Presidents stay in power to stay out of the traffic

Saturday November 1 2014



After 27 years as president, most regular politicians would be satisfied. Rarely so in Africa.

The latest Big Man to try to amend the Constitution to change term limits and allow him stand again is Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore.

His attempt to extend his 27-year rule exploded in angry protests on Thursday, with rampaging protestors setting parliament and the ruling party headquarters on fire. They ransacked the state TV, and also torched some MPs’ houses.

Dozens of soldiers also joined the protest. The government resorted to Twitter to announce that it was calling off the bid to amend the Constitution. At week’s end, late breaking news indicated that Compaore had resigned.

Although he worked hard to reinvent himself as a regional statesman, as African strongmen come and go, Compaore was one of a kind.

He was the only serving leader on the continent who killed a close friend and predecessor for the job. In 1987, Compaore masterminded the assassination of his buddy and president, the charismatic Capt Thomas Sankara.


Compaore’s fate has revived the old debate about why African leaders cling to the job so desperately even after being in it for decades.

The common argument is that they are greedy for power and want to continue “eating.” But even that is hard to believe, because a corrupt president who cannot steal enough over 20 years doesn’t deserve the job.

In my more flippant moments, I think the only compelling reasons for a president to seek to grow old in the presidency are the traffic jams.

After sitting in the traffic for four hours on a journey that would ordinarily take 14 minutes, I really envy presidents when they fly past with sirens and outriders clearing us plebian motorists out of the way so they can get through. That is a perk worth having.

In any event, overstaying their welcome has brought presidents like Compaore to a complex pass. These days, despite the small setback of Ebola and some stubborn conflicts that refuse to go away, Africa is still considered the happening continent; the next exciting economic frontier.

Now previously wonkish things like rebasing economies have become the flavour of the day as countries announce that their economies have become bigger with balloons and lights.

Yet, clutches of recent reports, including one by Oxfam, have noted that inequality is growing as Africa mints more billionaires. In a country like Burkina Faso, nearly 65 per cent of the population is under 25 years of age, with no opportunities.

It would seem the cacophony of “Africa Rising” is producing a new set of expectations, and leaving the continent’s army of young people confused and angry that they are not sharing in it.

Yet, you cannot be a serious African country or chieftain today without a prosperity story, mineral resources in your soil that you brag about, and a rebased economy. Bragging rights have never been more costly.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa ( Twitter:@cobbo3