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27.05.2005 Feature Article

Relationship Between Sitting And Former Presidents Of African States

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- The Ghanaian Experience The heated debates over the utterances of the former president of Ghana have now simmered down. The nation, it seems has been divided over this issue. There is section of the society led by some clergy men calling for an apology from the former president, Flt-Lt. Jerry John Rawlings to the current president, Mr. J. A. Kufuor for comparing him to one of Ghana's notorious criminals (Atta Ayi). The second group of people involved in this debate insists that the former president has done nothing wrong. He was merely singing a song and that it's his democratic right to express himself freely. To back their claims this group of people went further to list instances in which Mr. Rawlings was also verbally abused whilst in office but nothing was done about it. In that case history is on their side and that is why they are insisting that Mr. Rawlings has done nothing wrong.

This article will attempt to look at the 'deteriorating' relations between the former president and his successor. The handing over process from Mr. Rawlings to Mr.Kufuor was very smooth and most doubters were put to shame. But why this running battle of words? I will also attempt to look at some of the common issues that sometimes make it very difficult for ex-presidents and their successors to have a normal working relation in Africa. Perhaps, this strained relation between our foremost statesmen in Ghana is also a peculiar feature running through most African states.

In traditional African society within the chieftaincy institution the baton of authority was only passed over to a successor only in time of death. In other words a successor is only found when a leader, be it a King or Queen dies. There were some exceptions however, in some cases, leaders who misbehaved or brought the chieftaincy institution in to disrepute were deposed and banned from seeking any leadership positions in such societies. For the purpose of illustration, let us consider the Asante Kingdom. Since the coming into being of this once great kingdom, from Kings Obiri Yeboa, Osei Tutu,Opoku Ware to the current occupant of the Golden Stool,Osei Tutu II authority passes from king to the other only in death. There were some exceptions however, that of King Osei Kwame readily comes to mind.

According to the history books he was so infatuated with Islam that he attempted to institute it as the State religion. That inclination led substantially to his deposition by his subjects. King Osei Kwame and some few others who were also deposed knew who their successors were. The same is true with the Gonja, Zulu, Bemba, Luba, Mossi, Buganda and so on. The point l am trying to establish here is that within the chieftaincy institution it was not possible to have former king living along side the one in authority. But are our modern day African leaders Kings and Queens?

It is becoming increasingly evident that in some African states some presidents' wants to rule for life, and when eventually they are forced to hand over power to an elected successor, such presidents can't co-exist with their successors. Since 2000 Mr. Rawlings and Mr. Kufuor have been at each other's throat. With the former claiming that he has been denied most of his rights as a former statesman, the latter on the other hand says that the former president doesn't behave like an elder statesman. And that until Mr. Rawlings behaves like a former head of state he will struggle through international immigration controls as any ordinary Ghanaian, he will have his personal security detail withdrawn; plans to honour him at 'independent' Ghanaian institutions will be cancelled at very short notice and many more. In other parts of the world, former presidents are feted as elder statesmen. They contribute to national debates and assist their various states in whichever way they can. This generalisation doesn't apply in the African situation. Perhaps the only exceptions will be found in countries such as South Africa, Senegal, Botswana, Mauritius and Cape Verde. In the majority of African states there are two exit routes; a sitting president either dies in office (the case of Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo) and a successor is elected or the sitting president is chased out of office and if he is lucky enough to survive the bullets, heads into exile and might only return to his country in a flag draped casket.

In the West African sub-region, the hub of military adventurism, there are very few surviving former presidents. And in states where they exist, there might be some form of cordial relations between presidents and their predecessors. Liberia is Africa's oldest republic yet the only surviving former president, Mr.Charles Taylor with a $2million bounty on his head is hiding in Calabar, South-east Nigeria. In Ghana, the only surviving president after 48 years of independence is Mr. Rawlings. By embracing western democracy, it means that the list of former presidents will keep increasing. And for there to be peace and development in the various states of Africa, fomer and sitting presidents must co-operate to tackle the numerous problems facing the continent. But this co-operation is proving to be elusive. Recent developments in Ghana and some states in Africa prove this point.

In Zambia, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda was humiliated out of office, and Mr. Frederick Chiluba (who did it to Kaunda) has now become a victim himself. His immunity has been lifted and he is currently on trial before a magistrate's court for allegedly stealing $488,000 from state coffers when he was president of Zambia. Mr. Levy Mwanawasa, the current president of Zambia who was Mr. Chiluba's vice president is working hard to recover any asserts stashed overseas by Mr.Chiluba and other former government officials. As long as these charges stay, it means that Mr.Chiluba and his one time second in command can't have a cordial working relation. In neighbouring Malawi, the story is the similar. Former friends have over night become 'enemies'. When Dr.Bingu wa Mutharika (the current president of Malawi) took over from Dr. Bakili Muluzi, he promised the former president special treatment in the following words;

“Let me assure you, Mr. President, that my administration will be a model in Africa on how presidents relate to former presidents. I will not allow what is happening in other countries to happen here. African leaders must respect ex-leaders”. Less than a year, the president and the ex-president have spectacularly fallen out with each other. With the president quoted as saying that “my predecessor, Dr.Muluzi, thought l will be his puppet, kowtowing to his whims. When he realised l was not the puppet he thought l would be he tried to start turning everyone against me”. In fact the situation in Malawi has deteriorated further to extend that the president has left the ruling party and is forming his own party. In Sierra Leone, the 'boy' that shocked the world in1992 (Captain Valentine Strasser, aged 25) by becoming the youngest head of state is complaining that the government has refused to pay him the benefits due to former presidents. The fact is that Mr. Strasser was never elected.

The interesting thing about the Zambia and Malawi examples cited above, is that these sitting and ex-presidents were once very close mates, and both presidents were hand picked by their predecessors. There are some few good examples of ex-presidents and sitting presidents working closely together on national issues. In South Africa, Botswana, Senegal, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Tanzania, Namibia, and even the mighty Nigeria which has a lot of former military dictators, there is some semblance of co-operation between former soldiers who once toppled each other's government. In Ghana, we have just one surviving ex- president in the person of Mr. Rawlings, yet there is so much 'bad blood' between our foremost statesmen.

The general believe is that in all democracies there is freedom of expression and all those within such democracies have the right to express their opinion on whatever issue. And Ghana being a democracy anybody regardless of their status in the Ghanaian society can express their opinion on any issues without been harassed. The issue of freedom of expression was employed by some Ghanaians in justifying their arguments that the former president did nothing wrong. Of course, they are right in that context, but the issue at the centre of this latest controversy is “Kufuor nie, Atta Ayi nie”. A thief in Africa whether known or unknown is somebody society frowns at and nobody wants that title. In African culture an elder, rich or poor is accorded maximum respect and most often elders are not criticise openly let alone calling an elder a thief. Some people have argued that by accepting western democracy Africa has traded off part of it unique culture. But the things that differentiate a Ghanaian from a British, is not so much of colour, but the unique Ghanaian features such as respect for the elder. The utterances of the ex-president elsewhere would not have called for any “Pastoral Letter” but in Africa it's certainly an issue. Even in Botswana the stabliest of all democracies in Africa in 1995 a hospital worker, Mr. Malaki max Sekwele was put on trail for calling the then president Sir Quett Ketumile Masire a “zombie” during a political rally. He was charged with “uttering words with intent to bring into ridicule the standard of the president of Botswana”. The above point is a further illustration that no matter the country, whether under democratic or military rule respect for the elder is an African virtue that must be accorded at all times. Of course, l am not by this implying that when African leaders err in the decision making process they shouldn't be criticise. No! Criticisms are different from raw insults. It will be in the interest of the nation if for instance Mr. Rawlings were be criticising government policies on health, education and so on. Ghanaians will frown in situations were raw insults are directed against leaders and no alternative suggestions.

The single most important issue that is making it very difficult for some presidents and their predecessors to work together is corruption. In Africa the general belief is that most former presidents are “thieves”. This assertion is backed by the fact about 65% of ex-presidents were found to have abused their offices when they stayed too long in power. An outstanding example such as the Leopard skin man, Mr.Mobutu's 30 years reign netted him $5billion. Another notorious ex-leader Sani Abacha used his five years in power to loot about $2.2billion. The longer a leader stays in office, the greater the chances of such a leader contracting that dreadful 'disease' called Kleptomania. Mr.Paul Biya of Cameroon has extended his 22 years grip on power with yet another seven years. In oil rich Gabon, president Omar Bongo has been on the 'throne' for the past 37 years and there are no signs that he is about to give up. If presidents Biya and Bongo were to hand over power to elected successors and not their children they will definitely be asked to give an account of the over 20 years in power. What is clear is that most new leaders get elected into office campaigning to address corruption. President Kufuor promised to tackle corruption head on in his “Zero Tolerance for corruption” speech and Ghanaians are expecting him to rid Ghana of corruption. The close to 20 years rule of the PNDC/NDC recorded some corruption cases. There are rumours of former ministers with properties scattered all around Ghana. The former president has found himself at the centre of a major investigation under taken by supposedly government paid journalists. Most Ghanaians don't believe a word of Mr. Rawlings when says that he has no foreign accounts and no ill gotten properties. With the conviction of some former cabinet colleagues of Mr. Rawlings there is the suspicion of massive corruption within the former government.

Journalists are travelling to Switzerland in their numbers, the latest batch has just returned to Ghana. They are all trying to unlock the secret vault containing the alleged booty of the Rawlings family. Besides individual journalists, it has been alleged that the government has contracted some security firms to track down Mr.Rawlings off shore accounts. Despite all these efforts, so far nothing concrete has come up. But the belief that Mr. Rawlings and his cronies might have dipped their hands into the national coffers still lingers on. This process of searching for the alleged stolen monies to the critics of the former president makes him a damaged good and therefore he has no moral authority to talk about corruption let alone criticise government.

Besides corruption, some ex-presidents poor human rights record also sometimes makes these ex-presidents not accorded the status they deserve. After evading arrest in Ghana on war crimes charges, if Mr.Taylor ever makes back to Liberia a live he will not be welcome with roses but will definitely be arrested on sight. During his presidency he sent many of his opponents into exile and created hundreds of thousands of refugees. The former Chadian leader Hissene Habre is another example. Again most of these ex-leaders were forced to hand over power to elected successors. Their unwillingness to leave office in the first place creates the enmity between such leaders and their successors.

The sum total of all the above is what is causing the strained relations between the ex-president and his successor. With close to 20 years as the ruler of Ghana Mr. Rawlings couldn't solve most of the problems he is most vocal about today; corruption, injustice, dishonesty, high cost of living and lack of probity. Now that the former president is out of his favourite castle he could be acting as an advisor to the government. After all Ghana belongs to all of us and not to any single individual or party. Ghanaians will welcome constructive criticisms on national issues from the former president. But the habit of criticising every government policy without giving alternatives breeds suspicion. A good example comes from South Africa. The HIV/AIDS crisis in that country didn't start with the Mbeki government, the problem was there when Mr. Mandela was in office. But he has criticised some policies of his successor and to make up for some of the problems he couldn't solve whilst in office he has established a foundation to assist HIV/AIDS victims. This is what should be happening in Ghana and in fact the whole of Africa where former and sitting presidents can work together on national issues. The external conditions which made it difficult for the former president to govern effectively are the same conditions working against Mr.Kufuor.

The IMF/WORLD BANK where the NDC government received their tuition from are the same bodies that the NPP government is dealing with. Both leaders have common enemies and these should include endemic poverty, high illiteracy, and those international systems that invested interest in keeping Ghana underdeveloped. These are the issues that matter most to Ghanaians;”Kufuor nie” and “undesirable elements” will not feed hungry Ghanaians, will not increase the salaries of teachers and nurses, will not provide portable drinking water, will not take the hundreds of children off the streets of Accra and Kumasi, and neither will such utterances create wealth for the millions of Ghanaians.

Transparency in government is the most important factor that will determine the life of a former president. African leaders who abuse their office will definitely be made to give an account. Now is the time for the former president to make up for all those toes he stepped on in the course of discharging his duties as a leader. Good relations must be maintained at all times to ensure peace and development. And by accepting western democracy, it therefore means that every four to fives years there will be a new face joining the ranks of former African presidents. African presidents are not Kings and Queens, and must therefore learn to hand over power to elected successors and be able to maintain good brotherly relations for the interest of our various states. A minority of Ghanaians would want to see Mr. Rawlings in Nsawam. Dr. Hilla Limann was never accorded the status he deserved and was sent to his grave as a poor man. If today Mr. Rawlings enjoys the status of an ex-president, that is the power of democracy. There is still a lot the former president can offer Ghana and insults shouldn't be part of that. The relations between Mr. Rawlings and the presidents should be cordial. Ghana should be a model on the African continent. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

George Bob-Milliar
George Bob-Milliar, © 2005

The author has 3 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: GeorgeBobMilliar

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