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 Tuesday, 31 December, 2002, 15:19 GMT
Africa's big men and the ballot
Kanu rally in Kenya
The ruling party in Kenya gets its supporters on the streets

African leaders do not easily give up the reins of power.

Togo's President Gnassingbe Eyadema has demonstrated this with his constitutional coup, allowing him to compete for office again in 2003.

He had promised to respect the constitution - but then members of his party in the national assembly voted to change the constiution so that the president would not have to step down at the end of his current term.

So it looks like he has decided against the option of retiring, unlike Kenya's Daniel arap Moi.

Former President Moi has retired after 24 years in power, although he did not give the impression that he was keen to go.

He tried to nominate a successor, whom many analysts thought would allow him to rule from behind the scenes, but when his heir was soundly beaten in elections, Mr Moi handed over power smoothly and rapidly to his elected successor, Mwai Kibaki.

Africa's top 5 'Big Men'
Togo's Gnassingbe Eyadema
Togo: Gnassingbe Eyadema - April 1967
Gabon: Omar Bongo - December 1967
Libya: Muammar Gaddafi - 1969
Angola: Jose Eduardo dos Santos - 1979
Zimbabwe: Robert Mugabe - 1980

This action has led to a complete change for Kenya, as a large part of the population has known only one leader, Daniel arap Moi.

But many African leaders still opt for the Togolese model of clinging on to power relentlessly. President Eyadema has proved notably adept at it, being Africa's longest-serving leader.

Like him, many of Africa's leading politicians have been at the top of their political heaps for decades.

Signs of change

President Mugabe is clinging grimly to power in Zimbabwe after 22 years at the top.

Kenyan opposition rally
Kenya's opposition has worked hard to win

President Nujoma in Namibia had the constitution changed to allow him to have a third terms as president - he might still go for a fourth term.

But in other countries, there have been changes - presidents have come and gone and have accepted defeat at the hands of the voters.

Since the re-birth of the demands for greater democracy around 1990, Africa has moved unsteadily away from the single-party, single-leader model of rule even if free and fair elections have not been warmly embraced by many of its leaders.

If President Moi's retirement and his acceptance, so far, of the result of the election, means Kenya is moving in the direction of those African countries where leaders do step down before they are pushed or before they die.

But in countries like Senegal and Botswana leadership change and elections are much more common.

Former president Abdou Diouf
President Diouf accepted defeat in Senegal in 2000

The founding leader of Senegal, Leopold Senghor retired from the presidency voluntarily in 1980.

His successor, Abdou Diouf, accepted defeat in elections in 2000 and handed over to opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade.

In Botswana, the Botswana Democratic Party has been in power since independence in 1966 but elections, judged as amongst the freest and fairest in Africa, are held every five years.

The current president, Festus Mogae, took over when Ketumile Masire retired voluntarily in 1998.

In the first wave of the democracy comeback in Africa in the 1990s, Benin moved from a military dictatorship to a multiparty system and the military ruler, Mathieu Kerekou, accepted defeat in the 1991 elections.

A massive 35 parties contested the elections in 1999.

Clinging on

In Zambia, 19 years of institutionalised single party politics gave way to a multiparty system in 1991 and Kenneth Kaunda was swept from power.

He accepted the election defeat with grace and handed over to Frederick Chiluba. It seemed the "big man" mould had been broken.

But Mr Chiluba proceeded to use government power to obstruct and harass political opponents, even banning Mr Kaunda from standing in elections in 1996.

His rise to power was not seen, in the end, as a great victory for democracy and good governance in Africa, and he is now facing corruption charges in a Zambian court.

Although he stepped down after two terms in office, this was only because splits within his own party meant that he could not be sure that an attempt to change the constitution to allow him to stand again would work or that he would be elected.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa
Zambia's president charged his predecessor with corruption

His support for Levy Mwanawasa as his successor, was seen by observers of Zambian politics as an attempt to prolong his influence after he stepped won.

But President Mwanawasa has moved against his former boss and instituted the prosecution for alleged corruption.


Elections are now a fact of political life in most of Africa.

They still tend to be violent affairs with frequent rigging, the use by incumbent governments of state powers to harass opponents or control the media and results that are not always accepted as free or fair.

But a political process is underway in Africa that hardly existed 15 or 20 years ago.

Parties can campaign vigorously; presidents do accept defeat in votes and step down; and chosen successors do not always allow their previous leaders to pull the strings from behind the scenes - all examples that Africa has changed and is still changing.

There might be a long way to go - but 20 years ago there would have been no question of President Moi stepping down and having to accept the defeat of his chosen heir.

Kenyans choose a new president

Key stories

Inauguration day

Moi steps down




See also:

31 Dec 02 | Africa
31 Dec 02 | Africa
30 Dec 02 | Africa
17 Dec 02 | Africa
13 Dec 02 | Media reports
21 Nov 02 | Africa
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