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Why do presidents cling to power?

For decades, African politics has been synonymous — not always fairly — with presidents overstaying their welcome. We’re all too familiar with the dictators and the strongmen (and yes, it’s always men). The constitutional coups. The third terms and the fourth terms — and the fifth and sixth and seventh.

Yes, we’re looking at you, Paul Biya. Yoweri Museveni. Teodoro Obiang. Denis Sassou Nguesso. Idriss Deby. Isaias Afwerki. Paul Kagame. Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. Faure Gnassingbé. And those are just the presidents who are currently overstaying their welcome. Others had to be removed by force — or until death qualified them for the Great Presidential Palace in the Sky.

Nap time: Robert Mugabe, infamously, struggled to stay awake during long speeches (Photo: supplied)

This is a curious phenomenon. From the outside, being president does not look like much fun. The pressure is constant. The workload is never manageable. Your every action is scrutinised and critiqued, and it is impossible to please everybody. When you get things wrong, people die. Everybody wants a piece of you, and your days are filled with long and boring meetings. When Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe fell asleep at international summits, he was widely ridiculed, but have you ever tried to stay awake for an entire African Union summit?

Being president is never an easy job. So why does anyone want to do it? And why do they want to keep doing it?

Drunk on power

In the luxurious private plane terminal of Johannesburg’s Lanseria Airport, Ian Khama, the former president of Botswana, is defending his legacy. When he left office in 2018, he carefully hand-picked his successor. But the new man in charge has turned against him and Khama has flown in for the morning to set the record straight. He’s got a list of talking points and we dutifully take notes, but we’re more interested in discussing with him about what being a head of state is actually like. 

Once you are there, and you’re in power, all the attention you get, all the benefits and everything — human reaction is you get used to it. And you cannot start to imagine yourself out of office and just being a normal citizen like everyone else, when you’ve been fussed over for several years. And that has been the problem for this continent.

Ian Khama

So, it turns out, is he.

He puts down his list, suddenly energised, and starts explaining. “I didn’t enjoy politics,” he said. “Everybody’s problems were put on you. It was a burden that you felt. And no matter who I met, where I met them, even if it was with family and you thought you were just having a family gathering, people would raise some issue that was going on.”

He said he always carried a small notebook around with him, in which he would jot down the problem and try to attend to it when he got back to his office. “So you were constantly aware that people had expectations of you to deliver.”

Khama was always an unusual president. He had a reputation for being aloof and austere, and he rarely attended any international conferences or summits. But after eight years of observing his counterparts, he understands the seductive power of the trappings of office: the hotels, the private jets, the bodyguards, the fawning hangers-on. He calls it, with a note of contempt, being drunk on power.

“Once you are there, and you’re in power, all the attention you get, all the benefits and everything — human reaction is you get used to it. And you cannot start to imagine yourself out of office and just being a normal citizen like everyone else, when you’ve been fussed over for several years. And that has been the problem for this continent.” Khama singles out Mugabe and deposed Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for criticism, as well as Cameroon’s Biya, whom he describes as “well past his sell-by date”. 

Nor is he impressed with the Germany chancellor, who has been in office since 2005. “Angela Merkel, I’ve always had a lot of respect for her, but when she stood the last time, I just said to myself, ‘But isn’t it too much?’”

The quiet moments

Joyce Banda, speaking from her home in Lilongwe a few months prior to this year’s election, vividly remembers the moment she knew she was going to become the president of Malawi.

A heavy responsibility: Joyce Banda at her inauguration in 2012 (Photo: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP)

The circumstances were traumatic. President Bingu wa Mutharika had just died in office. As vice-president, Banda was the constitutionally-designated successor. But at the time, Bingu’s brother was scheming to take control, so no one told Banda that the president was dead. They even flew his corpse to South Africa to receive “medical attention” in an effort to keep up the ruse.

Eventually the commander of Malawi’s army had to intervene. He sent troops to surround Banda’s house, and she wasn’t sure at first if they were there to help her or to hurt her. Fortunately for Banda — and Malawi — the soldiers were on her side.

“You have to imagine, psychologically I have not prepared myself,” she says. “The reality dawns on me. To be a president, to have a nation to lead, is like having something you are carrying on your head. For me, it is every single Malawian in my hands. Their well-being, their fate, their lives.”

Overnight, her life changed irrevocably. Banda wanted to keep an open door policy, but it became impossible. “My husband had to remind me all the time, you are going to get overwhelmed. You can’t be so open.” At one point, her son removed the SIM card from her phone, just so it would stop ringing for a little while.

Me, I think of Mandela often. Mandela spent 27 years in prison and still only did one five-year term as president. It’s extraordinary.

Catherine Samba-Panza

She worked long hours into the night, trying to clear her intray before it all started again the next day. There was little time for family life. Moments with her husband, himself a senior judge and politician, had to be stolen at the end of each busy day, and even then there were few casual conversations. “Our quiet time was about work. We talked, but we talked state.”

Banda believes there are two types of people that become president: those who want to serve, and those who want to get power. She puts herself, and many of her women colleagues, in the first category. “The other group will be about themselves. How many cars do I have? How big is my motorcade? How much money is allocated to my state house? What I am saying is, when you get into that office for power, you will definitely get corrupted. It will corrupt you absolutely.”

Resisting the temptations of power: Catherine Samba-Panza inside Bangui’s Presidential Palace (Photo: Sia Kambou/AFP)

Catherine Samba-Panza, the former interim president of the Central African Republic, agrees. In a telephone call from Bangui, she says that the presidency is full of temptations that must be resisted, but that not everyone can do so — it comes down to each individual’s moral fibre, their ethical principles. Some people will do whatever they can to stay there.

So when the temptations felt overwhelming, Samba-Panza thought of one particular leader: “Me, I think of Mandela often. Mandela spent 27 years in prison and still only did one five-year term as president. It’s extraordinary.”

No other choice

When it comes to understanding the attraction of high office, Khama, Banda and Samba-Panza are not the most representative sample. Each came to office constitutionally, and none tried to extend or manipulate term limits.

Of course leaving power is somehow dangerous. You go, you take responsibility, you think you’ve made real progress, but some years later people are still trying to harm you. It was happening to me in 2003. I was accused of plotting and put on trial. This is the political risk.

Pierre Buyoya

Pierre Buyoya is a little different — and so is his perspective on this subject. He became president of Burundi in 1987 after seizing power in a military coup. He kept power for six years, until he was kicked out at the ballot box. The man who replaced him was assassinated just after being sworn in. Some of Buyoya’s opponents claim that he played a role in the murder. 

Buyoya returned to power in 1996 in a second military coup. He was also a major player in Burundi’s long-running civil war, and forces under his command were repeatedly implicated in human rights violations. One of the conditions of the peace agreement that ended the civil war was that Buyoya had to step down. In 2003, he did — reluctantly.

Strength and weakness: Pierre Buyoya in 2001, towards the end of his second term in office (Photo: Pedro Ugarte/AFP)

Khama talked about other leaders getting drunk on power. Banda spoke of power corrupting absolutely. But for Buyoya, the problem is not too much power, but too little. “You see, in Africa the most difficult thing is [the president] has a lot of responsibility, a lot of challenges, but sometimes even if you have the power you feel powerless. Especially when it comes to doing things in the economic area. This has been my frustration with power.”

In his post-presidency, Buyoya reinvented himself as an elder statesman. He is now the African Union’s special envoy to Mali and the Sahel, which has also informed his perspective on the subject of power. He was in Bamako when we spoke to him in early January, attending negotiations between the government and armed groups 

When Buyoya looks at leaders who linger in office, he does not see power or strength. He sees weakness. He sees leaders who stay not because they want to but because they have no other choice.

“Of course leaving power is somehow dangerous. You go, you take responsibility, you think you’ve made real progress, but some years later people are still trying to harm you. It was happening to me in 2003. I was accused of plotting and put on trial. This is the political risk.”

It’s a risk to which Khama might relate — he has been accused of fraud by his hand-picked successor (he denies any wrongdoing). And Banda spent three years in self-imposed exile after her successor — the late Bingu wa Mutharika’s brother, Peter Mutharika, who eventually did make it into State House — accused her of money laundering and abusing her offices (she denies any wrongdoing).

Buyoya concludes: “It’s the one thing I regret, in Africa especially, there is no respect for former leaders in some countries, especially my own country. I think it’s a factor that some presidents don’t want to leave because they fear they will be harmed by leaders that follow.”

This feature first appeared in The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Get your free copy here.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.
Dhashen Moodley
Dhashen Moodley
Dhashen Moodley is a freelance podcast journalist based in Johannesburg.
Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.

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