The age of strong leaders
The best antidote for strongmen becoming too powerful is rule of law, prevalence of norms, and orderly transitions. Southern Africa shows that might be possible even in contexts where the odds seem overwhelming
The received wisdom these days seems to be that we live in the age of strong leaders—most of them men—who command a frenzied following, representing those who feel they are marginalized and ignored, who have turned to these standard-bearers who would help them regain national pride. Donald Trump in the US, Recep Tayyib Erdoğan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in the Russian Federation, Xi Jinping in China, Kim Jong Un in North Korea, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines all represent this macho constituency. The views of these leaders are often outlandish (and in many cases actions too), but they play well with their domestic constituencies.
Strong leaders, fearful of coup-plotters, have long dominated African politics. In those regimes, little moved except time, little grew except corruption, and little changed except the rate at which the local currency was traded, usually turning worse. In his 2006 novel Wizard Of The Crow, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o ridiculed Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya for 24 years, for his insecurity and vulnerability. But the hat Ngũgĩ designed was flexible enough to fit the heads of many other leaders.
To be sure, being a former president was not an easy job description for many African leaders to consider. Successors wanted to prosecute their predecessors; some transitions were violent, some humiliating. To encourage democratic transitions, Boston University ran a programme for some years, called the African Presidential Center, with an academic retreat for presidents who gave up power. But such a fellowship wasn’t enough attraction for many leaders to give up power easily—long-ruling leaders continue to govern Equatorial Guinea (38 years) and Uganda (31 years) today, for instance.
It is in that context that the changes in southern Africa are so important. Three strongmen with aggressive views and poor records of governance are leaving the political scene without bloodshed. Of the three transitions, two were constitutional, and the third, non-violent. In one case, the outgoing president was reluctant; in another, the outgoing president is probably surprised by his successor’s actions; and in the third case, the president hasn’t left yet, but his best-laid plans are failing.
The one reluctant to relinquish was Robert Mugabe, who left office in Zimbabwe after 37 years. He didn’t want to leave, but the military had other ideas. His successor, Emerson Mnangagwa, is not the great democratic alternative that fairy tales expect. Mnangagwa has fought British colonial rule and was a trusted ally of Mugabe. Many blame him for Operation Gukurahundi, or “the early rain that washes away the chaff before spring”, in Matabeleland, in which 20,000 civilians of the ethnic minority Ndebele community were killed in the 1980s. Mnangagwa’s fall from grace was only because of the rise of another Grace, Mugabe’s wife, his chosen successor. Known as the crocodile during the anti-colonial war, Mnangagwa waited for his moment, as if lying in the water, and then struck. It is too soon to tell if Zimbabwe’s politics will change.
Over in oil- and diamond-rich Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos kept his promise and left office earlier this year, making way for his chosen successor, João Lourenço. In his inauguration speech, however, Lourenço showed he was his own master by lashing out at monopolies: a thinly-disguised attack on dos Santos’ daughter Isabel, who has vast business interests and is known to be Africa’s richest businesswoman. Later, he removed her as chair of Sonangol, Angola’s state-owned oil company. Not all critics of dos Santos are impressed yet—whether the change indicates a genuine metamorphosis, or a mere realignment within the elite (as the Zimbabwe transition might prove to be) remains to be seen.
Which is why the South African transition is the one to watch. Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has had orderly transitions, since its first democratic elections of 1994. President Jacob Zuma failed to get his hand-picked successor, his former wife Nkosazana Dlaminy-Zuma, chosen to lead the African National Congress (ANC). The party leader is the presidential candidate, and the next election will be in 2019, and due to term limits, Zuma had to go. In effect, Zuma is now a lame-duck president.
The ANC is a cadre-based party and Zuma had strong links with the liberation struggle: He was a member of the one-time outlawed uMkhonto we Sizwe and the South African Communist Party, and had been in jail during apartheid. But once in office in 2009, he developed a pragmatic affection for capitalists, if not capitalism, and corruption has been rampant. While he remained popular among radical ANC members, his conduct polarized the electorate, and allegations of corruption hobbled his government. More radical voters supported Economic Freedom Fighters, a revolutionary socialist party led by the former ANC youth leader Julius Malema.
That the ANC membership turned away from Zuma’s chosen successor Dlaminy-Zuma and opted for Cyril Ramaphosa, a one-time trade unionist who was a peacemaker in the Irish peace process, and later an investment banker, showed that South African voters expect their leaders to follow norms. The best antidote for strongmen becoming too powerful is the rule of law, prevalence of norms, and orderly transitions. Southern Africa shows that might be possible even in contexts where the odds seem overwhelming.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
Comments are welcome at email@example.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns here
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