President For Life – OpEd


By John O. Kakonge*

All societies – from the smallest communities to the largest nations – need leaders. Leaders are essential to their societies for a wide variety of reasons, such as: to regulate disputes, to oversee economic and social actions and decisions, and to promote social cohesion. Since the formation of the very first primitive societies formed, the pattern has been for one person to take charge, and usually by dint of force. The problem arises – now just as it did in those early societies – of what to do when a leader dies or becomes incapable of governing. Although for thousands of years this has been recognized as a problem, all societies continue to grapple with the task of political succession and to hunt for ways of ensuring this in a socially acceptable and workable manner.

In contemporary society, succession is of course a political problem and in most organized social units, from countries to the smallest organized communities, the choice of a successor is left to a subset of the respective group, tribe, town or country – namely “the Party” – after which elections of some sort may be held. The process for the selection of the successor may not mean that the best potential leader is chosen, only that the chosen person is best able to influence and affect the selection process.

In Africa and in other developing regions, we have all too often seen that the selected and supposedly “elected” successor does not represent the interests of all people, but may have simply intimidated the inner circle of his party into selecting him (or, much more rarely, her). Generally speaking, in the twenty-first century, it has become accepted that the strongest, most vociferous and most forceful politician cannot simply ascend to leadership by killing his predecessor and any other contenders – and this in turn has diminished the number of so-called “wars of succession”. This shift towards a more enlightened form of succession notwithstanding, Black (2001) argues that in the Islamic world, authority has remained tied over very long periods to outstanding individuals and their resulting dynasties.

Finding a new leader is not the end of the matter, however. Shedding those who are already in office and do not wish to leave, even when constitutionally barred from holding on to their posts, remains a problem, especially in Africa. It is a sad reflection on many African political systems that so many leaders do not want to relinquish their posts and ensure a peaceful handover of power.

In order to understand why peaceful and truly democratic succession has been so elusive in many African countries, it is perhaps useful to explore the reasons underlying the reluctance of African leaders to hand over the reins of office.


Many leaders suffer from the ‘Big Man’ syndrome. They are convinced that no other politician could possibly know as much as they do about anything that matters, and they firmly believe that they will always be their country’s best possible ruler. They respect only themselves – although occasionally one of their own children, or just possibly a sibling, may be considered worthy to succeed them. Any country where the succession is a forbidden subject is probably run by such a “big man” (again, women are rarely found in this role). Dissidents are silenced in whatever way is most convenient – threat, exile, imprisonment, or even death.

The nonagenarian President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a prime example. He differed last year with his vice president and favoured protégée Joyce Mujuru: she was promptly dropped from the Cabinet and then expelled from the ruling party ZANU-PF, because she “was causing division and hostility within the party” (SAPA, 2014). Other examples may be seen in Senegal, where President Wade refused to step down, and Burkina Faso, where former President Campaore sought to set aside the constitutional limit to the number of terms he could serve. The Big Men forget that theirs is not a permanent job.


Kleptomaniac leaders are loath to relinquish power since their successors may prosecute them and members of their families for corruption and malfeasance. The leading contender in this category is probably the late Mobutu Sese Seko, who famously robbed the people of the Congo for years. Another possible contender is Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, former Prime Minister of Malaysia, who managed during his tenure to gather all power into his hands alone (Economist, 1998). He was totally preoccupied with political survival, which led to him sacking his anointed successor, Anwar Ibrahim. A few years later, Dr. Mahathir Mohamed was finally constrained meekly to hand over power to someone he had picked and got endorsed by the ruling party. Other countries which have experienced such kleptocratic rule include Uganda, Rwanda, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Equatorial Guinea, Chad and Cameroon.


Presidents almost all have advisors, who can exacerbate the problem of succession by isolating the leaders that they serve, shielding them from differing perspectives and deflecting popular sentiment. Many of these advisors have a vested interest in hanging on to their influential posts, which may represent a source of immense economic power and patronage. Clearly, they may also encourage their benefactor to stay in place for their own personal gain, knowing full well that, if there is a change of power, they will lose their posts and influence. If they have committed crimes, they will be prosecuted and whatever property they have amassed will be at risk of seizure. One example of such an ill-advised leader is former President Wade of Senegal, who refused to step down after two terms of six years until an election proved that the people did not want him. According to former President Obasanjo of Nigeria, who mediated this particular conflict, Wade’s problem was that his advisors wanted him to stay. In many cases, advisers tell the president what he wants to hear – not the truth.


In many countries, political leaders groom their siblings, close relatives or friends to succeed them, often in the hope that they can thus avoid any drastic retaliation for their actions when in office. This practice has been observed in Togo, Gabon, the DRC and other countries. Not all such favouritism is bad, however, successors to high political office will not come from nowhere and incumbent leaders can play a major role in ensuring that worthy people are ready to assume office when they move on. Thus, President Mandela groomed Thabo Mbeki to take over from him. Michael Saata, president of Zambia, is given credit for developing young Zambian leaders. According to the editor (2013) of the Zambian Times, most important politicians in the country today have passed in one way or the other through the tutorship of Michael Saata. Ironically, despite the criticism that China is not a democratic state, it has a well-articulated system of grooming its political successors. As observed by Wong and Ansfield (2011), the former president of China, Hu Jintao, had begun preparing for his departure from power, passing the baton to his presumed successor, vice-president Xi Jinping. Are there lessons for Africa to learn from China?

Experience shows that an electorate is unlikely to vote for someone whom the incumbent has groomed or who has served as deputy to the leader, if the outgoing president was unpopular. In some cases, the groomed successor may feign loyalty to his patron in order to secure presidential support to win an election. Immediately after the election, however, the president elect may then disassociate himself from his predecessor because he wants to be his own man. This was the case with former President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi and his predecessor President Mulusi (BBC News, 2012).

Similarly, candidates may be elected because they associate themselves with a popular president and statesman who enjoyed wide popular support. Thus, in Ghana, a number of presidential candidates, notably former president Jerry Rawlings, associated themselves with the founding president Kwame Nkrumah and won election. In all cases, political parties need to decide on a framework for the identification and selection of a successor well before the outgoing president leaves office.


Another reason why some presidents are loath to step down is because there is nothing for them to do on Civvy Street. They hang on in office because there seem to be few career options for them after politics. This was the case with such long-serving and superannuated leaders as President Mubarak of Egypt, President Suharto of Indonesia, President Omar Bongo of Gabon and many others. In contrast, a number of retired heads of state and government have shown themselves to be very marketable, working with international organizations like the UN, the EU or the AU, serving as special envoys for specific talks or global issues, and sitting on the boards of private companies. Examples are legion: President Mandela was involved in the peace process for various factions in Burundi and the establishing of different foundations. President Obasanjo has been involved in mediating conflicts all over Africa and has become a widely respected international ambassador. President Mary Robinson of Ireland has had several high-level assignments with the UN, and the former prime minister of UK Tony Blair has been involved in Middle East peace talks and his successor Gordon Brown has served as special envoy of the UN Secretary General on education for girls. Some former leaders are considered to have had more illustrious careers after leaving office, thus, Thabo Mbeki – thought by many to have been a lack-lustre successor to President Mandela- has distinguished himself in his mediation work in numerous African conflicts, including in Burundi, the DRC and Côte d’Ivoire, and former US President Jimmy Carter has led his peace and human rights foundation for the last 35 years, arguably with much greater success and distinction than he was able to achieve during his single term as US President.

By and large, retired presidents and prime ministers – if they leave office gracefully and in a constitutional manner – have a great deal to contribute at both national and international levels. The examples cited above should be sufficiently motivating and persuasive to convince those who have not yet retired from office that they will have a role to play upon stepping down democratically from power.


Once they have tasted power, most presidents do not want to relinquish power and lose the benefits, perks and adulation which a high political office normally confers. Fighting rush hour traffic after years of sailing through city streets in special motorcades or swooping down in helicopters is not an easy transition. This is especially true for those who have been in power for many years. Some may feel that they will lose respect and miss the red carpet treatment they enjoyed the years they were in office. Ironically, the longer they remain in office and the higher they elevate themselves above their fellow citizens, the more likely this is to happen: we may predict that this is the likely fate that will befall, for instance, the president of Angola, the Castro family in Cuba, and the families of the presidents of Togo, Gabon and other countries. If, however, as incumbent presidents, they treat their citizens with due respect, they should have no cause for concern about their fate after leaving office nor need they unnecessarily prolong their tenure. Thus, around the world, many former presidents are treated with the utmost respect and lead lives of great dignity.


Whatever view we may have of the issue of political succession and how it should be accomplished, the fact remains that the process is highly problematic in so many African countries. At the same time, there is some hope that political parties are increasingly grooming their next generation of leaders. This is the case in Botswana, for example, where one party has dominated the political scene since independence and has been grooming successors. As indicated earlier, politicians who aspire to be elected as presidents want to be their own man (or woman, we should add, although this has not really been the case in Africa), if their former president was not liked by people. Ideally, incumbent presidents should train their successors, following the examples of China, Saudi Arabia, Botswana, Cuba and other countries. This model may even be seen in the New Testament, where Barnabas trained the apostle Paul, who later on served with greater effect than his teacher. As the editor of a Zambian newspaper has remarked, a political party must not only have correct policies but must train and bring up thousands or millions of successors who will carry on its cause. The example of the recent former president of Namibia, who first picked his successor – and that successor was then endorsed by his party SWAPO – is worth noting here. This was also the case in South Africa under President Mandela.

Ironically, unless a succession plan has identified several potential leaders, it risks becoming – as cautioned by the management guru Lesley Uren – a “beautiful fiction”. Experience has shown that if insecure leaders like Paul Biya of Cameroon and Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, along with many before them, such as Suharto of Indonesia and others, do not encourage succession, their legacy will be revealed by what happens over the months and years after they leave office. Stefan Stern (2014) reminds us that “No matter what wonderful things people will be saying about them today; executives should remember they are mortal.” That is a simple truth which should be borne in mind by every person in politics. To quote the well-known adage: “Graveyards are full of people who once thought they were indispensable”. Great political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, business leaders like Jack Welch and the late Steven Jobs and other outstanding figures in civilian life excelled as leaders both through their accomplishments in office and also because they left legacies for others during their own lifetimes by fostering candidates for succession and raising new leaders around themselves.

* Dr. John O. Kakonge is the former Kenyan Ambassador to the UN Office in Geneva, Switzerland. [email protected]


1. Black, A. (2001) The History of Islamic Thought, Edinburgh University Press, UK
2. BBC News (2012), “Obituary: Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s President”, 7 April 2012. Accessed 17 August 2015.
3. Economist (1998), “Dr. Mahathir’s noxious remedies”. The Economist, 24 September 1998.
4. Editor (2013), “Political successions”. political-successions.html
5. Koranteng-pipim, S (2012), “Africa has great leaders”.
6. Accessed 15 August 2015.
7. SAPA (2014), “Mugabe fires Vice-President Mujuru”. mugabe-fires-vice-president-mujuru. Accessed 16 August 2015
Stern, S. (2014), “The best bosses groom their successors”, Financial Times, 29 August 2014. Accessed 17 August 2015.
8. Wong, E., and J. Ansfield (2011), “China grooming deft politician as next leaders”, New York Times, 23 January 2011. Accessed 17 August 2015.

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