PRETORIA/HARARE – The great democratic and economic strides made by African countries in the last decade risk being checked by aging leaders unwilling to pass the baton.
For generations of foreign investors accustomed to the likes of Uganda’s Idi Amin and the former Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, it took a while to shake off the stereotype of African leaders as psychotic kleptocrats hell-bent on retaining power.
And not without justification. From 1960 to 2010, during 653 elections on the continent, the incumbent conceded defeat just 16 percent of the time, according to an African Development Bank study. But as better governance has swept from Senegal to Lesotho, the world’s perceptions have slowly caught up.
Investors who once fearfully dipped their toes in African waters have seen that the old crocodiles are dead or dying and have begun to wade in. Progress has not been universal, but in much of Africa, “No. 1” is as likely to be a former World Bank economist as an army general.
So when 89-year-old Robert Mugabe was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s president for another five years last week, it was something of a blast from the past.
“I still have ideas, ideas that need to be accepted by my people,” Mugabe — who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 — told The New York Times on the eve of the vote.
If the election results are accurate, Mugabe’s anti-colonial message won him 61 percent support in a country where 60 percent of the population have never experienced colonialism.
Western leaders have expressed serious doubts over the election results, concerns that led Mugabe on Sunday to threaten “tit-for-tat” actions against countries that have sanctions on his rule, suggesting U.S. and British firms could be targeted.
“They should not continue to harass us,” he told mourners at a funeral. “We have British and American companies here, and we are treating them well. There will come a time when we will lose our patience.”
The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on Mugabe and members of his inner circle following 2002 elections that Western observers said were rigged.
Mugabe won an extension to his 33-year rule in general elections last month, which was slammed as “a farce” by his rival. Local observers said the elections were fraught with irregularities, but observers from the African Union and the regional Southern African Development Community bloc were less critical.
Mugabe has vowed to forge ahead with his controversial equity drive to force foreign companies to cede majority shares to local investors.
So far, mining companies including Zimplats, a subsidiary of the South African-based Impala Platinum, and Anglo American Corp.’s Unki mines have been forced to sell their majority stake to locals. Companies in the retail sector are set to follow.
But Mugabe is far from the only independence-era leader still kicking about in the presidential palace. The average age of leaders on the continent is around 60, yet half of the population is under the age of 19.
“What’s wrong with us?” Sudanese-born billionaire Mo Ibrahim recently asked, wondering out loud whether Barack Obama could have become president of Kenya at age 47.
Probably not, concluded Ibrahim, who in 2006 created a foundation that awards prizes for achievement in African leadership and monitors good governance on the continent.
In Angola, Jose Eduardo dos Santos has been in power for fractionally longer than Mugabe’s 33 years. He won another five-year term last year.
The Angolan economy is growing at a good clip, but corruption is rife, and while the rich have done well, wealth has not spread very far from dos Santos’ inner circle. His daughter Isabel dos Santos is rumored to be worth around $3 billion.
Aside from Mugabe and dos Santos, there is a long list of African leaders old enough to draw their pensions.
They include Ethiopia’s Girma Wolde-Giorgis (88), Cameroon’s Paul Biya (80), Zambia’s Michael Sata (76), Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang (71) and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (69).
Having old leaders is not unique to Africa, and it has long been suggested that a culture of respecting elders could explain the predominance of relatively old leaders.
That may be so, but it is not without consequence.
African leaders have a proclivity to die in office, with often destabilizing results.
When Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika died in office in early 2012, his death was kept secret and his body was flown around Africa as would-be successors plotted ways of staging a constitutional coup.
In the end, the plots were averted and Vice President Joyce Banda took power, but the risk was real.
Around the same time, Guinea-Bissau suffered a very real coup after President Malam Bacai Sanha died in a Paris hospital. The country is still in crisis.
The age gap between the governors and the governed also leads to a generational chasm of ideas. But according to analysts, the fact that many aging leaders have been in power for decades is a greater problem.
“Older people ruling for lengthy periods like 30 years is almost always a symptom of dictatorship and authoritarian regimes,” said Keith Gottschalk of the University of the Western Cape, in South Africa. “Age in itself is not important. (Moammar) Gadhafi seized power in a coup when he was 29 years old.”
But according to Alex Vines of London’s Chatham House, the number of long-serving African leaders is falling, and those who remain have had to curb their ambitions.
“Following Arab Spring in North Africa, leaders like dos Santos have reconsidered ambitions for dynastic succession,” even if others like Obiang still favor that model. “African leaders that have served over 30 years as leaders are increasingly rare. Where there are freer votes, we are seeing Africa’s youth bulge play a role.”