When the Arab spring blew through northern Africa in early 2011 many had high hopes of popular uprisings that would lead to regime change and better quality of life for the rest of the continent. However, sustained popular uprisings didn’t blossom into a season of change for a number of reasons: violent crackdowns, lack of a middle class that could support the change, lack of hope, etc… But maybe Mother Nature had a back-up plan for change in sub-Saharan Africa.
Over the past two years a number of long-lasting African heads of state have expired, leading to change. Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua led the charge, dying on 5 May 2010 causing an unexpected change in leadership with then Vice-President Jonathon Goodluck completing the term and upsetting a rotation of political leadership between the North and South of Nigeria, which also has contributed in part to the ongoing violence in Nigeria.
Guinea-Bissau has experienced lately a mess of leadership since the death of Malam Bacai Sanhà on 9 January 2012. Raimundo Pereira was the acting president until he was deposed in a coup d’état on 12 April 2012.
In Malawi, President Bingu wa Mutharika died of a heart attack on 5 April 2012 and then Vice-President Joyce Banda was only able to secure the presidency two days later on 7 April 2012 after the military stepped in to support her and the succession of the presidency as directed in the constitution. Mutharika’s brother had tried to secure the presidency for himself and had recruited the Chief of Police in his support but ultimately failed in his bid for power.
Ghana’s President John Atta Mills died on 24 July 2012 and was replaced by Vice-President and now current President John Dramani Mahama. Unlike in Malawi there was no drama in the passing of power to the Vice-President.
Ethiopia’s Head of State, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Asres' was the latest to expire on 20 August 2012 after a long undisclosed illness. Prime Minister Zenawi had not been seen for many weeks as he was in treatment in an undisclosed location, but following notice of his death his body was shipped back to Ethiopia from Belgium. Zenawi was the President of Ethiopia from 1991 to 1995 and then became Prime Minister in 1995 until his recent death. Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who is also Ethiopia’s foreign minister, is now the acting head of state for Ethiopia.
Other African leaders that expired in office include Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia and Lansana Conté of Guinea in 2008. Mwanawasa was replaced by his Vice-President Rupiah Banda without any disruption of government but the political situation in Guinea destabilized. Conté’s successor, Aboubacar Somparé was deposed in a coup the day after taking power. Eventually current President Alpha Condé was elected and assumed the presidency on 21 December 2010.
In every case besides Guinea and Ethiopia, where Conté ruled for 24 years (1984-2008) and Zenawi ruled for 21 years (1991-2012), the fallen African presidents had been democratically elected and had ruled for less than 10 years. Some were even in their initial terms of office so their governments had and were experiencing changes of leadership and power.
However, some African heads of state have managed to hang on to power for decades, despite their old age. President Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, although he was the Prime Minister from 1980-1987. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda came to power in 1986, President Paul Biya of Cameroon in 1982, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola in 1979, and President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea also in 1979. President Nguema has the distinction of being the longest serving leader in Africa, coming to power on 3 August 1979, a month before President dos Santos in Angola. President Denis Sassou Nguesso has also ruled the Republic of Congo since 1979, taking only a five-year break after losing elections in 1992, but returning to power after civil war in 1997.
The mostly peaceful transition of power in Senegal in 2012 following contentious Presidential elections where President Wade altered the constitution to allow him to run for a formerly forbidden third term could have been a disaster. Violent protests across the country indicated that if President Wade had won a third term chaos would have ensued. Thankfully, current President Macky Sall defeated Wade in the second round of voting to secure the Presidency. Former President Wade then gracefully assisted in the transition of power without further incident.
In Cote d’Ivoire the people were not as fortunate as former President Laurent Gbagbo (2000-2011) refused to give up power to the victor of the 2010 elections, current President Alassane Ouattara. Both claimed the Presidency from December 2010 until April 2011 when forces loyal to Ouattara and backed by France and the United Nations defeated Gbagbo. In November 2011 Gbagbo was extradited to the Hague (International Criminal Court) where he awaits trial for crimes committed during the post-election violence.