warming the seat until a northerner took over, under a kind of “gentleman’s agreement” between the Muslim-majority north and the mainly-Christian south in Nigeria.

But Jonathan, a southerner, went on to run in an election later that year, angering many northerners.

Ethiopian and Kenyan cases

Relative outsider Hailemariam Desalegn was eventually confirmed as Meles’ Zenawi’s successor, after the Ethiopian prime minister died in 2012.  A delay in confirming Hailemariam was attributed to succession intrigues linked to the widowed First Lady.

Azeb Mesfin, who fought alongside her husband in the bush, had been whispered about as having the inside lane to take over.  

In his first stab at the Kenyan presidency, Kenyatta, anointed by former president Daniel Arap Moi, resoundingly lost to Mwai Kibaki in 2002.

Analysts note that the odds are that you are more likely to shoo in your preferred successor in smaller countries—economically speaking—than in those where interests are wider and more vested.

Author Tim Kelsall in his book Business, Politics and the State in Africa captures the link between economic growth and the “succession trap” in African governments, bringing to the surface the role that liberation struggle parties play.

But as the smaller economies record high growth rates the ability of leaders to influence successions will also reduce, other scholars argue. The net effect is that to keep this power, leaders will search for more economic growth to stave off threats to their own rule, resulting in a win-win situation for their citizens.     


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