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Africa’s trying tradition of sit-tight leaders

December 22, 2010

Alpha Conde.jpgIt may seem odd to ask the question only a day after he was sworn in, but will Guinea’s President Alpha Conde go when the time comes?

Long-suffering opposition leader Conde is the first freely-elected president of a country that has known dictatorship, with varying degrees of brutality and oppression, for pretty much the entire period since independence from France in 1958. And French rule wasn’t that much fun for Guineans either.

Conde took office with the pledges that might be expected; to heal division, to improve services, to fight corruption, to put food on every table etc. etc. In particular, he said he would work to unify his ethnically-divided country in the way Nelson Mandela did for South Africa after apartheid.

Nobody could wish him anything but the best of luck, but what if he doesn’t do well enough in the face of such immense challenges? What if his people tire of him or simply want to give someone else a chance?

As the situation in neighbouring Ivory Coast makes only too clear, the record of African leaders in allowing that someone might replace them is poor at best.

Ivory Coast was once the example of what Guinea could have been without its despots. Lacking the resources of France’s “Pearl of West Africa”, an independent Ivory Coast prospered under more liberal rule and became the new jewel.

More than a decade of crisis has put an end to that. Fears for the country are deepening again as incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo defies calls to step down made by the United Nations, African Union and regional group ECOWAS. They say opposition leader Alassane Ouattara won November elections and is now the president.

Gbagbo was declared president on the basis of a ruling by Ivory Coast’s highest court, the Constitutional Council, which annulled results from his opponent’s strongholds on the grounds of rigging and said he had got 51 percent to Ouattara’s 49 percent.

But regardless of the rights or wrongs, how much pride should a leader take in such results after 10 years in office to prove to his people what a good job he can do? Even assuming the Constitutional Council results were fair, two more people in every 100 would like him to stay than want to see the back of him.

It would be unfair to treat Ivory Coast as an exception.

There are plenty of leaders who do not show the strength or confidence in their own legacy to be ready to hand over to someone else or even to allow their opponents to realistically contest elections.

And what about those who cling on year after year, decade after decade. Can it be a source of pride that after decades of your leadership, you have not been able to bring a single of one of the millions of people in your country to the point where he or she can succeed you?

Fear may be a greater driver for some sit-tight presidents. There is the risk of handing over to someone who is not from your own clique, party or ethnic group of course. But more important may be the terror of being brought to account for exactions, theft, possibly murder, under your rule. After all, you know better than anyone else what you have done.

As he tries to unify Guinea, it might be useful for Conde to remember another part of the Mandela legacy. Some other leaders might like a reminder too.

After five years in office, Mandela stepped down for a successor – admittedly someone from the same party if not Mandela’s first choice. It was at very least an acknowledgment that he was not the only man who could lead South Africa and that he could bow out after a job well done with no reprisals to fear.

Picture: Guinea’s Alpha Conde attends a campaign rally in Conakry October 22, 2010. REUTERS/Joe Penney

Dear Matthew,

I think the Broad Macro Trend is one that is dynamic and disjunctive. That Trend being A New Africa where Africans are connected to the c21st and each other via the Mobile Phone and the Mobile Internet. Layer onto this a Demographic Skew where Elections will be won by winning the Under 30s and I think we are entering a Moment of Maximum and Dramatic Change. Whilst the Old Landscape looked very Tribal and Adversarial and in essence had a Scarcity Zero Sum Game Mentality, I believe the New Landscape will be entirely different. Obviously, this is correlated to the Mobile and Internet. Ethiopia is a Stand Out Laggard. Kenya with its Undersea Cables practically a Laboratory Experiment.

The Ivory Coast is nevertheless quite a Blip on the Radar Screen. No Process of Change is ever Smooth, it often is about Tipping Points. Like That Tipping Point all those Years ago when The World realised that the Man in Prison Nelson Mandela was actually the President. So Ivory Coast is surely disappointing but if You care to measure the Degree of Pressure being applied, You will note its a Multiple of what has been seen before.

I remain optimistic Cote D’Ivoire is an Outlier and not the Norm.

Aly-Khan Satchu

Posted by AlyKhanSatchu | Report as abusive

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