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The Problematic of Leadership Succession in Africa: Why do leaders cling to power?

By Tesfaye Habisso
June 08 2011

The story of African liberation and pro-democracy movements that openly and publicly made their pledges and promises to their long-oppressed masses to steer their respective regimes toward democratic transitions fall in three broad categories. The first are countries where the armed liberation movements that once secured independence from colonial rulers are still in power (Angola and Mozambique 1975; Zimbabwe 1980; Namibia 1992; South Africa 1994). Then there are the second generation liberation movements that waged armed struggles against African dictatorships in the 1990s, and have been in power ever since (National Resistance Movement (NRM) in Uganda, Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in Ethiopia, and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) /People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in Eritrea). And thirdly, there are pro-democracy movements that have seen the establishment of multi-party political systems since the early 1990s in many African countries like Zambia and Malawi. But also in the new democracies there has been a striking weakness of opposition, and the self-declared pro-democracy party has generally remained in power. As a striking contrast to electoral policies in new democracies globally, African incumbents have seldom lost elections, despite persistent poverty and poor governance. Dominant executives, weak democratic institutions and shrinking space for critical deliberation and contestation of political power characterize most countries—despite democratic constitutions and multi-party elections.

There seems to be a characteristic trait that both generations of liberation movements as well as the pro-democracy movements to a large degree failed to fully implement the democratic aspirations that were such an important element of both the anti-colonial/anti-authoritarian struggle and the support for the pro-democracy movements. The new rulers centred more on attaining power and less on creating a democratic state and society. Today, many of the sub-Saharan African nations have come to occupy a precarious middle ground between outright authoritarianism and fully-fledged democracy. Yes, many liberation and pro-democracy movements that valiantly opposed authoritarian regimes often found themselves behaving in markedly undemocratic ways when in power themselves. One of the reasons why many such movements in Africa and developing countries fail to sustain quality democracy is that they are unable to change successfully from a liberation or independence movement political culture into a democratic political culture. It is now clear, following the staggering post-liberation disappointments, that it is not a given that progressive liberation movements which fought for democracy and social justice will necessarily foster a democratic culture when in power.

As African countries grapple with the difficult processes of democratization and economic development and noting the prevalent long-entrenched political culture of life presidencies and premierships, the issue of leadership succession assumes greater magnitude in Africa today. It deserves critical appraisal and strategic management. As noted by one scholar, “Orderly political succession through the ballot box and peaceful alternation of power are the hallmarks of effective democratization.” Democracy and good governance require that leaders are freely and popularly elected and not imposed. Stability, predictability and continuity in leadership are important ingredients of good governance and are assured by a well-planned and managed succession strategy. And, “to sustain democracy and good governance in Africa, there is the need for strategic thinking on succession management from the political, corporate, traditional and social perspectives.”

April 3, 1996 was a landmark in the annals of management and leadership succession events. On that date, the US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown perished, along with 12 US CEOs of companies, industries, and ownership structures, in an air crash on the mountainside in Bosnia. In that one instant, a major government department and twelve companies lost their leaders, and for the directors and managers of those organizations, succession moved from theory to reality. The abrupt truncation of John Kennedy’s presidency by an assassin’s bullet in 1963 was yet another reality in leadership challenge in the United States.

Margaret Thatcher, when faced with the reality that her term as prime minister of Great Britain was drawing to a close, said “But there was one more duty I had to perform, and that was to ensure that John Major was my successor. I wanted to believe that he was the man to secure and safeguard my legacy and to take our policies forward.” In her final days, she established as her highest priority the securing of her successor. Indeed, Mr. Major succeeded Thatcher as prime minister.

In 2000 Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, about to complete his constitutionally mandated two term tenure as President, got the nomination of his ruling party despite massive internal opposition, including his own vice president and several of his ministers and parliamentarians. His decision in May 2001 to respect the Constitution and not to seek a third term came only after violence and a rare and courageous threat of impeachment by parliament. He then engineered the victory of his handpicked successor Levy Mwanawasa, in the December 2001 elections. Ironically Mwanawasa who was presumably coming to protect Chiluba, turned around to prosecute him for abuse of office and corruption.

In April 2003, President Bakili Muluzi of Malawi sacked his entire Cabinet just two days after announcing that the cabinet and the ruling United Democratic Front politburo had anointed Bingu wa Mutharika, an outsider, to be his successor for the elections scheduled for 18 May 2004. And ever since Muluzi had tried but failed both in court and in public opinion to amend the Constitution to allow him a third term in office. In frustration, he decided to do a Chiluba in Malawi by handpicking Mutharika as successor. The four life stories I have just recounted illustrate in different dimensions the challenge of leadership succession; they also teach some interesting and important lessons.

Lessons to learn

The sudden death of John Kennedy, Ron Brown and the 12 CEOs created an unexpected and momentary leadership vacuum but not a crisis. But suppose the US Government, Commerce Department and the twelve affected companies had no succession strategies? Of course, the Americans are notorious for long-term thinking and planning and have well established and tested leadership succession strategies. No wonder they frowned upon Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who upon hearing of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1983 and seemingly oblivious of existing chain of succession, blurted: “I’m in charge!” Lesson: Leaders do not control their fate and could disappear accidentally or unceremoniously; it is important, therefore, for institutions to have in place well defined and publicly known systems for succession. Citizens have the duty to protect the system jealously against potential usurpers.

Margaret Thatcher succeeded in putting John Major at the 10 Downing Street, and she did so without breaching British succession rules and suffering much public backlash. Lesson: There is nothing wrong for a leader in a democracy to groom a successor insofar as the rules and conventions are respected. Many leaders and societies have faced bitter disappointment as they watched an ineffective successor reversing progress due to different values, and halting momentum toward progress and morale due to poor leadership skills. However, it is important for the selection or grooming process to be transparent and in accordance with laid-down rules and supported by all stakeholders.

The cases of Chiluba and Muluzi reflect the typical challenge of succession in African politics and, most disturbingly, both presided over constitutional democracies. After being denied his wish to perpetuate his leadership, Chiluba tried to outwit his people by handpicking and planting his own henchman as successor. Unfortunately for him, his machinations failed as Mwanawasa defied all expectations and decided to hold his predecessor accountable for his stewardship. Lesson: It is impossible to predict a successor’s intentions and a leader can never tell how he will be treated once out of office. A subdued cat could turn into a tiger once it is freed and assumes the throne of the tiger! Leaders should therefore be careful what they do and how they exercise leadership responsibilities while in office. A leader must respect the rules that brought him into office and not to seek to undermine them.

As the foregoing cases confirm, leadership succession could be problematic depending on whether there is a succession strategy and incumbents are prepared to respect it. We find interesting differences between succession in Western countries and that of African countries. While Thatcher was seemingly concerned about getting a successor who will secure her legacy and take her policies forward, Chiluba and Muluzi appeared to prefer a successor who would protect rather than take forward a legacy.

Seemingly, leaders with less to show for their stewardship tend to be most resistant to leadership change and seek self-perpetuation. Chiluba and Muluzi represent just a few examples of real or attempted perpetual incumbency in Africa. Indeed, the “life president” or “perpetual incumbency” syndrome is uninhibited even in some emerging constitutional democracies in Africa. In Namibia, for example, the constitution was amended in 1998 to extend Sam Nujoma’ s tenure as president beyond the prescribed two terms. The syndrome is more evident in regressive democracies such as Zimbabwe. Since becoming an executive president in 1987, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has won every election but not without controversy and violence. Into his twenty-second year of rule, Mugabe defied all the norms of electoral decency to win yet another election victory in 2002.

It’s unfortunate that the democratic trend that took shape in the early 1990s has been reversed in the new millennium, starting with President Sam Nujoma of Namibia in 1999. Then followed: Abdou Diouf of Senegal, the late Lansana Conte of guinea, the late Gnsssingbe Eyadema of Togo and the late Omar Bongo of Gabon, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, Idriss Deby of Chad, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Muhammar Gadaffi of Libya, and Hosini Mubarak of Egypt. In 2008, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria and Paul Biya of Cameroon joined the list of leaders past their sell-by dates. Most amazing is that President Biya himself introduced term limits to Cameroon in 1996, only to scrap them when his retirement loomed.

There are some leaders who have also tried and failed to amend constitutions for a third term in office. Malawi, Nigeria and Zambia are some of those countries. Robust opposition from civil society organizations, political parties, and the media thwarted the attempts. I must also point out that others, however, have stepped down gracefully, like Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano.

Why Leaders Cling to Power in Africa

“History has shown that even those who rose to power with good intentions soon became corrupt. They took advantage of their position to enrich themselves and their family and friends. Then in order to protect their wealth and power, they silenced those who threatened their authority. As one injustice led to another, and as their friends became fewer, they grew increasingly paranoid and oppressive. They desperately clung to power in fear that if they lost control then they might also lose their fortunes, their freedom, and possibly even their lives.” [Daniel Kaufmann, 2008].

Leaders come and go; some last a few years, others several decades. There are several creative ways of “overstaying” in power; one just has to review the recent historical events of many countries to appreciate this. One thing, however, is very consistent: absolute, excessive and prolonged power can and will corrupt. Power blinds the correct perception of human dignity, justice and honour. This important point must be appreciated and internalized by all the political leaders, whether in the incumbent party or in the opposition bloc. Be this as it may, why is leadership succession such a problem in Africa? There are, of course, several reasons, but I will highlight just some amongst the many possible ones.

Primary, the absence of institutional framework for succession in many countries where the framework exists, is utter disregard by the leadership. Simply, the problem is symptomatic of authoritarian or totalitarian governance. In several such states and establishments leaders deliberately ignore this requirement and even make it a taboo to discuss succession plans. A non-African example but pertinent to Africa is China’s leadership succession that was brought into focus again in the run-up to the recent 16th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the widespread speculations on the final leadership line-up.

Second are the cultural attitudes toward leadership in Africa. On the one hand, political leaders tend to regard themselves as traditional rulers and want to be treated as such. Thus, they accept and often demand royal or chiefly treatment including accolades, appellations and the payment of homage. Under the pretext of promoting the national culture, leaders turn themselves literally into chiefs: to be greeted by a retinue, drumming and traditional incantations. This kind of treatment easily gets into their heads; they begin to see themselves as the “big chief” and, as you know, chiefs rule till death do them part!

On the other hand, the governed, that is, the people help the self-entrenchment of leaders by their attitude toward leadership. Besides the undue obsequiousness and platitudes, the governed typically sees the governor as the “Father of the Nation” or one installed in the position of power due to God's will. The notion of a “father” or God's appointee has many imageries and expectations: a father is forever; you don't challenge God's nominee or just push your father around; fathers like chiefs demand obedience and are not easily accountable. Combined with the chieftaincy images, the notion of a “father of the nation”, leads to the promotion of personality cult. All such notions reinforce the permanent incumbency syndrome, an antithesis of democratic leadership.

The third explanation for the problem of leadership succession in Africa is the extensive powers that either the constitution or the lack of it gives political leaders and the resultant patronage and patrimonial systems. Besides the extensive appointive powers of most African executives, they also dominate law-making, control the national purse, and supervise the huge national development program, including the award of contracts. This overwhelming concentration of power enables the leader to create and preside over a system of patronage. The power to reward or sanction that turns subjects to supplicants reinforces the leader’s feeling of indispensability and impregnability.

Fourth, for some it is the element of egocentrism within them that tells them no one else can do a better job. By the way, this trend doesn’t exist only in Africa but the whole world. Remember in Australia John Howard refused to hand over to his deputy. It’s unfortunate that the ego in most of these leaders expands the longer they stay in power. They feel all other people are irresponsible.

The final explanation relates to the misdeeds of leaders while in office. Unfortunately, not many African leaders maintain good records of human rights and management of the nation’s resources. There are those who murdered or tortured opponents and real or perceived enemies; those who turned the national economy into personal exchequers; those whose indiscretion caused massive individual and national losses; and those whose corrupt practices are legendary. Why should such leaders expose themselves by giving up power so readily, particularly when they don’t trust that the successor would provide protection? It is indeed sad that such unscrupulous leaders have the audacity to fret to remain in power for perpetuity.

To be sure, leadership succession is not completely gloomy in Africa. Some few countries are fast establishing themselves as good examples of peaceful and orderly leadership change. Orderly successions have taken place in South Africa, Botswana, Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Zambia and more recently, Kenya. In Ethiopia the incumbent party has recently designed a succession plan as a component of internal democratic practice in the party as well as the government and a radical Growth and Transformational Plan (GTP) for the nation’s economic development. A fully-fledged, transparent, predictable and institutionalized succession strategy in political leadership, however, is yet to be seen, both in the ruling party and the opposition bloc except perhaps for the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) opposition party which has fixed two-term limits for the party leadership. Even then, most of these pacesetting countries have tremendous challenges in sustaining the novelty. How then should leadership succession be managed to ensure sustainability?

How to manage leadership succession

Ordinarily, constitutional rule or democratic practice should assure the sustenance of orderly leadership succession. Unfortunately, African democracies do not function in normal times and, therefore, leadership succession would need special strategies and careful management. The essential challenge is how to ensure good democratic practice including respect for the prescriptions for succession.

Good democratic practice requires the strengthening of institutions of democracy to play their assigned roles effectively. For instance, the legislative and oversight powers of parliament and its capacity to circumscribe executive actions ought to be enhanced. A strong and independent judiciary able to administer justice in ways that protect the rights of citizens and institutions protect the Constitution and promote good governance would contribute to reducing executive haughtiness. A strong and vibrant civil society provides additional counterweight and strengthen constitutional rule. It is notable that in the case of attempted “perpetual incumbency” in both Zambia and Malawi strong and determined democratic institutions were vital in safeguarding the constitution. In Zambia the parliament rejected Chiluba’s plan; in Malawi the court dismissed Muluzi’s plea. Solidly behind these institutions were civil society groups. Remarkably, the interventions by these institutions largely prevented the violation of the constitution for self-aggrandizement in the two countries.

Strengthening democratic institutions would result in the reduction of the power of the state and the empowerment of citizens, another democratic imperative. As mentioned earlier, executive dominance is a major factor in leadership succession problems in Africa. Delegating aspects of state power to institutions like Parliament and through decentralization, that is, enhanced local governance would help reduce the unwieldy privileged patronage of the Executive in society.

Constitutional or democratic literacy is essential in sustaining democracy and must be accelerated in African countries. Educating citizens on the Constitution and on their rights and responsibilities, including the protection of the Constitution will minimize the tendency of leaders to take their people for a ride. Oftentimes, ignorance cower citizens from exercising their rights and questioning authorities. A popular knowledge and appreciation for constitutional provisions for leadership succession in democracies would further deter “perpetual incumbencies”, or ‘democracy without turnover’ as the famous American political scientist Samuel Huntington has coined the term.

Avoiding the development of personality cults is also important for sustaining orderly leadership succession. Attitudinal change is needed in the relations between rulers and the ruled. Excessive deference, uncritical acceptance of executive fiats and bloated adulation tend to create an air of immortality around the leaders and make it difficult for them to accept the imperative of leadership change. We ought to recognize that Constitutional rulers are not monarchs or ‘demigods’ and are as culpable and accountable as other citizens

Finally, succession management should include other ancillary considerations such as the settlement of the outgoing leader, holdover appointees, and the role of security agencies. Outgoing leaders are human beings and not angels; they surely expect to be treated with respect and provided with sufficient amenities and privileges upon their exit from power. Such sensitivities should be satisfactorily and positively taken care of and a package of amenities provided for based upon the resource capability of the nation. After all, it is natural that outgoing leaders seek to spend their remaining life time or their retirement in comfort and peace. These must be addressed properly and in time, and the necessary legal instruments must be in place before their departure from power.

Obviously, the country’s historical and political culture would determine how such matters are handled. In Ghana the settlement of former President Rawlings was mired in controversy, perhaps because of the political environment and the personalities involved.

In Kenya outgoing Arap Moi built for himself a 26-bedroom retirement mansion, an edifice that his successor Kibaki has appropriated for the state. The succession controversies in Ghana and Kenya could have been avoided if the countries had clearly defined succession strategies that included the settlement of former leaders.

It is really a disturbing pattern that has gone on all the while that the Organization of African Unity (OAU) has been reformed into the African Union (AU). The AU signed its own constitution in 2000 in Durban, South Africa, with the principles of democracy and provision of sanctions against unconstitutional changes of government. New institutions were set up to protect democracy, including the Peace and Security Council, the Pan-African Parliament and the African Peer Review Mechanism, New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance was also adopted by the AU in January 2007. Article 23 of the Charter defined unconstitutional changes of government as “illegal means of accessing or maintaining power”, including “any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government.” Sanctions are to be implemented by the AU against any government that tampers with its constitution in this way. The problem is that this Charter has not yet entered into force. Not even South Africa, Botswana, Mauritius and Ghana—the oft-cited islands of functioning and stable democracy—have ratified it. The regional body has implemented sanctions in a number of countries. But this has been in cases of coup d’état. There is no precedent for sanctions against an incumbent president or prime minister messing up the democratic trend in Africa.

In conclusion I wish to emphasize that any country, organization or institution worth its name and reputation should have a well-defined, regulated and transparent system for determining leadership succession. Such an institutionalized system is a key requirement for good governance. The cases of Ron Brown and John Kennedy show that leaders are equally mortal beings; they can pass away suddenly and unceremoniously. The good leader should therefore appreciate what Ken Blanchard said several years ago that: “As a manager the important thing is not what happens when you are there, but what happens when you are not there.” The absence of a strategic plan for succession, including the mechanics for transferring power, could also create difficulties and embarrassment when the inevitable happens, as it happened in Kenya. Kenyans were indeed shocked to observe how traumatic the transition process from Arap Moi to Kibaki leadership proved to be – just because officials did not know exactly what to do. The country had had no previous succession experience and not even state protocol officials knew precisely how to implement the transfer of power. In the end the military had the save the situation with their martial “handover” experience.

Finally, it is necessary to reiterate the earlier points about the need to reduce state/regime power, accelerate constitutional literacy and strengthen democratic institutions, including Parliament and the electoral body. Achieving these ends would create an environment that is conducive for orderly and sustainable leadership succession in Africa. And leaders who accomplish the democratic ideal of many generations will always be remembered in the hearts and minds of the African peoples. Otherwise, the democratic ideal is in peril, and the future of most Africa is bleak and unpredictable.

“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born—that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That is nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” [Warren G. Bennis]