Dethroning ‘Leaders for Life’: The New Generations of Africans Fighting for Democracy

By Lydia Nyachieo

As many African countries gained their independence throughout the 1950s-70s, a multitude of great revolutionary leaders stepped up to bring their respective new countries out of the shadow of their former colonial rule and to fuel progress. Such leaders included Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara (1949-87), the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Patrice Lumumba (1925-61), and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela (1913-2018).  

Many African leaders continue to center their governance around the civil liberties and overall welfare of the people. However, since gaining independence, some leaders have hindered the social and economic progress of many African countries by striving to be ‘leaders for life’. These heads of state, many of whom are among the first few leaders of their respective countries, hold onto power and refuse to give up their leadership. Such leaders include Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who is currently in his 40th year as president, as well as Cameroon’s Paul Biya, who is currently in his 37th year as president (a questionable 2018 election granted him another 7-year term).   

Some strategies these leaders use to hold onto power include postponing, tainting, or not having elections; oppressing or outlawing political opposition; and changing the constitution to lengthen the presidential term. According to an article by the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) called Africa’s ‘Leaders for Life’, several African countries with these leaders have been marred with corruption and instability, which often stem from why and how they hold onto power. Many hold onto power in order to keep their (sometimes embezzled) wealth, and the methods by which they hold onto power correlate with human rights abuses of their citizens, including “secret or arbitrary arrests and detentions, tight restrictions on freedom of expression, and police brutality.” According to the CFR, there are strong correlations “between sub-Saharan Africa’s entrenched leadership and its developmental and security challenges, including conflict or instability, stagnant or declining economies, and democratic backsliding.” This is a big reason why countries with these ‘leaders for life’ often face roadblocks in economic and social development. 

However, Africans haven’t stood idle while certain leaders attempt to retain power. Within the past several decades, mass protests and campaigns across Africa – the majority of them nonviolent – have aimed to take out corrupt leaders for life and promote democracy. Many of these movements have been driven by the youth, who, fed up by what they perceive as broken systems of leadership, desire a freer, fairer, and more opportunistic society for themselves and for future generations. Some of the most recent cases have been in Algeria, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. 

Pro-Democracy Movements Across the Continent 

In Algeria, a period of intense street protests saw the former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resign this past April after 20 years in power. The protests started in February 2019, after Bouteflika announced that he would be standing for his fifth term as president. Even after he dropped his re-election bid, the massive protests continued. Not only did many see him as incapable of fulfilling his duties — after a 2013 stroke left his wheelchair-bound, he rarely made public appearances — but many citizens started calling for a complete overhaul of his whole corrupt government. With eventual support from the military, the Algerian demonstrators succeeded in getting Bouteflika to step down after less than two months of protesting. While protestors are still on the streets demanding a clean slate of leadership throughout the political system, the impetus for change has started. 

Over in Sudan, former president Omar al-Bashir took power after a military coup in 1989 and had ruled Sudan “with an iron fist” for 30 years. Before the anti-government protests, Bashir had already been charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for extreme violence against certain ethnic and rebel groups within the country. The civil unrest started in December of 2018, after the prices of bread and fuel spiked under his government. From then on, anti-government protests continued until the military ousted Bashir in April 2019. 

In Zimbabwe, historic protests took place two years ago as tens of thousands of Zimbabweans demanded that the late Robert Mugabe stand down after 37 years in power. With the push of a military coup, Mugabe resigned in November 2017. Mugabe, who passed this past September at age 95, had been the world’s oldest head of state at the time of his resignation, at age 93. While Mugabe is celebrated as the hero of the Zimbabwean independence movement from Britain, the last two decades of his rule had been marred with Zimbabwe’s economic ruin and violent oppression of his opposition. In the latter part of his presidency, many saw him as a violent dictator and tyrant, who, according to Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, left the country in “poverty and despair” with his “incompetent and corrupt” leadership.  

There are multiple core similarities between these anti-government protests, as well as with those in other parts of Africa. One incredibly important factor in pro-democracy movements includes the engagement of the youth, who are often seeking a fresh generation of leadership and more economic opportunities. For example, in Algeria, where about half the population is under 30, Bouteflika had been the only president that much of the younger population had ever known (as was similar in Sudan, where the median age is 19). And with much of Algeria’s youth unemployed, the push for democracy by the younger generations also brought out the support of older generations who wanted better futures for their children and grandchildren. A BBC news report at the time of the Algerian protests relayed the sentiments of Nissa Imad, an elderly protestor whose five children had been unemployed: “‘There’s nothing for the young generation,’ she said. ‘No jobs and no houses. They can’t get married. We want this whole system to go.’”  

Unity across protesters of diverse backgrounds is another central theme to these pro-democracy protests. By mobilizing masses of people from all walks of life, these demonstrations are much harder to ignore or suppress. According to a Foreign Affairs article called People Power is Rising In Africa, successful movements, 

“must inspire mass participation that cuts across regional, generational, class, ethnic, and religious boundaries. African civil resistance has long relied on the leadership and coordinating power of professional associations, unions, and other institutions, such as churches, to communicate the principles of a movement to a wide range of participants.” 

Staying united against divisive strategies is key. When protests first started in Sudan, Bashir attempted to exploit Sudan’s ethnic and racial division – a tactic he had used for decades – by blaming the civil unrest on student activists in Darfur, accusing them of inciting violence. But his divisive attempt was met by ethnic solidarity by the masses of protesters all over the country: one of the main chants amid the protests was, “Oh, you arrogant racist, we are all Darfur.” 

Finally, an interesting aspect of pro-democracy protests in Africa in the last decade has been the unprecedented participation of women. For example, in Sudan – a country that was rather oppressive to women under Bashir’s reign – women played key leadership roles throughout the demonstrations. Not only did they lead the charge of the protests in the streets and on social media, but they were also key in ensuring that the protests remained peaceful. As UW professor Aili Mari Tripp stated in a Washington Post piece about the Algerian protests, 

“Hundreds of thousands of women have claimed public space and, in effect, their citizenship, by joining the protests in a society in which certain places and activities were historically the exclusive reserve of men. Women have participated in past demonstrations, but never on this scale.” 

With the youth driving the movement for change, diverse populations unifying, and women participating in unprecedented levels, these pro-democracy protests have proven to be a powerful force against ‘leaders for life’ in Africa. 

Why It All Matters 

The handful of African leaders who strive to be ‘leaders for life’ and the actions taken by citizens in response have important links to the hopes and visions of African revolutionaries who led the independence movements throughout the continent. Unlike the handful of current African leaders whose primary interests seem to lie in power, wealth, and privilege, many of the African leaders who led their countries to independence were concerned first and foremost with the welfare of the people. While they weren’t perfect, many pushed selflessly and tirelessly for the true liberation from former colonial powers, unity of the African continent, equality among citizens, radical social progress, and economic stability and independence.  

One of the most celebrated examples is Burkina Faso’s first president, Thomas Sankara. A man of few possessions, Sankara’s objectives – the majority of which he made manifest – revolved around rooting out corruption, empowering women, increasing literacy rates, decreasing environmental degradation, expanding access to healthcare and education, and most of all, to truly destroy all ties of colonial domination.  

Thomas Sankara was assassinated just four years into his presidency, allegedly by his closest friend and ally who would go on to rule Burkina Faso for the next 27 years. Yet, Sankara’s legacy and vision still lives on throughout the whole continent, as well as the legacies of other selfless and determined leaders. The peaceful pro-democracy campaigns throughout Africa in the last two decades channel that same dedication to the welfare, equality, dignity, and progress of the people in the face of a domineering force. The fight for true democracy is kept strong by people who are actively taking their country’s future into their own hands with the same determination.  

Not all African presidents strive to be leaders for life, and perhaps many probably don’t even enter power with the explicit intention of holding on. However, when leaders do overstay and abuse their position, Africans across the continent have and will continue to ignite their own revolutions in the spirit of indignation, determination, and hope.

Photo courtesy of the United Nations.

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