Retirement home for life presidents

I am in Oslo, where we have been talking about New Images from Africa with a lot of people who know about such things. Mo Ibrahim, the mobile phone billionaire, spoke to us about his foundation, which has launched an index measuring how countries in Africa are governed. Later this year they will unveil a prize to be awarded to democratically elected presidents who step down after democratic elections.

A sound idea — much sounder than many critics give it credit for. Leadership, almost anywhere, is extremely difficult to handle, and good leadership needs to be rewarded. No question in my mind.

I was in Transkei in the early Nineties, and while there we heard word from Ugandans who had visited home about the phenomenal changes taking place. Until the late Eighties, Uganda was the poster child for failed states, and Idi Amin was the international symbol of national dysfunction. Later, Aids had replaced Amin in this caricature of Naipaulian Africa — Ugga and Booga, death and general horribleness.

In only a few years all that was turned around. Yoweri Museveni and the leadership around him cut through problems like sharp knives, and with focus, dialogue and vision managed to do what seemed impossible to do: to get Uganda to work again.

Retrospect is a terrible thing: after it got done, it seemed as though it was a possible thing. We forget how much was done. I saw doctors, teachers and professionals simply pack up and leave on the basis of Museveni’s promise. They left good jobs and settled lives to go and build a country out of what seemed like little but hope.

Today, Museveni is fat — so am I — but the image works much better for a politician. He has become pompous, erratic and a bully. It is not entirely his fault. Gratitude has been flowing to him in intense waves for a long time. We make our leaders, and sometimes we are quick to blame them for their “bigness”, forgetting that we were dancing around saying “President for Life”.

Over the past 20 years a “new generation” of leaders came into power in many African countries. We have seen a cycle that is now possibly measurable. In Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda (Kagame is surely the prime example of this) we meet these fixers — these leaders of high function and early discipline, who had the necessary skills and vision to take their countries from the impossible to the quite probable. But we have not found a way to guarantee their security beyond that. It is simply a problem of naming a thing and creating viable possibilities for it. Who are these people to us? What do we need to do about them?

Now, none of these guys are likely to win a prize for governance — and many of them are not the right people to “encourage democracy”. But they have brought true value in their own way. We need to have a conversation about what to do with them that keeps them useful, but shoves them aside — yes, shoves them — when the “crisis” bit is over.

This may be impossible. Certainly, what has happened so far is that after the “job” is mostly done, such men (inevitably men) go into an election and win ecstatically at the very point when they should be going home and leaving things to the democratic and technocratic types.

The “third term” becomes the flabby one: they start gurgling nonsense, building cathedrals, dishing forests to investors, using their wives to build business empires, advising scientists about treating HIV/Aids and wanting to pass on their Imperium to their sons.

We know this. This is routine for us. Yet we seem to encounter it anew each time we see it and say, “Oh my God, why? What is this person doing?”

I keep hearing people who talk about governance and such going on about “institution-building”.

Maybe it is time somebody built an institution, a grand and beautiful one, well funded and prestigious, set in a gentle place where these guys know they are appreciated and safe — a place they feel they can rise to. It is clear to me now that they live with fears and dreams that only grow worse if we do what we have been doing so far — praise them completely and then demonise them completely, until they want to use the entire nation as a shield, and they don’t even realise it.

And no, for those who are thinking it, I am not talking about Robert Mugabe. Or Thabo Mbeki.

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