OBBO: Is democracy measured by number of living ex-rulers?

Saturday February 08 2020

From L-R: Former Tanzanian presidents Hassan Mwinyi, Ben Mkapa, and Jakaya Kikwete, holdings hands with President John Magufuli. PHOTO | IKULU


Whenever an African president retires or steps down; or an ex-president passes on as Kenya’s former President Daniel arap Moi did on February 4, there is always an image that Ugandans on social media are sure to circulate.

It’s a photograph of former Tanzanian presidents Hassan Mwinyi, Ben Mkapa, and Jakaya Kikwete, holdings hands with President John Magufuli. They will then make the point that while there have been many presidential goings and comings elsewhere, over the same period, the scene has remained unchanged in Uganda, with the country firmly in the grip of President Yoweri Museveni. In power for 34 years now, Museveni continues to shatter the East African Big Man longevity record.
With Moi’s departure, Ugandan wags posted the picture of the Tanzanian former leaders to make the point that the country can look forward to many years of extravagant mourning of their dead ex-rulers and national catharsis, while their Ugandan peers continue to endure dry eyes only.

Uganda’s last living president, the jocular Godfrey Binaisa, died on August 5, 2010.

What these chaps were doing was trying to offer up some a kind of “Living African Former Leaders Index”, as some kind of measure of a nation’s democratic health and political stability. It is a seductive idea, which at first glance looks promising, but in the end problematic.

Civilian presidents

Still, we need to look at the seductive bits. To begin with, if Moi had retired and passed on February 4, 1985, he would have been referred to “one of only two surviving former East African civilian presidents” (the other being Binaisa).


And if you had cast your net over the wider East Africa, there would have been only one former military dictator alive—Uganda’s Field Marshal Idi Amin, who was in exile somewhere in Saudi Arabia.

The fact that it is even meaningless to refer to Moi as one of the surviving executive former president or prime ministers in East Africa, because they are many of them, points to the fact that politically and democratically, the region has made giant strides.

The wrinkle though is that you can have a stable country, which is not democratic, and a generally democratic one, which is unstable.

Secondly, Burundi has three living ex-presidents, but also had a high turnover because between 1993 and 1994 two of them were assassinated. And though it’s richer in exes than Uganda (or Kenya) it is less free and democratic than both.

Set foot

Tanzania is richer in living ex-presidents than Kenya, which is now down to Mwai Kibaki only, and is definitely more stable. It is also a democracy of sorts, though a fast-dying one, but Kenya is far more democratic and freer—especially since Magufuli set foot in State House.

We shall not count South Sudan, it’s too young and still struggling to get its act together.

The winner in ex-presidents/PMs in the wider East Africa is, wait for it, Somalia with four. Everyone has something; Rwanda one, Sudan one (who’s in jail), Ethiopia one; DR Congo has the relatively freshly-minted and marvellously bearded Joseph Kabila.

What Moi’s passing has reminded us, though, is that the Ugandan presidential wheel is the slowest turning object in East Africa. Moi, an extremely reluctant last-minute democrat, must have been very pleased.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site [email protected]