Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, the recently ousted former president of Sudan, at an African conference in 2009. via Wikimedia
In April, Africa lost two of its longest-serving presidents. Omar al Bashir and Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who have sat tight at the helms of Sudan and Algeria since 1989 and 1999 respectively, and who both narrowly and tactfully escaped ouster during the heat of the Arab Spring eight years ago, have both been bundled out of power by protesting masses.
Their departures are the latest in a trend that seems to be gaining steam on the continent. In the words of Chatham House’s Alex Vines, “it is the extinction of the dinosaurs.” While they have not completely disappeared, overstaying African presidents are slowly but surely becoming a rare species. In just a few years, the space available to them has shrunk to a suffocating size.
Since 2017, apart from Bashir and Bouteflika, we have also lost the DRC’s Joseph Kabila, Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and the Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh. While they held sway, no one would have thought these men would ever leave office. In some regions, like West Africa, this kind of leader has been entirely extirpated. Right now, Central Africa seems to be the only region that is still hospitable to them.
Burundi has had Pierre Nkurunziza since 2005 and Rwanda has had Paul Kagame since 2000. Yoweri Museveni has ruled Uganda since 1986. And, in the mother lode, which is made up of the arc from Equatorial Guinea through Cameroon to the Republic of Congo, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Paul Biya and Denis Sassou Nguesso have been in power for a ridiculous combined total of 99 years.
Yet even this region is becoming hotter. Cameroon is in the throes of a simmering civil war occasioned in part by Biya’s mismanagement and which could just sweep him out. Over in Uganda, sporadic protests led by firebrand revolutionaries have recently rocked Museveni’s boat. And the change of power in the DRC at the beginning of 2019, though mostly nominal, could very well be an early gust of the winds of extinction headed for the region.
Of course, like all of history, this is by no means a linear story. Revolutions, and even more regular power transfers, do not always deliver changes their instigators seek. In the wake of fallen dictators, new ones often rise to take their place. Egypt’s revolution, for instance, has been co-opted by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has just changed the constitution to allow him to rule until 2030.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, after leading the ouster of Mugabe in Zimbabwe, botched general elections and has routinely exhibited a dictatorial streak. Libya, after kicking out Gaddafi, took the train south and is yet to turn around. And, perhaps most pointedly, protesters continue to agitate for a civilian government in Sudan, fearing that the transitional military government might have a longer mandate in mind.
Nevertheless, this should in no way be made into an argument for a maintenance of the status quo, as the “dinosaurs” often do to justify their decisions to overstay their terms. In a nascent democratic system, the more regularly leaders are shuffled out, the more a culture of power change and accountability will be built. This, in itself, is a good thing for democracy.
In a piece for the Conversation, Kealeboga J Maphunye, a South African political science scholar, hits the nail on the head when he argues that “regular transfers of power give citizens hope that new policies, programmes and approaches will be adopted by the new leadership.” Moreover, a culture of succession keeps incumbents “on their toes because there’s a real chance they can be removed from power if they fail to govern properly.”
It is for this reason that I rejoiced, in a proud African way, when I heard of the ousters of Bashir and Bouteflika. The people of Sudan and Algeria may still have a long way to go in constructing truly democratic systems of government for themselves. Heck, they are not even completely immune to a relapse into dictatorship, as experience shows. But by getting rid of their dinosaurs, they are much more likely to do well for themselves.
Only one cloud exists to darken my glee. The nobility of stepping down at the end of their terms is still less attractive to some presidents than the ignominy of going down to the fury of their people, and this is simply embarrassing. It is only made worse by the fact that some are still waiting for the fury to be kindled. They should read the writing on the wall.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.