African presidents would rather die in office, but these ones surprised us - they left young

The region values its elders in leadership-but every so often younger ones manage to break through.

THERE are 17 scheduled elections in Africa this year, and the spotlight will again be on which president leaves honourably, which one stays put, which one rigs the vote, and which postpones the vote—and which one seems to have plans to die in office.

The year started with the focus on the special presidential election in Zambia, occasioned by the death of its president Michael Sata last October. Edgar Lungu, won that on the weekend.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), President Joseph Kabila was thought to trying to extend his stay in power, by passing a law that would have required a national census, which would have taken anything up to three years to do, to be held before elections. If the law had passed, it would have meant that elections wouldn’t be held next year. A burst of angry national protests, in which 42 died, let to a climbdown by the government, and now the elections will go ahead even without a census.

The DRC violence and Kabila’s plans, once again put the spotlight on whether the younger generation of the continent’s leaders, can be different from that of  older class, typified by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who is 91, and has been president of his recently much-suffering country for 35 years.

Kabila’s record

A few days after the assassination of his father in January 2001, DRC president Kabila was hoisted into power by Kinshasa politicians, at the tender age of 29. 

At the time, this made him the world’s first head of state born in the 1970s, until Dominica’s Roosevelt Skeritt, a year his junior, became prime minister of the island nation in 2004.

If constitutional order is observed, Kabila would leave power at the end of next year at 45, making him the first substantive civilian head of state of an independent African country to leave power aged under 50 years and in a manner prescribed by law. 

Despite previous guerrilla activity and military links, few would consider him a true military man in the cloth of Yoweri Museveni of Uganda or Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. 

Kabila would need to secure a third term to knock himself out of this one-man exclusive club, a difficult task given the deadly protests that met his perceived attempts to extend his stay.

It is not an impossible task though, African presidents often get a rap for their longevity in power. But there are also leaders who have left office voluntarily at the end of their terms, and at a relatively young age politically speaking, this in a continent where age-related complications are among the top killers of its politicians.

If Togo’s Faure Gnassingbe leaves office on schedule this year, he would be aged 49, but there are signs that he is, like Kabila, developing cold feet. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame would also be “only” 60 if he leaves in 2017 as per the current constitution, having been in power since he was 43.  

Element of push

There is very often an element of push when African leaders leave office, but the reasons can vary. Burkina Faso’s Maurice Yaméogo resigned five years into his rule in 1966 aged 45, after the army decided to take matters in its own hands following a spate of strikes in the wake of cuts in salaries and budgets. This helped avert the spectre of civil war in the country then known as Upper Volta.

Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba also reluctantly left power after his constitutional term expired in 2002 at the age of 58, running into huge public furore when he tried to extend it. The country has been better known for elderly leaders. Its new president, Lungu, seen as heralding a generational change, is 58.

Cameroon’s Ahmadou Ahidjo however surprised many when he resigned in 1982 at the age of 58, having been in power for 22 years. Health reasons are often cited as an explanation, but there remain claims that he made this decision based on false information from his physician.

His exit was unusual in many other ways: his successor, Paul Biya, was a Christian from the south, while Ahidjo practised Islam and hailed from the north, at a time when to hold leadership in West Africa one’s roots sorely mattered.

Both Yaméogo and Ahidjo were hounded by their successors, forcing them into exile, and could perhaps inform the reluctance by leaders to leave “peacefully” without guarantees.

If you overlook Mathieu Kérékou’s seizure of power in a military coup at the age of 39, and his subsequent “regime laundering” through elections, the Beninois leader did something few African leaders do: leave power peacefully after an election.

His 1991 defeat was the first time in Francophone Africa that an incumbent had lost an election. He was to however bounce back five years later, winning another term in a run-off.  

Somalia surprise

But for a “proper” handover you would have to look to an unlikely candidate. The joke is frequently made that the number of Somalia’s prime ministers, presidents, and interim leaders, since the fall of the Siad Barre government in 1991 could easily match the total number of US presidents since America’s independence in 1776.

But the country’s first president, Aden Abdullah Daar, set a precedent that has struggled to find many takers on the continent, leaving office after seven years at the still spritely age of 59 when he lost in the presidential election of 1967.

Daar thus became the first head of state in Africa to voluntarily relinquish power to a democratically elected successor. That however was to be Somalia’s last election under universal suffrage. 

The continent also throws up some interesting quirks about politicians and their age, especially in southern Africa.

Botswana’s four leaders to date were all aged under 60 years when they rose to power. The country gets many plaudits for governance, and some may seek correlations with this.

Of Mozambique’s four heads of state, only Armando Guebuza ascended to office aged older than 60 years.

Of female presidents

Also, none of the continent’s only female heads of state—Malawi’s Joyce Banda and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—went into office aged under 60.

Of the African leaders who have risen to power under the age of 40, nearly all were on the back of the army; Burundi’s Michel Micombero (26), Kabila (29), Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (27) Yahya Jammeh of Gambia at 29, Jean-Baptiste Bagaza of Burundi aged 30, Nigeria’s Yakubu Gowan, 32, Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara (34), and DRC’s Mobutu Sese Seko (35).

They were joined by Rwanda’s Juvénal Habyarimana and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi (both 36), Olusegun Obasanjo and Jerry Rawlings as head of military councils at 32 and 38 years respectively, and Benin’s Mathieu Kérékou, Sudan’s Gaafar Nimeiry and Togo’s Gnassingbe, all 39 at the time of taking up the reins.  

Burkina Faso’s Yaméogo and Cameroon’s Ahidjo bucked the trend, the former rising to power in 1959 at the age of 34, and the Cameroonian in 1959 aged 36. DR Congo’s Patrice Lumumba was 35 when he became prime minister, while Liberia’s first president Joseph Roberts was 39 when he took office in 1848, leaving eight years later.

Of special mention was Ghana’s Akwasi Afrifa, in power for only a year from 1969 at the age of 32, and among the first military leaders to hand over power to a civilian voluntarily.

But going by trends, the time when the continent will have a majority of its leaders being younger is still some distance away, while those who do manage to beat age suddenly pick up the bad habits of their elders. In short, age really doesn’t matter in Africa’s State Houses.

—This story has been updated to reflect new leaders who rose to power 


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