Have dictators finally had their day? From retirements to coups d’etat, presidential term limits and opposition candidates winning elections, democracy appears to be making progress across Africa. But leadership succession remains a vexed issue and respect for the integrity of the electoral process is not yet a given in every state.

Recent transfers of power in Sierra Leone and Botswana challenge the common assumption that the leaders of African states will ignore term limits and popular will by clinging on to power for dear life, even in the face of blatant failures.
The most representative example of that phenomenon in recent times is perhaps Robert Mugabe, the nonagenarian former liberation leader who had made a concerted effort to be president-for-life in Zimbabwe.

Last November, Mugabe was finally ousted. Not via elections or term limits, but by his own military in a coup-that-was-politely-not-described-as-a-coup. But Mugabe was just one of many. Muammar Gaddafi was another long-time leader who tried to defy the fates before he was removed from power amidst civil war and international intervention. In all these cases, political succession was a badly neglected issue.

Leadership succession is one of the most delicate issues in politics. To paraphrase Tolstoy, there are plenty of bad ways for political leaders to handle succession, but only one good way. The bad ways are, sadly, often much in evidence, from arbitrarily extending term lengths, to revising a country’s constitution to permit yet another presidential term. Once youthful, popular and vigorous leaders become old, out-of-touch, entitled and unpopular, all the while refusing to face up to the fact that they should have retired years earlier. Typically, the longer a political leader remains in office, the more he (and it is almost always he) must resort to complicated faction-balancing within his party or wider network of patronage and control, here elevating the leading members of one faction, there demoting or removing someone to prevent them from becoming a serious rival.

These questions are certainly not limited to politics in African states. Chinese president Xi Jinping is now theoretically able to stay in power for the rest of his life with the March 2018 removal of presidential term limits. Xi also enshrined his own doctrine, ‘Xi Jinping thought,’ into China’s constitution – an honour reserved in the past only for Mao. In Russia, Vladimir Putin shows no signs of throwing in the towel at the Kremlin: his new term as president will see him still in office in 2024, at the age of 71 and after 24 years at the top.

There is an old adage that all political careers end in failure. It’s undoubtedly true that many political leaders fall at a moment not of their choosing – just ask Mugabe or Gaddafi. But it also makes sense that presidents and party leaders are reluctant to concede that their days are numbered. This is especially true for liberation leaders like Mr Mugabe, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni or Rwandan president Paul Kagame. The magnitude of their personal sacrifice, and that of their comrades, weighs heavily against conceding power ‘prematurely’ – even when, in Mugabe’s case, prematurely meant thirty-eight years and counting.

It is also difficult to leave office when the presidency offers unparalleled opportunities of power, patronage and the acquisition of wealth. Giving up a goose that lays golden eggs is a significant exercise in will power. And it may not be a choice for the leader alone: the extended family and patronage network might reasonably be expected to try their best to get the president to reconsider any decision to retire.

This isn’t just a question of surrendering future wealth and patronage. It’s also a question of how secure the president, his family and associates, and possibly wider kinsmen, will be in retirement. This question is amplified when the president has presided over a country wracked by political tension and outright conflict. For example, DRC president Joseph Kabila – still only forty-six years old after seventeen years in power – faces an uncertain future if and when he finally steps down to spend more time with his assets. A leader as young as Kabila potentially has decades of post-presidential life to look forward to: plenty of time to worry that future presidents might re-open or renege on whatever agreements are made to ease his exit from office.

And perhaps the most obvious cause of presidential reluctance to execute an exit strategy is the risk of prosecution for crimes committed in office. Of course, for leaders like Mr Mugabe, who would be justified in fearing justice for political violence and killings committed during his long rule, it helps that the new dispensation is as implicated as the old in such crimes. Where the transition is cleaner and involves a genuine changing of the guard, there must be a real risk that the new government will consider taking justice seriously.

Whilst there is ample evidence of what bad or failed transitions look like, there is also plenty of evidence of how to ensure a good, smooth and peaceful transition of political power. For starters, it helps if the president hasn’t committed any crimes and generally hasn’t stolen public money. It’s easier to retire free from fear of reprisals when you have governed well and in the interests of your country. However, this is not a pre-requisite for a peaceful transition. Daniel Arap Moi’s exit from State House in Kenya was predicated on his retention of wealth and political influence.

Jose Dos Santos’ recent abdication in Angola was also a striking turn of events, for a man who had been in power for nearly forty years of highly personalised rule. It should be noted, however, that Dos Santos’s successor as president, João Lourenço, in removing Dos Santos’s close lieutenants and family members from positions of power, risks making presidents of neighbouring states think twice about making exit deals and accepting the kinds of reassurances Dos Santos might have been given to smooth his departure. For example, the post-presidential fate of the Dos Santos clan is unlikely to be lost on DRC president Joseph Kabila as he weighs various options for himself and his country. 

In Kabila’s case, a difficult compromise may be necessary between the demands for justice and democracy, presenting the still-youthful Kabila with a viable exit strategy in order to prevent further loss of life in bringing forward long overdue elections. As with Gambia’s former president, Yahya Jammeh, the gilded cage of exile can be a necessary part of the package deal that secures transition and avoids further conflict.

Meditating on the chaos surrounding Kabila and Jammeh, it is easy to see that there are also some structural factors that successful political transitions have in common. Strict, respected term limits are a good example: a clear expectation that presidents will serve, say, a maximum of two terms in office can concentrate minds and focus an administration on governing with an eye on the post-presidential future. If you know that someone else is going to take over from you, it becomes a prudential choice to exercise good stewardship of the nation in the eight or ten years you have at the top. Obviously, the converse could also be true: a term-limited president might be tempted to make hay whilst the sun still shines, essentially adopting an ostrich-like approach to their post-presidential future. Whatever the case there is certainty; certainty that the incumbent will have to step down so there is no incentive to develop patrimonial systems that trump officialdom … or fear that someone else will do the same.

Another structural factor is a clear method of leadership selection in all political parties. It isn’t healthy for parties to have presidents-for-life. Even if these long-time leaders can continue to exercise high quality leadership to the last, they increase the chances of chaos after their eventual departure. Leaders don’t need to anoint preferred successors, but they shouldn’t leave the constitutional disarray and ambiguity that the Zimbabwean MDC-T has experienced following the death of Morgan Tsvangirai. Nor should personalities seek parties as vehicles for personal gain. Opposition figures such as Kizza Besigye in Uganda and Raila Odinga in Kenya are key examples of authoritarian tendencies in opposition parties.

As fiercely contested as it was, the transition in South Africa from Jacob Zuma to Cyril Ramaphosa as president of the African National Congress (ANC) is a good model for how political parties should restrict the terms of their leaders and institutionalise intra-party democracy in selecting the successor. Healthy intra-party institutions can be a good check on arbitrary tendencies on the part of the leadership.

So, institutions matter and so does the character and temperament of the leader, who must accept and embrace these institutional constraints in order to guarantee their vitality. At one level, this looks like simple common sense, but it isn’t hard to see why in some states it has been a difficult trick to master. Take the example of Rwanda.

Paul Kagame has undeniable popularity, historical legitimacy, and total mastery of national politics. Mr Kagame’s government has won international plaudits for its post-conflict development of Rwanda. And after eighteen years in power, he is still a sprightly sixty years old. Most importantly, Kagame has presided over a government that is delivering services to its population in terms of health care, education and opportunities as well as providing security.

His is an authoritative, charismatic and indefatigable presidency. When he has deemed it necessary, Mr Kagame has reshuffled countless ministers and military officers, to ensure his control of government and to eliminate the risk of rival factions, resulting in a divide and rule approach that invests the entire vision in one man. Many former rivals to Mr Kagame are now living (or have died) in de facto exile overseas, with accusations of state authorised assassinations against former regime insiders. Similarly, Rwanda is not an easy place to be an opposition politician. The greatest stain on Kagame’s reputation is undeniably Rwandan involvement in the Congo over the last decade, especially military intervention, illegal exploitation of natural resources and the resultant deaths of Congolese civilians in their thousands, with many making calls for Kagame and other senior Rwandan official to face some form of justice.

With such a complicated legacy, it is easy to see why Mr Kagame is tempted to extend his presidency indefinitely. The tragedy is that, the longer this pattern is extended, the harder it will be to extricate himself from suffering the possible consequences in his post-presidential life. From seeking an extended period in office so that he can continue to bring prosperity and stability to Rwanda, Mr Kagame could end his days as a Mugabe-like figure, shrunken in stature, deeply compromised, and blamed for the longer-term degradation of democracy and governance in his country. Currently this seems unlikely given the total control and loyalty Kagame commands within Rwanda. But the same was said about Gaddafi and Mugabe. Time is the crucial variable in this equation. As time goes on, there is increasing uncertainty about what will happen and why.

Perhaps the integral pre-condition for successful political transition is trust. Presidents must have trust in their successors and the institutions they leave behind. The more paranoid, untrusting and compromised a serving president, the less likely they will be to countenance a life of post-presidential retirement. The political culture that shapes these judgements and decisions is not an instant creation: it is the product of decades of events and decisions, the interplay of countless actors and institutions. In this sense, the leadership changes that have occurred recently in countries such as Angola, Botswana, Gambia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Zimbabwe are the respective products of unique institutional inheritances.

Paramount in each case, however, are the decisions made by political leaders about the longevity and character of their tenure: the decision to govern well, to abide by the existing constitution, and not to overstay mandated term limits. These decisions can and should be shaped by other political actors, domestic institutions and civil society – and, yes, the international community. But, fundamentally, there are an issue of personal character and commitment. Such is political leadership. 

Joe Devanny is a programme director at Ridgeway Information, an Associate of the Institute for Government, and a former research fellow at Kings College London. Follow him on Twitter.

Marco Jowell is a director of the Africa Research Group and has a doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). His latest book is Peacekeeping in Africa: Politics, Security and the Failure of Foreign Military Assistance (I.B. Tauris). Follow him on Twitter.