IN recent months, headlines from Africa have been dominated by Big Men who just won’t go away.
On 18 February, Ugandans went to the polls, with President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the country since he came to power as a victorious rebel leader in 1986, looking to extend his 30-year rule.
It went according to script: arrest and harassment of opposition rivals, a chaotic vote, stuffed ballot boxes, Facebook and Twitter blocked, and the chief emerges victorious.
Museveni sits at the high table of Africa’s longest-serving leaders: Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos and Zimbabwe’s 92-year-old Robert Mugabe have all been in charge for 36 years – the latter as prime minister then president; and Cameroon’s Paul Biya has been in power for 33 years.
Though not an exemplary democrat, Museveni nevertheless still has a passable report card. He turned around a broken economy, and his government has reduced the country’s poverty level to about 19%.
At one point, he also oversaw one of the world’s most imaginative campaigns to roll back the ravages of HIV/AIDS, with Uganda becoming a star pupil in how to combat the pandemic.
The corruption and repression of latter years have taken a lot of the shine off those achievements, but still don’t add up to a definitive case against long-term leaders.
Equally, Ethiopia, the hottest economy on the continent, is a dictatorship-lite.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took all 546 seats in parliament last year, snatching the opposition’s sole seat.
However, Ethiopia’s economy is doing much better than Zambia and Malawi, which do have presidential term limits, and where more conventional competitive elections are held and presidents ride off into the sunset quietly when they lose.
Big Man question
So how can Big Men be strongmen, and still do well at anything? A strongman who ends genocide (Rwanda’s Paul Kagame), or one who puts a stop to a brutal dictatorship and starvation (late Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia) will often have a lot of political clout and credibility to push through reforms.
Such power cannot easily be secured by a politician who made dodgy backroom deals to secure electoral victory.
However, what is clear is that while some long-term leaders have delivered decent development results, one danger is almost a given: the longer they stay beyond 20 to 25 years, the higher the risk that their countries will implode when they leave.
Take Libya’s case. It’s popular to blame the chaos in the country today on NATO that helped bomb its dictator Muammar Gaddafi out of power in 2011, before he was eventually cornered in a storm drain and lynched by a revolutionary mob.
Gaddafi had ruled Libya for 42 years. It was too long for one man to lord it over a country: something had to give whichever way he had lost power.
That something gave in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after its venal leader of 32 years, Mobutu Sese Seko, was deposed by Rwanda-backed rebels in 1997.
Shortly after that DRC became a land of plundering and raping militias, and its eastern regions are still blighted by violence that the UN’s largest peacekeeping force has still failed to snuff out after nearly 15 years.
It could be argued that Gaddafi and Mobutu were both former soldiers who seized power through coups, and their countries being endowed with natural resources, their corruption was inevitable - they would not have built democracies.
But that cannot be said of Ivory Coast’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny who led his country for a princely 33 years, until he died in 1993. He was a civilian, and his country didn’t have oil, diamonds, or gold.
Unlike Mobutu or Central African Republic’s “Emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Houphouët-Boigny didn’t feed his rivals to crocodiles.
He was urbane - and Francophile - to a fault, and there have been few African leaders with his progressive views on issues like citizenship.
During Houphouët-Boigny’s time in power, Abidjan was dubbed the “Paris of Africa”, and he built a prosperous cocoa-fuelled economy.
Houphouët-Boigny was as enlightened as a long-term ruler in Africa could be, but his Ivory Coast still nearly all went up smoke after his death. (Photo/AFP).
But he wouldn’t have recognised the Ivory Coast that plunged into a civil war a few years after his death. If any African nation led by a long-term ruler was ever to survive convulsions, Ivory Coast should have been the best candidate.
This would suggest that while long-term rulers can sometimes be effective in stabilising broken countries, and that rebuilding fragmented societies is easier done without the vexations of competitive politics, it is an ill-advised form of stewardship for a country seeking political maturity.
Democracy’s good ills
The risks associated with elections and other democratic experiments in Africa are not always without benefit.
A society learns to manage risk and pull itself back from the mouth of the grave.
Kenya is as good an example as any. In 2008, it was hit by the worst violence since independence from British colonial rule in 1963, following a dispute over the election.
It took former UN secretary general Kofi Annan just over a month to get the warrings sides to agree to the formation of a national unity government that divided the political spoils between then President Mwai Kibaki’s camp and his rival, Raila Odinga.
It was an unusually fast settlement, considering that in South Sudan a political deal to attempt to end the fighting took nearly two years, while months of on-off talks have failed troubled Burundi.
South Sudan and Burundi lack Kenya’s benefits of many elections, some when it was a one-party state.
The country’s heavy-handed and influential founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, died in 1978 after 14 years in office, and was succeeded by the gruff Daniel arap Moi.
Moi left the country a shell of its former self by the time he stepped down in 2002. But while Moi left quietly, in some ways the post-election violence of 2008 had as much to do with his long rule as it did with alleged fraud.
The epicentre of the violence was the Rift valley, where attacks targeted mostly Kikuyu “migrants” from central Kenya – the community from which Kibaki hailed. Moi is from the Rift valley and, during his 24 years in office, an elite from that region rose to power, captured the state, and shook it down.
The “Baathist problem”
Moi’s departure from office left many of them at sea and, when the political coalition they were backing seemed to have been robbed in the polls, an explosion was almost inevitable.
I liken this to Iraq’s “Baathist problem” after the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the dismantling of his Baathist political and security apparatus.
After years of the party they supported or a long-standing ruler being their meal ticket, a whole population can become highly alienated when everything is taken away.
Almost without exception, with every year longer they stay in office, the more patronage they have to dole out to buy support. Call it the “president-for-life bargain”.
The Big Man’s loses the room for reform, and becomes too vested in defending existing policy, even if it has failed, because its presumed “success” would have been the basis for him to continue in office.
Very soon everything – businesses, whole regions, party factions, the civil service, the security services, the churches and mosques – become like little planets orbiting around the Big Man.
His departure creates an existential crisis for his or her supporters and the bureaucracy, and they respond with secessionist or violent rejection of the new order.
The resulting vacuum is also often then filled by opposition groups radicalised or embittered by years of exclusion and persecution.
Because the logic of Big Man rule means you cannot have a worthy successor a heartbeat away or independent national institutions with authority, there is usually none with the legitimacy to step up and credibly take his place when he departs.
It’s for these reasons that there’s hardly a single African country that has both marvellously survived a long-term leader’s rule and gone on to prosper as a free democracy without missing a step. Even benign Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania is plagued by violent and contentious elections.
It would seen that, while there might sometimes be a case for dating an African Big Man, history tells us you should not marry him.
-This article was first published in The Guardian as “Africa’s Big Men can deliver but they must know when to go”. This is an extended version.