When Kenneth Kaunda stepped down as president of Zambia in 1991 he did something no other African head of state had ever done before. He stayed in the country, moving from the presidential palace to a small flat in the capital, Lusaka.
Past African presidents who lost their jobs, through fair means or foul, didn’t tend to stick around. Sometimes they didn’t have much of a choice. Those ousted by coups were forced into exile, thrown in jail or killed. Others simply stayed in office for so long, refusing to hold elections and turning their countries into one-party states, that they died before anyone had the chance to throw them out.
Over the past two decades Africa has steadily become more democratic. And not only has that meant more regular changes in leadership, it has also created an army of former presidents staying on the continent.
With 12 more general elections planned across Africa this year, starting with Sudan on 11 April, many more could soon be joining the club.
South Africa, Nigeria and Burundi lead the way with three, while Tanzania, Ghana and Benin have two. Only north of the Sahara is it a different story. Tunisia has had two presidents in 54 years, Egypt has been ruled by Hosni Mubarak since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi has clocked up 41 years, while Morocco is a monarchy. Some of Africa’s former presidents, such as Kaunda and Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi, stick to domestic politics, chipping in with the odd “wise word”, which no doubt frustrates their successors.
But others have tried to carve out a niche as peacemakers and continental spokesmen. South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki heads the African Union’s panel on Darfur, Olesejun Obasanjo of Nigeria has tried to find peace in eastern Congo, and former Mozambique president Joaquin Chissano spent the best part of three years trying, and failing, to get Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army to sign a peace deal.
Others including Tanzania’s Benjamin Mkapa, Ghana’s John Kufour and Botswana’s Festus Mogae often pop up at conferences and summits to represent Africa. Kufuor, who stepped down after completing his second term in 2009, is a “global ambassador” for the World Food Programme while Mogae, who finished his 10-year stint in 2008, is a UN special envoy on climate change. For some of the former presidents, in particular Mbeki and Obasanjo, their post-government work is a way of building a legacy that erases memories of their time in office. For others it is a way of keeping involved in the issues that matter to them. For all of them, though, money plays its part too.
Former African presidents, unlike their western counterparts, don’t have big pensions or regular five-figure speaking engagements. Nor are any offered major book deals. Mandela is the only former African head of state to have written a successful memoir.
This is just what Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-born telecoms billionaire-turned-philanthropist, had in mind when he established his annual $5m (€3.7m) prize for an African head of state who impressed in office and left quietly when their time was up.
Two former presidents have won so far, Chissano and Mogae, but the supply of good African ex-presidents is not that large just yet. The prize committee failed to find anyone to give the award to last year.