Africa: Art of Presidential Death - Step Down or Accept Defeat, Then Die

Benjamin William Mkapa at the World Economic Forum on Africa held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, May 7, 2010.

I liked Tanzania's former President Benjamin William Mkapa. In his early years in office, my liberal-democratic sensibilities didn't take too well to his ham-fisted handling of the media and the opposition.

History, though, had always left me mildly well-disposed to him, starting with his key role in aiding a motley of Ugandan dissident group to oust military ruler Field Marshal Idi Amin in 1979. A keen intellect and affable conversationalist, once you sat in his presence, it was hard to leave uncharmed.

On previous occasions, I have written fairly favourably of Mkapa, so what is left today is to reflect on what he teaches about presidential/former-presidential death.

A little like Kenya's former president Daniel arap Moi who died on February 4, 2020, Mkapa teaches a simple story - don't die in office. The best way for an African president to depart is to first step down, or accept defeat in an election, then die. And, of course, don't die immediately after leaving office. Wait for at least 10 years to pass.

If you die while in office, especially if you have hung around for decades piling up enemies as the clock ticks, there will be a lot of fresh anger against you. There will be no unanimity about your record, and many will celebrate your end.

Dying a few years after leaving almost always ensures more warmness, and people will more likely rally around the better story of your rule. This happens for many reasons, including that all the resentment against your successors translates into a favourable view of your record in office.

That's why in Uganda today, what once looked absolutely impossible has happened -- many people now think well of Amin, and say he was far better than anything that has come since.

Secondly, don't become a village boy or girl when you leave office. Go out and sit on an international commission. Chair the board of a regional or international organisation. Lead at least one African Union or Commonwealth election observer group, and issue an ambivalent statement when the vote is stolen by the incumbent. And mediate in armed conflict somewhere on the continent. Mkapa did many of those things.

The people at home love to see one of their own cutting the figure of a wise elder statesman abroad.

Don't be stupid when you leave office. Don't take a new wife. And if for some reason you have to, don't marry one who is younger than your daughter. The Mothers' Union and Maendeleo ya Wanawake will despise you, and that could harm your reputation irreparably.

Then, write a book. A book written while you are in power is often diminished by your failures and excesses. One written immediately after you leave office might be tainted by bitterness and petty points scoring.

Give it some time, then after you have chilled, marinated and grown the air of a sage, pen one.

Mkapa's memoir, My Life, My Purpose, dropped in November 2019, and was received as if it were a canon. Now it has become Mkapa's last famous words.

Rest in peace.

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