Africa's ageless leaders By Pinado Abdu-Waba

Pinado Abdu-Waba

“This is the man to trust” was the campaign slogan for Senegal’s Septuagenarian Abdoulaye Wade as he fiercely sought for a third term in office after successfully completing two full terms.

This is in spite of the fact that his first tenure was responsible for adjusting the country’s constitution to allow a President to serve for only two terms in office.

I tried to observe the events that unfolded in Senegal keenly even though my subconscious kept warning me that it would be the same “happy ending” as we have come to know it, where another defiant African sits tight in power.

As days went by Senegal became the setting of the most thrilling news game in town. It was a hilarious clash of headlines from hopeful ones like “Senegal, one of Africa’s most stable democracies is facing its most tumultuous polls since independence”, to flat comments expressing loaded anxieties like “Senegal’s Wade to battle ex-allies in vote.”

However, the most attractive by my own interpretation was bound to have a Nigerian flavour: “African envoy Obasanjo heads to Senegal to defuse tension.”

The irony is vivid if not palpable but in truth, it wasn’t even my desire to allude to certain contextual cues that instantly recalls memories of the infamous Nigerian “Third Term Agenda.”  What was most exciting for me was the sense of pride and elation I savoured privately at the thought that the prominent international role of mediating this democratic impasse went to an elder statesman from my home country.

Frankly I did not expect Abdoulaye Wade to readily agree to withdraw his candidacy after a brotherly chat and probably after a few drinks with Mr. Obasanjo, but negotiating with him to stay only two years in power “If” he wins was nothing but a breakthrough moment in diplomacy.


The Arab spring came along with a lot of hope for Africa after it triumphed in the most conservative and subservient, or so we thought Arab countries especially in the north of Africa. Many argued that the Arabs, unlike black Africa, are hot tempered in the dimension that makes it difficult for them to negotiate easy resolutions, and achieve modest concessions.

“It is all about their mentality to be un-compromising” I have heard people say, contrasting them to the resolve that appears to be lacking in black Africa. Fighting to the death, although a noble trait in the face of high principles, simply does not add up when the desired goal takes a long time to gestate if what is going on in Syria is of any reference for us today.

This, invariably, brings us to the big question on the longevity of service of our rare breed of leaders within the 75 to 100 age window.  These categories of leaders create a monarchy out of their forced self-succession in power.

My people say “what an old man sees standing, a young man cannot see even when he is on the highest elevation available.” As the lessons of history counsel us, it is the protean status of these seat tight leaders that engenders public distrust and confusion. Our leaders usually started well, quoting the apt rendition of Chinua Achebe, as  “Men of the People.” But they are also adept at mutating midway as strong leaders unwilling to vacate power.

It is appropriate to reference a few good examples at this point. The case of Laurent Gbagbo, the history professor, rhetorician, and wordsmith, who earned the nickname Cicero, is worth telling. Gbagbo suffered deprivation himself under the endless but brutish rule of President Félix Houphouet-Boigny, and when he first came to power was considered a saviour but ended up in disgrace for plunging his country to war and terrible murder.

Robert Mugabe became a national icon and a force of reckon after he challenged the white minority rule of Ian Smith in Zimbabwe. His swearing-in ceremony in 1980 was one filled with gratitude, so much emotion and renewed hope. But it is now 32 years and even the euphoria felt at the time is obviously extinct.

In Cameroun, after succeeding President Ahmadou Ahidjo, who resigned surprisingly in 1982, Paul Biya has continued to be president even though he has been accused of being aloof and out of tune with the reality of the country. This is without prejudice to the fact that in 2004, he was limited to a two-term limit in the 1996 Constitution and barred from running for President again in 2011.

In his 2008 New Year’s message, Biya stunned the nation by expressing support for the process of revising the Constitution, saying that it was undemocratic to limit the people’s choice!

Yet it is not all a tale of bleak house, the one person who is still allowing the continent to have a glimpse of that surreal feeling is Nelson Mandela. The question is therefore appropriate as to when we will have another Mandela who showed the world the noble example of serving one term and then stepping aside .


*Pinado Abdu-Waba is a radio journalist residing in Bonn, Germany


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