As 2nd veteran African leader says it's not yet time to go; continent’s first generation hangs on

The more the terrain changes under them, the better the veterans adapt. The Big Man has proved to be a very enduring African breed.

BECOMING the second long-serving African leader in a week to knock back calls to step down, ailing Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has said he will stay in office until the end of his term, despite what he admitted were “some health concerns”.

“Despite my current physical condition… I’m determined to accomplish this task with the help of God, in accordance with the mandate entrusted to me by the majority of the people,” Bouteflika, 78, said Saturday in a message to the nation on the eve of Independence Day.

In power since 1999 and re-elected in a landslide for a fourth term last year, Bouteflika is the longest-serving president of Algeria, but has seldom been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.

Opposition parties and personalities have been urging Bouteflika to step down on account of his poor health, for which he has been hospitalised a number of times in the last decade.

He voted in a wheelchair, following a campaign that was largely conducted for him by close aides, but his popularity with Algerians, who credit him with ending a devastating civil war, and containing Arab Spring upheaval, remains high.

He was however forced into some concessions by the revolutions in his neighbourhood, and a draft constitution is set to be made public as part of a package of reforms he launched in 2011.

Bouteflika joins Angola’s strongman Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Africa’s second-longest serving ruler, in seeking to see out their current mandate, while leaving room for extensions, despite public rumblings for change at the top.

Dos Santos, in power since 1979, last week said he planned to step down only when his current five-year mandate, which he won with a landslide, runs out in 2017.

“In certain restricted circles it was almost a given that the president wouldn’t carry out his mandate until the end, but it’s evident that it’s not wise to consider that option under the current circumstances,” Dos Santos said in a speech published on the website of Angolan state-run news agency Angop.

No farewells

Dos Santos was likely referring to an economic crisis as Africa’s second largest producer of crude oil after Nigeria battles the shock of the plunge in oil prices. Many analysts argue the country needs a younger and fresher pair of hands to take it forward.

“In the meantime, I think we should study very seriously how to build that transition.”  His ruling MPLA party had signalled it would only discuss the issue next year, but few see it as a serious pledge by Dos Santos to step down.

Angola president Jose Eduardo Dos Santos. (Photo/AFP).

Is is not lost on many that he is the guarantor of an oligarchic elite that has propped his 35-year rule, which begun four years after the country became independent from Portugal, and who are extremely dependent on his continued stay or influence for survival.

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, in power since 1980, has in recent years worn out the opposition while ruthlessly purging rivals from party and government, as he strengthens his hold on office following a landslide election victory nearly two years ago.

The 91-year-old has indicated he is keen on another run in 2018, despite visible frailties that have seen him travel abroad frequently for treatment.

The common thread is that the three leaders are totemic symbols of the first generation of African leaders that came to power on the crest of liberation movements, and who still retain outsized influence on their countries using a shrewd ability to stoke nationalism despite the advent of globalisation.

Bouteflika may be the fifth president of Algeria, but his roots are firmly in the country’s independence Army of National Liberation, the ruling FLN’s armed wing which he joined in 1956 at the age of 19.

The trio are representative of a cabal of leaders who have ridden out change in the international order, including the breakdown of ideological divides the sponsors of whom were key for the sustenance of their governments.

Abandoned Marxism

Dos Santos officially abandoned Marxism over 20 years ago, and while his MPLA party still espouses centre-left credentials, it is anything but a study in capitalist benefits especially for the top brass, despite the state’s omnipresence in nearly all productive sectors of the economy.

A large part of the turn in direction was the pragmatic realisation that its economy would not survive without Western oil multinationals, informing the appeasement strategy subsequently employed, but it is to his credit that Dos Santos has also cannily courted the Chinese, allowing him periodic employ of the anti-colonial rhetoric that still strikes a deep chord with voters. 

For Algeria, the internal dynamics of the country means the grievance anti-colonial politics of national pride remain real, stemming from its complex if stormy relationship with France, which for many Algerians represents both the enemy and the promised land. Nationalist figure still draw a lot of sympathy in this context.

The country’s military leaders control much of the power and cash, building up an extensive patronage system resistant to change, and predicated upon a welfare system that placates the restless masses increasingly starved of economic opportunities.

Arab Spring

But when the Arab revolution threatened to strike close home, Bouteflika charmed the sting out of the protest with promise of change, including the amendment of laws relating to elections, political parties, associations and the media.

Zimbabwe’s nationalisation of settler farms triggered an economic decline that the country has struggled hard to right, but which still present fertile ground for nationalist politics and the reward of party ultra-loyalty, the conflation of which have helped support Mugabe’s remarkable longevity.

While alarming to the defenders of free-market economics and private property proponents, the  “Africanisation” policy anchoring the redistributive efforts ring a bell with the majority of the voters who still reside in the rural areas, and who see the benefits of its rich minerals as accruing more to outsiders.

Big Men survive

There are also some African countries that would appear to have the same characteristics  of European settler politics, but which have a liberal tradition of regular change of governments, and are thus outliers in the traditional grievance-nationalist politics argument, including South Africa, Namibia and Kenya.

But the first two reached negotiated settlements, voiding the military victories that led to zero-sum regimes and propped up current surviving strongmen systems, while Kenya’s Big Man phase long burned out with the administration of Daniel arap Moi, his ethno-focused politics having left little room for nationalist and hereditary politics.

The fight back by the first generation in the face of gains by opposition parties on the continent would thus suggest that despite recent dire predictions of the fall of the continent’s remaining Big Men, change will only happen on the terms of the incumbents. 

In this context the more Africa changes, the more its veteran actors learn how to adapt and retain the status quo.

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