Life-Presidentitis:The African disease!
by Benjamin Sehene
edited: Monday, July 16, 2001
Posted: Monday, July 16, 2001
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Elections come and go, but we continue to see the same leaders rule most African countries.
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It was very shocking for anyone who regularly follows African politics from here, to learn
recently that three leading members of the ruling African National Congress were being
investigated by the South African police for conspiring to remove president Thabo Mbeki from
office and possibly even assassinate him. Had South Africa's hard-earned democracy at last been
affected by life-presidentitis which has plagued the rest of Africa ever since independence? I
There is a joke told in the African community here or as they would say in Kampala, the kyeyo
community about an African president who is invited to an official luncheon at an Asian
embassy shortly after taking power. The subject of this joke is usually the late Rwandese
president general Habyarimana, but it could apply to any other African leader because it
perfectly illustrates African attitudes towards authority.
The story goes that once at table, the guests were offered the usual hot towel rolls, at which the
president went like a starving man, folk and knife in hand. Bound by tradition, the first lady
followed her husband's example.
And soon, the entire presidential entourage followed suit, emulating the new guide of the
republic. The asian hosts, embarrassed by the cultural misunderstanding, did not dare unroll
their towels to freshen up, for fear of offending their honorable guests. I say, this stuff is hard to
cut through! exclaimed the president fumbling with cutlery.
At first the asian hosts just looked on dumbfounded at the ubuesque scene acted out by their
guests. But the moment the orientals saw the president masticate his first mouthful of towel,
they dived for their folks and knives then did likewise to avoid a diplomatic incident.
None in the presidential entourage took the courage to point out to the president that he was
making a mistake. They all prefered to eat their own towel rolls. It is this sort of archaic and
tyranical hierachisation commonto all African socities which undermines all efforts at
democratic debate.la shops.
In African societies it is fear and tension which bind surbodinates to their superiors, juniors to
elders, children to their parents, wives to their husbands. Therefore, it is not surprising that each
time there is a presidential election on the horizon in any African country, the incumbents begin
to look for ways to muzzle the press, to intimidate and put a curb on the opposition.
On the other hand, it is not surprising that the life presidentitis epidemic which has been
decimating neighbouring Zimbabwe and Zambia in the last few years has finally managed to
spread to one of the world's youngest constitutional democracies. Thabo Mbeki may not have let
loose ANC war veterans on white farmers and the opposition like Mugabe did, or changed the
constitution to bar his opponents from standing for election like Chiluba did. Nevertheless, by
accusing his potential rivals of what amounts to treason, Mbeki is doing what most of us who
grew up in Africa when one party states and life presidencies still went by their real names, have
always known: in Africa once a president always a president. The more african politics changes
the more it is the same thing. The wind of change which came blowing in the wake of the cold
war era led to calls in favour of multi-party democracy, the rule of law and a respect for human
rights all over Africa. Yet after a decade of democratisation nothing much seems to have
changed. Elections come and go, but we continue to see the same leaders rule most African
countries. Some heads of states like Gnassingbe Eyadema, Omar Bongo or Arap Moi were in
power long before three quarters of their subjects were born.
One of the commonest symptoms of life-presidentitis is that of cronysim. The head of state
surrounds himself with friends and relatives to do his dirty business and shore up the presidency
with proceeds from corruption. African politics is abound with cronysim. There is the case of
Blaise Compaore the president of Burkina Faso whose brother stands accused of killing a
journalist called Norbert Zongo. But perhaps the most tragic example of cronysim was that of
the clique around late Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana. Commonly known as Akazu,
this clique was mainly composed of Habyarimana's inlaws and was led by his own wife Agathe
Kanziga. It is the Akazu which concieved and perpetrated the genocide of Tutsis in 1994 and are
alleged to have ordered the assassination of president Habyarimana himself after he betrayed
them by conceeding to a power sharing arrengement agreed upon in the Arusha peace accords
with the RPF armed rebellion of Rwandese refugees determined to return to their homeland from
The aim of the Akazu like all cronys was self-perpetuation by keeping the big man in power.
Therefore, gradually the cronys become an extension of the presidency and are also afflicted
with life-presidentitis. Even Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni who has been lauded as a
model statesman in Africa, has begun to show signs of chronic life-presidentitis. The example of
the unairwothy helicopter scandal in Uganda is a classical case of cronysim. President Yoweri
Museveni's own brother, General Salim Saleh recieved a commision on the purchase of the
bogus helicopters from a company belonging to the sister and brother in-law of one of
Museveni's most trusted army officers and former chief of staff James Kazini. The Big Man has
to remain untainted inorder to stay in power. Moreover, Museveni has not only remained
ambiguous about his intentions in 2006, but went as far as hitting his main political rival during
the last presidential campaign, Dr. Kiiza Besigye, below the belt by making allegations about
his state of health in an international weekly magazine.
The financial scandals involving the people around the Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi are
too many to enumerate. But they go from simple bank fraud to ethnic cleansing in the Rift
Valley of non-Kalenjin communities politically opposed to Moi's ruling party KANU. And after
almost a quarter of a century in power and one of the most enduring cases of chronic
life-presidentitis, Arap Moi is again standing for elections. When Moi succeeded Jomo
Kenyatta, Jimmy Carter was still president of the United States of America and Americans have
elected five presidents ever since. Whereas Kenyans have only elected two presidents in almost
Inflexibility is another symptom of chronic life presidentitis. When Mobutu Sese Seko was faced
with an armed rebellion led by Laurent Kabila, he was stricken with terminal prostate cancer
and he knew he had only a few months to live. Yet to the very last minute Mobutu remained
uncompromising in his refusal to quit power. Photographs of a gaunt ailing Mobutu and a
chubby smiling Kabila gazing at the ceiling aboard the South African navy vessel Outeniqua
during negotiations show a very sick man just a few steps from the grave but who insists on
keeping the presidency. To this day that remains the most pitiable photo of a life-presidentitis
patient. How many African leaders spend sleepless nights thinking of that photo?