It is not a secret that some African leaders have been inclined towards long stays in power. The allure of wealth combined with despotic tendencies have worked against the wishes of the majority in Africa. The introduction of multi-party democracy in Africa did not completely change the political landscape to significantly alter the attitudes of African leaders regarding power accumulation.
The continent is replete with leaders who overstayed their terms in power. Some of these leaders were ousted through internal and external pressure. For instance, Zimbabwe’s hero and villain Robert Mugabe was ousted through a military coup in November 2017. He had ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980 and presided over an economy in freefall.
Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir fell through the same fate when he was ousted via a military coup in 2019. Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in 2011 after a wave of protests gripped the Arab world – what is now known as the Arab Spring. He had ruled Tunisia since 1987.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been the president of Equatorial Guinea since 1979. He seized power through a military coup and has gained notoriety for his egregious corruption. Cameroon’s Paul Biya is Africa’s oldest leader at 87 years of age. Having assumed office in 1982, he is mostly an absent leader now. Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s current president, has been at the helm of the country’s leadership since 1986. Denis Sassou Nguesso has been the president of the Republic of the Congo since 1997. Idris Deby has been the president of Chad since 1990. Jose Eduardo do Santos ruled Angola from 1979 to 2017 before passing the leadership of Angola to João Lourenço.
Many leaders in Africa refuse to give up power due to a lack of elaborate succession plans. This was the case with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who had failed to lay out a clear plan for intra-party democracy (within ZANU-PF, the party he co-founded). Where there are no clear succession plans, rivals within the party buy their time for an opportunity to come so that they may also take power. But in buying that time, that is how leaders end up serving long stays in power.
Other despotic leaders are in power for the sake of accumulating as much power as they can. They become addicted to power. Life without power becomes grotesquely unimaginable. Departing from power leaves them exposed. For instance, the children of Jose Eduardo dos Santos (including Isabel dos Santos – Africa’s richest woman) are accused of amassing billions during their father’s reign.
The magnetic effect of wealth has kept African leaders glued to their positions adamantly. Nothing fazes them, because they employ crude tactics to neutralize opponents so that they stay near to wealth. It is a case of capitalism gone wrong. African leaders have filled capitalist posts previously held by white colonizers, and in doing so, they have become inimical to the demands of their citizens.
Power gives African leaders unfettered proximity to wealth. Clinging to that power is done to accumulate as much private property and profits as possible. The more they do that, the more they get comfortable in their positions. When they feel threatened, they deploy the security forces i.e. the police and the military to quell any dissent that arises. Power accumulation goes hand-in-hand with private property accumulation.
So, the security forces serve the purpose of protecting the private property of the elite, ruling class. This affinity to accumulate infinite private property is rooted in how African leaders seek to emulate the big capitalists of the global north and the east. But they can only do so by stealing public funds, as well as colluding with private capital to rip off consumers so that both the State and private capital enjoy private profits.
When African leaders resort to revolutionary rhetoric (since most of them were participants in struggles for liberation), while their people suffer from immense inequality, they do so in order to cement their entitlement to the country’s wealth. In that way, they monopolize all the wealth for their private purposes. And that gives them the impetus to keep holding on to power.
Inherently, capitalism creates an individualistic society that worships commodities for surplus value (profits). It heightens the everyday class struggle – the upper and middle classes have it better than the lower classes. The upper class relies on the protection of the State to keep on making profits at the expense of the lower classes.
African leaders have become intertwined with the elite classes, and less with the working class (they are only benevolent to the working classes only to get votes so that they remain in power and continue to dine with the elite class – both global and local capital).
One could also argue that the kind of democracy shoved in Africa by the global north countries does not work efficiently in all African countries. Perhaps, Africans need to find their own solutions to governance that do not necessarily mimic those of the global north. This does not mean that democracy is irrelevant because without democracy there is chaos and dominance of dangerous autocratic tendencies.
African leadership must return to a strong sense of Pan-Africanism so that they can be able to obey their own Constitutions (stipulated with reasonable term limits). By doing that, they are obeying the will of the people whom they are elected/chosen to serve. African leadership for many years has fallen into the traps of advancing capitalist agendas for their selfish reasons. The people-centered approach to politics and economics has been abandoned. African leaders now collude with global capital so that their proximity to wealth remains intact.
African voters must unite and hold their leaders accountable. This should go beyond borders so that there is a cross-continent solidarity aimed at molding responsible leadership – leadership that listens to the voice of the communities first before tending to their capitalist inclinations.
Political parties in Africa must be equipped with clear intra-party democratic structures. This will in turn foster a national consciousness of good democracy. This democracy should have the people at heart and ensure that the will of the people is listened to before anything is done.