African Countries Have Mixed Record on Power Succession

Published on Tuesday 18th January 2011

A new round of diplomacy begins in Ivory Coast this week, as African leaders and international mediators continue to look for a solution to the power stalemate in the country.   This follows an election which the United Nations, the United States and African nations say was won by opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara.  But incumbent Laurent Gbagbo is refusing to give up power.  It's not an unusual situation for Africa, a continent with a mixed record of successful transfers of power.In Kenya in 2002, voters celebrated on the streets as their first new president in nearly a quarter of a century prepared to take office.  Five years later, voters were back at the polls in Kenya, but incumbent President Mwai Kibaki rejected the result, sparking widespread violence. That’s a common problem for power transitions in Africa says Richard Dowden, of the Royal African Society.

"It is essential that these transitions are peaceful because in so many African countries, as we saw in the 90s when this process started, people went to pick up a gun rather than a ballot," said Dowden.That's what happened in 1997, when Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now The Democratic Republic of Congo) refused to step down.  He eventually fled the country and died in exile.  But the struggle for power and resources sparked a war that so far has cost at least 3 million lives.And analysts worry that widespread violence could also break out in Ivory Coast, where Laurent Gbagbo has refused to give up power."The idea that he thinks he can stay on even though he clearly lost the election, shows him to be something else," noted Dowden.  "Another terribly stubborn leader who simply doesn’t understand the way the world works these days."Former Liberian president Charles Taylor did agree to go into exile in Nigeria.  But when he allegedly broke the terms of the exile, he was sent to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, where he faces charges of war crimes.Author Michela Wrong, whose apartment is adorned with African artifacts, has been writing about Africa and its leaders for 15 years. She thinks the international court is not helpful."There are a lot of people that believe that the Taylor example was a real signal [to] dictators around Africa to hang on in there and not leave," explained Wrong.In addition to Ivory Coast, analysts are concerned about leaders' reluctance to hand over power in Uganda, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.  Wrong says the reason is simple.  It's all about money."Historically power has been money in Africa, the private sector is small, access to key contracts you got them by being in power or being very close to someone in power," added Wrong.To encourage leaders to step down, an African entrepreneur launched a $5-million prize in 2007 to celebrate excellence in government leadership - to be awarded to a former head of state or government.  But according to Ketumile Masire, the former president of Botswana, for the past two years "the prize committee could not select a winner,"In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has hinted that elections might be held this year.  He says they will be free and fair, as he claims they have always been.  His opponents and international analysts differ.The Royal African society's Richard Dowden says elections themselves might be the problem."This is just obviously, obviously to me, not the best system for Africa," added Dowden.  "It needs democratic systems that reflect the realities of the societies.  How you do it?  I don’t know."Analysts agree that South Africa has set one of the best examples in Africa, with two successful power transitions -- with the military only getting involved, to celebrate the inauguration.


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