However, the critical issues of spin, manipulation of the electorate and media are no exception. The major difference between politicians in the West and those in Africa and elsewhere in the underdeveloped world is that in the West, politicians believe to a large extent in the transparency of their systems of governance and can easily concede defeat in elections. In most African countries on the contrary, governments never lose elections and opposition parties never accept results of elections and this often creates a stalemate and invariably leads to issues of legitimacy.

By Crisford Chogugudza (June 4, 2008)

AFRICA, unlike the West, has had the longest serving leaders by far on a comparative basis but this has not translated into positive development for the continent. The longevity of most despotic leaders in Africa has led to the continent having on average the least turnover of leaders worldwide but this has not translated into stability. Some believe that these protracted years of largely despotic and brutal rule have contributed significantly to the general lack of development in the continent. In Africa, the issue of limited tenure of office is largely viewed as a taboo that has only been broken recently following long and agonising years of misrule, economic decadence, corruption and very poor human rights records.

The following is a list of carefully selected long-serving African leaders, some of whom are still at the helm in a number of countries:

  • Gynassimbe Eyadema of Togo, in power since 1967 —2005 (38 years);

  • Omar Bongo of Gabon 1967 to present — (41 years); Incumbent

  • Muammar Gaddaffi of Libya 1969 to present — (39 years); Incumbent

  • Felix Houphouet Boigny of Ivory Coast 1960-1993 — (33 years);

  • Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now DRC) 1965-1997 — (32 years);

  • Habib Ali Bourguiba of Tunisia 1957-1987 — (30 years);

  • Kamuzu Banda of Malawi 1964-1994 — (30 years);

  • Paul Biya of Cameroon, PM 1975-1982; President 1982 to present — (33 years) Incumbent

  • Kenneth David Kaunda of Zambia 1964-1991 — (27 years);

  • Eduardo dos Santos of Angola 1979 to present — (25 years);

  • Robert Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe 1980 to present — (28 years);

  • Julius Mwalimu Nyerere of Tanzania 1964-1985 — (21 years);

  • Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda 1986 to present — (22 years) Incumbent

  • Muhammad Hosni Mubarak of Egypt 1981- present (27 years) Incumbent

However, some of the above leaders have already left office in either peaceful or acrimonious circumstances and those still in power are not sure themselves as to whether to resign or continue under an unrelenting barrage of criticism and civil disobedience. Interestingly, a few of the above leaders have dealt with half a dozen UK and US leaders yet they are still in power. It is true that nationalist leaders are the most difficult to eject but when they eventually go they do with their tails down following embarrassingly heavy defeats. Most significantly too is the speedy demise of their liberation parties which tend to disintegrate never to re-emerge under a democratic dispensation. It is also glaringly true that most of these leaders have undermined or exterminated the most credible or potential opposition figures in order to perpetuate their unpopular rule. This has invariably resulted in poor calibre of opposition leaders who have tended to behave exactly in the same way as those they would have replaced. In some cases, very poor but inevitably popular opposition has emerged and received resounding support from the people who would have endured protracted years of poverty and disenchantment under monster rule. In most African countries, people vote with their bellies not necessarily their brains, as the situation on the ground is one which requires them to choose between what appears to be an embodiment of prosperity than despair.

The African nationalist leaders capitalise on the politics of independence, which is an emotional subject. In essence, most of them have turned into dinosaurs from being liberation saints and do not care about the welfare of their own people whose mandate they so wantonly abuse. While it is appreciated that these leaders played a pivotal role in liberating Africa from colonial rule, their continued stay in power is largely against the people’s will and is a grotesque indictment on the people’s democratic rights.

These geriatric African leaders could still be Africa’s greatest assets in resolving the numerous conflicts on the continent as retired statesmen. In this respect however, some analysts argue that these leaders know how to resolve these problems because they would have caused them in the first instance. In reality, however, most of these leaders have created monstrous political, economic and social problems whose only solution lies in their vacating office voluntarily to make way for young, charismatic and strategic leaders who have a better understanding of the new political economic order and are capable of steering their countries forward.

It is reality that Africa will never have young leadership under the current forms of de facto monarchical leadership styles largely supported by constitutional dictatorships. Only in Swaziland and the DRC do we have young but not necessarily innovative leadership.

The issue of fixed tenure of office is not really a big issue if there is a democratic dispensation that allows for regular elections, transparency, rule of law and respect for human rights. There are no fixed terms in most European countries except for a few countries emerging from the remnants of the former Soviet Union. This has never been an issue in Europe because of the presence of mature democracies that embrace diverse political opinions. Leaders in Europe leave office voluntarily if they receive a vote of no confidence even when they still have a mandate to rule.

Opposition figures in European countries and the USA are revered members of society who in most cases enjoy the protection and welfare of the state. In essence, the opposition especially in the United Kingdom, France and Germany are governments-in-waiting and behave as such. Their leaders act more like statesmen. They can easily fill the power vacuums if the opportunity arises.

To show that the power of democracy works in the UK, for instance, there is no written constitution and government works on the basis of fragmented but effective legislation. Their people respect the sanctity of decisions made by their judiciary. Of course some could argue that it takes several years to build democracies similar to those existing in most parts of Europe and the rest of the progressive world.

However, the critical issues of spin, manipulation of the electorate and media are no exception. The major difference between politicians in the West and those in Africa and elsewhere in the underdeveloped world is that in the West, politicians believe to a large extent in the transparency of their systems of governance and can easily concede defeat in elections. In most African countries on the contrary, governments never lose elections and opposition parties never accept results of elections and this often creates a stalemate and invariably leads to issues of legitimacy.

Ultimately, it is imperative for Africans to learn to appreciate the importance of creating democratic foundations of good governance and demystify the myth that Africans do not know how to govern themselves. People entrusted with positions of leadership should not assume that they are there forever. They should have the decency to relinquish power if the people decide to withdraw their mandate. It is high time liberation leaders in Africa abandon the thinking that the public owe them something if anything it is they themselves who owe their own people transparent and visionary leadership. Blaming colonialism for all the problems of Africa is a demonstration of arrogance and political naivety of gigantic proportion.

Crisford Chogugudza is a political writer and a PhD candidate at London University, Royal Holloway, England.

Originally published in Zimbabwe Independent, October 2006.