The Roles of Ex-Presidents in Africa: Will Mbeki Lead the Pack?

THERE is a mixed expectation regarding the role of retired African presidents.
Do they have a role to play? Thinking wishfully and taking a cue from other experiences, the answer is yes.

But what role? That’s the question Henning Melber posed in his 2005 piece: ‘Life After Presidency: Role of Ex-Presidents in Africa’ published in The Namibian.

Not much has happened in terms of tangible roles by an ex-president since then.

Not that there were no burning issues that ex-presidents could have helped resolve during this period.

There were and still are.

Take the perennial problems of Zimbabwe and Sudan and also the on-and-off fighting in Ivory Coast and the Kenyan post-election violence.

But most ex-presidents preferred to turn a blind eye or adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

But here is another ex-president to add to our tally of retired heads of state – Thabo Mbeki.

And it is expected that Mbeki would perhaps energise the role of ex-presidents in more active and progressive fashion.

Where are these expresidents? Here are some: two each in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, and one each in Namibia, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia and Ethiopia.

The last two, however, are not available – Charles Taylor is behind bars in The Hague and Mengisto Haile Meriam under Robert Mugabe’s protection but wanted for crimes he committed when he was President.

So what role can they play? Well it is argued that they can act as mediators and conciliators in some of the hotspots on the continent and beyond because of their status and experiences.

Both Ketumile Masire of Botswana and Nelson Mandela tried their hands at peace-making and negotiations in Central and East Africa respectively.

And, of course, Mbeki is still trying to put the fractured Zimbabwean agreement on a steady and permanent footing – a carry-over from his presidency.

But the problem with some ex-presidents, especially those who spent years in exile, is they behave as if they have been taken from their villages and thrown into office.

Thus the ‘experiences’ gained through years of travelling and living in different parts of world don’t seem to count much One wonders, therefore, what experience they would draw from to help other countries in political turmoil while they themselves brought their own countries down – politically and economically.

Thus many ex-presidents don’t make it to that exclusive club of so-called eminent person status because to be there one must be seen to be neutral and look at the problem as an outsider.

Our own former President Sam Nujoma, for example, did not pass that litmus test in the case of Zimbabwe and neither did Kenneth Kaunda.

The other less discussed issue is the transfer of expertise -a rare commodity.

But I have in mind here, as an example, Norway’s first woman Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who became Director-General of the Alexactus T Kaure The Role of Ex-Presidents in Africa: Will Mbeki Lead the Pack? World Health Organisation (WHO) – studied medicine.

I would therefore not be surprised if Mbeki gets one of those top international jobs – he has the qualifications.

Not many of our present ex-presidents have any specific expertise to speak of.

The role of ex-presidents on the domestic front is equally important if they can help their societies galvanise around specific national issues especially those of transcendental nature such as HIV-AIDS, efforts to eradicate malaria, immunisation campaigns etc.

but without being seen as interfering in the work of the incumbent.

But above all, an expresident can and should play the role of reconciler and unifier especially in ethnically and racially diverse societies.

Therefore, one has to rise above the narrow stricture of party politics and become a national figure.

Mandela did this admirably despite the long prison term he endured under Apartheid.

Another example from the past, is Julius Nyerere who did the same in order to consolidate democracy in Tanzania and unify the nation.

At the opposite end of the scale is Nujoma who didn’t manage to rise above party politics even though he goes by the title of ‘Father of the Nation’ and lives on taxpayers’ money.

But why Mbeki then? How will he revive and energise the otherwise dormant club of ex-presidents? First here is a man who did the most un-African thing – to step down because he lost his party support.

Though an acceptable practice in advanced democracy, it’s not so in Africa.

This should send a signal to others that one does not need to change a constitution or send in an army the crack down on opposition to cling to power because there is life after the presidency.

Mbeki is also well educated, a Sussex economics graduate, and can stand his ground, from an intellectual vantage point, on major contemporary issues of our time – not without controversy of course.

Many of his peers are not so lucky.

And don’t forget that while President he either initiated or pushed agendas that went beyond the borders of SA.

He was instrumental in the setting up of The New Economic Partnership for Africa Development (NEPAD) headquartered in SA.

He is also the one who came up with notion of the African Renaissance – an idealist view of trying to reposition Africa within the world intellectual landscape.

I’m aware of the criticisms these initiatives have caused, in Africa and abroad, but at least he managed to create dialogue.

So if Mbeki can retain the same vigour, enthusiasm and energy to engage Africa and rest of the world maybe he can in the process take the other former heads of state along and thus rekindle the role of this exclusive club.

They have a choice whether to play a constructive role or go into oblivion.

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