When Nelson Mandela stepped down as South Africa’s president after serving a single term, he bucked a trend set by dozens of post-independence African leaders who clung to power.
Mandela, who died yesterday at the age of 95, was 75 by the time he took office after the nation’s first multiracial elections in 1994. He retired five years later, maintaining he was too old to govern. His decision to relinquish control, until then a rare occurrence in Africa, has since been followed by the leaders of Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal, Botswana and Sierra Leone, who accepted election losses or term limits.
While eight other post-colonial leaders voluntarily relinquished power before Mandela, four of them after a single term, the list of those who sought to overstay their welcome is even longer. Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya for more than 40 years before he was deposed in a civil war in 2011. Mobutu Sese Seko used violence and repression to retain power in Zaire for 32 years, amassing a vast personal fortune in the process.
“There’s still a continued propensity for African leaders who should know better to try and hang on,” said Tom Lodge, a professor at the University of Limerick in Ireland, who spent 35 years researching South African politics and has written seven books on the subject. The fact that Mandela stood down “weakened the president-for-life syndrome.”
Today’s longest-reigning African president is Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, 71, who came to power in 1979. He is followed by Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos, 71, who took office the same year and won another five-year term in September last year. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, 89, has ruled since independence in 1980 by winning elections Western nations said were marred by voter irregularities and violence.
Authoritarian rule has come at the expense of economic development and bred corruption. Angola ranks 157th out of 174 countries on Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, while Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea jointly rank 163rd. The three nations fall in the bottom ranks of the United Nations Development Program’s 2013 survey of human development levels in 186 countries.
Mandela avoided those pitfalls. As president, he delegated much of the day-to-day tasks of running the country to his deputy and successor Thabo Mbeki, while focusing on managing the transition to majority rule and healing the rifts caused by apartheid.
“There’s no question in anybody’s mind that if Nelson Mandela had wanted to govern South Africa for the rest of his life, he could have done it,” said Peter Lewis, director of African Studies at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. By stepping down, Mandela “signaled that he wanted a democratic South Africa that wasn’t just multiracial, but a country that lived by the rule of law and democratic principles.”
The respect Mandela commanded among his African peers gave impetus to others to depart gracefully, said Rupiah Banda, who stepped down as Zambian president in 2011 after accepting an election loss he still disputes.
“After serving one term he was still immensely popular,” Banda said in a June 17 interview. “He could’ve continued for a second term, but he said it was time now to call upon others to take up the leadership mantle.”
Given Mandela’s stature and ability to reach out to the disparate groups, South Africa could have benefited from him serving a second term, said Daniel Silke, a political analyst and author of “Tracking the Future: Top trends that will shape South Africa and the World”.
“In the unusual case of South Africa where a strong unifying figure was clearly needed for a lengthy period, the country possibly missed out,” Silke said in a June 26 phone interview from Cape Town.
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