Sad but true: It’s better to die in office here

Saturday November 17 2012



Hard to believe, but it is nearly three months since the death of Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi.

If my reading is correct, Meles became the second East African leader (if we consider that the Democratic Republic of Congo is not strictly an East African country) to die in office, the first being Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta in 1978.

It just occurred to me that while Zenawi died on August 20, Kenyatta died on August 22. There is a way in which the Kenyan and Ethiopian leader’s deaths are aligned. In fact, when I was last at the Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi to interview the ambassador, I was struck by just how much land the mission has.

The ambassador explained that Kenyatta and Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie were very close friends. When Selassie visited Kenyatta in the mid-1960s, Kenyatta told him; “Now brother Selassie, why don’t you build somewhere close so that whenever you visit and I want to see you, or if I want to talk to your ambassador, I can do so easily?” And so he arranged for Ethiopia to get land, and quite a bit of it, next to Nairobi’s State House.

But we digress. Anyhow, Ethiopia is still a country very much in mourning. Meles is still everywhere. At Bole Airport, the screens keep playing a video of him, extolling the former guerrilla leader as a visionary, and a “leader of Africa” who will be hard to replace. A friend, who was not exactly a Meles fan, gave me a touching review of his works.

What Meles, like Kenyatta, demonstrates is the premium of dying in office in East Africa. It seems there is more to gain in dying while in State House or the Prime Minister’s Palace than in retiring.

Your successor will be your deputy (Hailemariam Desalegn in Meles’s case and Daniel arap Moi in Kenyatta’s), and your party remains in power. First because you are dead, your successor can afford to extol your memory because you will not return to take the job from him.

Second, because most influential men and women in the party and government are still your people, your successor will work to bribe them by treating you well in death. Thus dead leaders almost always get better funerals than the ones who wait to die after retiring.

They are also more likely to get a mausoleum, and have the main airport named after them (Jomo Kenyatta International and Leopold Senghor in Dakar). The retired ones get the secondary airports, thus Moi is given Mombasa.

As a bonus, the “mourning period” is also likely to produce emotional celebratory events. Thus, a few days ago there was a mass run in memory of Meles. How many leaders get a mini-marathon run for them?

The lesson from Meles for leaders in East Africa, and indeed Africa, is clear. If you are a Big Man and want to get a good deal, don’t wait to retire after serving out your statutory terms or when you get tired after being in power for donkey’s years. No, pick the right moment and die while in office.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @cobbo3