Will they, won't they? Veteran rulers leave Africa guessing over their next moves as Bashir goes for another bite

Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola among those where successions are being closely watched and might throw up surprises.

SUDAN’s ruling party has named President Omar al-Bashir as a possible candidate for the country’s April presidential elections, an advisor said, ending speculation as to whether he would stand again.

After taking power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989, the 70-year-old career soldier had sent mixed signals in recent months whether he would run in next year’s April polls, which have struggled to get opposition support.

He won “266 out of 522” votes, his chief assistant Ibrahim Ghandour said, suggesting that the vote at the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) party convention, was contested and, therefore, democratic. “We will present him to the(NCP) general congress just to approve” his candidacy, Ghandour said, clearing the way for him to stand as the party’s presidential candidate. 

Bashir underwent two knee operations over the summer, raising concerns about his health ahead of the elections.

In a March interview Ghandour was less effusive about Bashir’s future, saying the president had “declared many times that he’s not willing to” stand again, but the decision rested with the NCP.

Big men to watch

While Bashir has now thrown his hat in the ring, the guessing game over new term bids—and is some cases completion of current tenures—by a clutch of African heads of state is very much alive.

Burkina Faso is currently split over a new term for President Blaise Compaore, who has been in power since 1987 but will need constitutional changes to stay in office beyond next year. He secured his second five-year term in 2010 with 81% of the vote. 

His ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress party has in recent months held major rallies in support of a referendum, among other reforms, which would flesh out the question of limits on presidential terms. The constitution in 2000 pared down presidential terms from seven to five years. 

Scores of key members have left CDP this year, swelling opposition ranks and fuelling tensions over a referendum. Talks remain deadlocked, with Compaore’s camp blamed for holding out for a vote.

Significantly though, the president, who has since reinvented himself as a regional statesman, is yet to publicly confirm his candidacy. 

In the land of Mugabe

Zimbabwe is in the throes of a vicious succession battle despite President Robert Mugabe, 90, being re-elected last year.

In power since independence, Mugabe’s advanced age suggests he will not be on the ballot box during the next general election, while a struggling economy has further served to tighten his options.

Vice president Joice Mujuru and Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa have been seen as the frontrunners, but First Lady Grace Mugabe, 49, recently stepped into active politics, ahead of a key ruling party congress in December, in what is seen as a bid to protect the family’s interests.

She last week launched an extraordinary attack on Mujuru, threatening her with expulsion for leading a “faction every day” to succeed Mugabe, and of supporting the opposition. 

Mujuru has maintained a studious silence while every move by Mnangagwa, who is seen as the second most powerful man in the country by virtue of chairing the highest security body and is thought be the one egging the First Lady on, is being closely watched. 

In neighbouring Zambia, Michael Sata ascended to top office only on his fourth attempt in 2011 but it is unclear if he will complete his first term after he was at the weekend flown out to an undisclosed destination amid speculation that he is seriously ill.

He had already been missing for weeks and only resurfaced last month for the official reopening of parliament, where he said: “I am not dead”. He travelled to New York last month for the UN General Assembly but failed to make a scheduled speech, further fanning illness speculation. 

Sata, 77, was in June reported to have been seeking treatment in Israel, though authorities denied this. This time around officials have admitted he has travelled for medical treatment. In 2008 he suffered a heart attack and was evacuated for treatment in South Africa.

Zambia marks 50 years of independence this Friday and his attendance will be closely watched. 

North African blues

Algeria leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 77, in April  2013 also romped to a major win, following elections where he was not seen on the campaign trail and only voted on a wheelchair. He had been in a French hospital for three months for a mini-stroke.

Succession talks remains muted, but concerns over his health will mean it is an issue that cannot be easily swept away.

Veteran Angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, 72,  has also signalled that the ruling MPLA party will need to explore the question of his succession. He has been president since 1979 and in 2012 picked a landslide win enroute to a new five-year term.

The discussion of succession for elderly leaders who have been in power for years has long been taboo for many African countries as they are sometimes construed to mean one is saying the Big Man is about to die.

Protecting interests

However, such talk is now appearing on national dinner tables in disparate countries. Commentators have offered up explanations of generational change, but the catch is that few of the leaders caught up in such situations are willing to leave that change open, many have been grooming their successor to ensure their interests—mainly economic— are protected. 

Scholars Rodger Govea and John Holm after examining over 100 successions in Africa noted that at least one-third were “regulated”, and that the presence of a political crisis was the main obstacle towards this kind of change. 

This supports o ther scholarly findings that open-seat elections (where the incumbent did not run) resulted in bigger turn-overs to the opposition. 

One such study found that while incumbents retained power 93% of the time, their successors won just 52% of the time, highlighting the advantage of incumbency and name recognition.   

Economic performance has also been shown to matter during succession—an open election coinciding with poor economies tended to make a ruling party loss more likely. It was thus beholden for a ruling party leader to leave only when they—and the real powers behind the throne— were comfortable enough for this to happen, which in many instances is when the national economy is enjoying an upswing to curb public disgruntlement.

The inference may thus be that more African leaders are feeling safe enough to leave office, even if for the wrong reasons—that they have entrenched their interests deeply enough, and will not be hauled before a judge by some hot-blooded successor looking to make a name for himself.

There is also the observation that age and related health complications do eventually catch up with even the most “immortal” of authoritarian leaders, many of whom belong to the second generation following the premier 1960s-1970s independence class. 

However there are those countries where such discussions remain the domain of outside watchers and diplomats, and these include Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville.

Related Content


blog comments powered by Disqus