Good leadership: Africa’s age-old question

Macky Sall’s victory over Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade in Sunday’s runoff elections is remarkable, not just because a sitting president has admitted defeat (Afro-pessimists, please get used to the idea that more and more incumbents will do this). Wade even phoned his rival; I imagine it was a terse congratulatory message said through gritted teeth.

“It is the whole country that has just won. This is a big moment for democracy and President Abdoulaye Wade has respected the voice of the people,” said Amadou Sall, a spokesperson for the outgoing president.

My interest in the Senegalese elections also lies in the fact that a young man, Sall, has defeated an 85-year-old president. At 50, let’s face it, Sall is no spring chicken, but at least I can sit down with him to talk about the latest iPad. We could even have a football kick-about in the park, mild enough not to excite a middle-aged heart. I don’t think this would be possible with an 85-year-old who, to my mind, should be telling eight-year-olds in the village how terrible life under the French was.

Robert Mugabe (born in 1924) is the Zanu-PF candidate for elections in Zimbabwe which will be held … well, no one knows when. His age-mates, or people of his generation, are in charge in several countries in Africa. Zambia is governed by Michael Sata (born in 1937), who was elected last year. Malawi is presided over by Bingu wa Mutharika (born in 1934) and in Namibia it’s Hifikepunye Pohamba (born in 1935).

Even in countries in which young people are in charge, they are somehow connected to the old men. According to this logic, even though Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was born in 1971, he is actually a septuagenarian since his power derives largely from his late father, Laurent (born in 1939). In Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba (born in 1959) has been in office since 2009, his power comes from his late father, Omar Bongo (1935 to 2009).


Even in so-called democracies such as Botswana, this idea of power — as something you hand over to your son or receive from your father — is prevalent. So Ian Khama was actually born in 1921, and not 1953 as his long form birth certificate attests (to ward off the Donald Trumps). His father Seretse (1921 to 1980) is the founding president of Botswana. And so it goes.

My point is we need more leaders who derive legitimacy from their vision and plan for the continent. These old men suffered under Western colonialism, but colonialism is just one chapter in Africa’s long encounter with the West.

There have been other chapters: some bloody, some not, some even beneficial for Africans. And the sooner we come around to this position, the younger and the less connected to dynasties our leadership is going to be.

Ok, back to Sall: So, Mr President, when are we going for a kick-about in the park?

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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