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EAC presidents retire young, keep them busy and tap their knowledge

Sunday September 18 2022
William Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta.

President William Ruto holds a sword, a symbol of power, from his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, on September 13, 2022. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

On Tuesday, former Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta handed power to his former deputy, William Ruto, at a colourful ceremony in Nairobi. Uhuru fell out with his deputy in 2018 and didn't back him in the August 9 elections that Ruto won, allying with former prime minister and rival Raila Odinga instead.

Kenyatta was nevertheless gracious, showing up and doing his duty with a smile, and sitting expressionless through some awkward moments as new Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, standing a few feet from him, shredded his record.

And off he went.

It was easy to miss one little significance of his exit.

At 60 years of age, Kenyatta was the youngest president to step down in Kenya. Both Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki retired just as their walking sticks beckoned.

Relative youthful retirement is a growing East African Community trend. Democratic Republic of Congo's Joseph Kabila set the record in 2019 when he left the presidential palace at 49, remarkable considering that he in power for 18 years.

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Burundi's Pierre Nkurunziza, who died in June 2020, a few weeks before he was to step down following elections, was also younger than Uhuru, at 56 years.

In Somalia, a likely future EAC member, former president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (also known as Farmaajo), was sent packing at the age of 60, following elections in May after he was defeated by former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

Previously, the youngest regular retirement in the EAC — that is, the big man is not chased by mutinous soldiers, rebels emerged from the bush, or angry street protestors — was by Julius Nyerere in Tanzania in 1985 at 64. Hard to believe for a man who left such a huge footprint on his country, Africa, and the world.

The World Health Organisation said in a recent report that life expectancy in Africa had increased by an average 10 years between 2000 and 2019.

The median age of death in Africa in 2000 was 46. By 2019 it was 56. WHO noted that while 56 was lower than the global life expectancy of 64, the 10-year increase was far higher than the overall global increase of five years.

This means by retiring today, well-fed and sufficiently medicated leaders who were on a trajectory to live much longer than the masses, anyway, could be around longer than the previous class.

If we count the leaders who stepped down and weren't hounded off State House, Nyerere died in 1999 at 79. Kenya's Mwai Kibaki died in April last year at 90. His predecessor, Moi, died in February 2020 at 95. There is something in Kenya's soil. Their average age is 88. We add at least 10 years to that; then, the recent retirees will live at least 98.

If they don’t fall into depression, their planes don't fall out of the sky, or their successors don't hang them in a tragic turn of events, this means Kenyatta will be around until 2060. Kabila will be roaming DR Congo until 2074.

That's a long time away. Considering that more youthful future leaders will join them, there is a need for a grand East African scheme to harvest their knowledge of statecraft and keep them meaningfully occupied. Any ideas?

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". [email protected]

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