AS Ethiopia votes, it is as good a time as any to reflect on the type of men and women who tend to become president on the continent.
Wrestlers. Physical Education teachers. Daddy’s boys. When it comes to choosing its leaders Africa is often non-discriminatory, showing it is a better equal-opportunity employer than many of its finger-wagging Western contemporaries.
The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh who used to love a good grapple, Burundi’s football loving former coach and a swathe of blue-eyed boys from Kenya, Botswana, Swaziland, Gabon, Togo and Morocco are good mastheads for this claim, but as a look at former professions show, the continent embraces all.
It has offered chances to technocrats - of the type many scoff at because they can hardly address the typical unruly African crowd, preferring to instead offer academic theories, suits, stethoscopes - chalk wielders and the ubiquitous rifle-bearer.
In the former class you would find former bankers such as Benin’s Boni Yayi, university types such as Malawi’s Peter Mutharika and Somalia’s Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, and lawyers such as Catherine Samba-Panza of the Central African Republic, Tunisia’s Beji Essebsi and Anerood Jugnauth of Mauritius.
There is also space for teachers such as James Michel of the Seychelles and Hage Geingob of Namibia, economists such as Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, and insurance men such as Sierra Leone’s Ernest Koroma.
Debonair types such as Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara and Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keita also get a look in, having worked with international financial institutions in one role or the other. Others here are Madagascar’s Hery Rajaonarimampianina, who makes up for his impossibly-long name by running a fancy accountancy firm.
Medics also are represented: Ikililou Dhoinine of the Comoros no doubt holds his pharmaceutical training dear, while historians such as Ghana’s John Mahama are not to be left out either.
The technocrats that were a few years back celebrated as being on the rise before a spectacular spate of reversals are well represented: Senegal’s Macky Sall, Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn, Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou are among the more prominent. (Read: The rise, and fall, of the African technocrat president)
But it is the musclemen who grab the region’s headlines everyday. They fall under various categories— the liberationists, whose main claim to fame was lighting a flame under the bottoms of colonialists, such that they had little option but to hurriedly leave the kitchen.
These include Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, Angola’s Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, and Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika. You can also count Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, who was such an equal-opportunity operator that he instead targeted an African country—Ethiopia.
Then there are the rebel leaders—Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and South Sudan’s Salva Kiir.
Career soldiers are not to be discounted either: Nigeria’s incoming Muhammadu Buhari, Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Obian Nguema of Equatorial Guinea and Egypt’s Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, as are policemen like Djibouti’s Ismali Omar Guelleh.
In keeping with Africa’s diverse tapestry, there are those who hussle with two careers: Nkurunziza was also a rebel leader, while Jammeh is a career militarist and part-time healer.
In keeping with the strict regimes and love for order honed in the bush, the countries run by the disciplined forces graduates attract the most criticism over their human rights records, but also are in charge of some of the continent’s biggest resource wells. It is not easy to democratise money.
For the tinier countries, some manage to punch above their weight by having pro-military foreign policies, such as Djibouti and Rwanda, while others opt for cheque-book diplomacy, such as Equatorial Guinea.
Others are “easy”, taking each African day as it comes, such as Zambia and Namibia. These allow civilians more space to operate. Others are just wary of conflict—Liberia and Sierra Leone—and just want to be as easy.
The unscientific conclusion is that there is a relation between country size and resource base, and the kind of leaders they plump for. We said it was unscientific.