World Politics & Affairs

Unseating Africa’s Incumbents: Myth or Possibility?

Becoming president is, without a doubt, the dream of many African youths. But how realistic is this dream? How achievable? Leaders who overstay in power have made the idea of political succession in Africa seem like a fallacy.

In a continent with most of the longest serving, and certainly the oldest leaders in the world, questioning the level of youth participation in democratic processes is inevitable. But such questions are rather trounced by cheap political narratives tailored by those controlling the politics of the day. Some analysts have described the general democratic environment in Rwanda as hostile. In the just concluded August 4 presidential election which saw incumbent President Paul Kagame win a third term with over 98%, the outcome was predictable.

No politician opposed to the status quo stood any chance.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame (Incumbent).

Diane Rwigara, a youthful and only woman to declare her presidential ambitions, bowed out after, barely a week from the time of her announcement, nude photos of her were published online. Philippe Mpayimana, an independent candidate and Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda who appeared on the ballot, also recieved their share of intimidation and suffered the wrath of government manipulation; particularly, a gagged media.

It is noted that President Paul Kagame’s bid to stand faced criticism. But then, in 2015, a nationwide referendum was held, and the president won the exercise with over 98%, amidst many critics questioning the process’s legitimacy. And although the 2017 Rwanda election was largely peaceful, incidents in which fundamental freedoms were curtailed, assassinations of anti-government agents which went uninvestigated and cases of political witch-hunt, have been cited. President Paul Kagame has ruled the small East African country, widely known for the 1994 genocide, since 2000.

In Kenya, where incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta also retained his seat with over 54%, his main challenger, who garnered 45%, claimed the election process was a fraud. Hours before the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC) declared the August 8 poll results, Raila Odinga, backed by his National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition members, issued a statement alleging that the IEBC database had been hacked into.

President Uhru Kenyatta of Kenya (Incumbent).

IEBC admitted attempts to hack into their system, but emphasized that the attempts had not succeeded. NASA would later disregard these comments and request that their flag bearer, Raila Odinga be declared winner, which would cause tension and uncertainty This culminated in several deaths soon after the results were announced. The announcement, which favoured the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, sparked violent protests in places like Kisumu and Mathare.

At least 24 lives were lost.

As if the violence was anticipated, weeks before the election, hundreds fled to neighboring Uganda and Congo. There were also reports that over 180,000 policemen were deployed countrywide. Not forgetting the mysterious death of a security minister, Joseph Nkaissery and the brutal assassination of Chris Musando, the country’s electoral body official.

Fears of Kenya drifting into the 2007 post-election violence, in which over 1000 people died, were apparent. This uncertainty was quenched by opposition’s decision to denounce violence and, instead, challenge the results in court.

Post-election Violence in Kenya, 2007. Hundreds of people were killed in the aftermath of a controversial presidential election.

On September 1, Kenya’s Supreme Court ruled that the election was marred by irregularities and illegalities, and that the integrity of the August 8 election was questionable.  David Maraga, Kenya’s Chief Justice ordered that fresh polls be organized within sixty days.

In South Africa, efforts to impeach President Jacob Zuma have been ongoing. Following a secret ballot held on August 8th, the speaker of the South African parliament declared that opposition members’ motion to impeach Zuma had failed. 177 members had voted in favour of the motion and 198 against it.

Zuma, who has been accused of rampant corruption and ‘serious misconduct’ since his ascension to office in 2009, has survived several impeachment procedures, but his popularity has continued to shrink. In 2016, he narrowly lost the big seat over allegations of financial mismanagement. In a highly anticipated ruling, the South African high court declared him guilty of spending government revenue to renovate his private multi-million dollar home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-natal.

Although President Zuma pledged to respect the ruling and to refund some of the $23 million, his pledge has not yet been fulfilled.

His last term in office expires in 2019.

In Uganda, the succession debate is beginning to boil. With the age limit amendment bill allegedly in the offing, several opposition parties, like the Democratic Party (DP), have launched various campaigns against any possibility to amend the Uganda constitution’s Article 102 (b) in favour of 71 year old President Yoweri Museveni. Article 102 (b) sets the age limit for a presidential aspirant at 75.


In anticipation of a move by National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, which has governed since 1986, to table a bill that will safeguard the eligibility of self-acclaimed Pan-Africanist and guerrilla revolutionary to stand for his sixth term in 2021, the Democratic Party has launched a civic campaign dubbed, ‘K’ogyikwatako’.

Despite such warnings, there’s increasing certainty among the public that the opposition’s efforts are in vain, following the president’s remarks that the on-going debate was time-wasting. Much as the idea of political succession and defeating incumbent presidents in Africa has failed in many countries, there are isolated cases where the latter have lost.

The transition process often makes things complicated, for instance in 2016, when former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh lost to the now President Adama Barrow, Jammeh conceded, only to make a shocking U-turn that would cause tension in this tiny West African country. It took the intervention of Senegal– Senegal not only offered refuge to the justified winner; it also facilitated his private swearing in ceremony at the Gambian Embassy in Dakar and sent its troops into Gambia to safeguard the installation of the newly elected leader, Barrow.

Nevertheless, there are success stories.

The 2016 Ghana election saw the defeat of incumbent president John Mahama, who conceded gracefully. The latter, in a concession speech issued shortly after congratulating his opponent, now President Nana Addo Dankwa Addo, said: “So I pray that we move forward, even as we voice our differences and possibly even disagree on agendas and decisions and other details of governance, we always keep in mind the fact of our shared destiny…”


In the 2015 Nigeria election, former president, Goodluck Jonathan also lost to President Muhammadu Buhari and conceded. That being the first time an opposition party had defeated a ruling party in this oil-rich and most populous African nation, the sign of concession pointed towards a maturing democratic dispensation.

Tanzania witnessed a retiring head of state in 2015, when their 10 year-long serving president, Jakaya Kikwete went into retirement, giving way for John Pombe Magufuli to also vie.

Unlike some African leaders who opt for constitution amendments, Mr. Kikwete said, “I was given the opportunity, and for 10 years I worked to the best of my ability to build our nation. Time has now come for me to leave the country peacefully to the next leader.”

58 year old President Pombe Magufuli won the vote with over 58%.

With these scenarios, one may realize that perhaps, democracy in Africa is that bumpy road that requires patience, resilience and determination. The possibility of defeating an incumbent in Africa remains mysterious, partly because in many instances, incumbents control state institutions, like the army, judiciary, revenue and even electoral systems. This is the case in countries like Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and Sudan.

Until national laws and electoral regulations are harmonized, the electorate sensitized, and citizens’ and their leaders’ priorities refocused towards a collective agenda, the issue of undeafeatability will continue to thrive.

Regional blocs have also proved to foster prosperous economic relations and good governance. African regional bodies like COMESA, SADC, EAC and African Union (AU), if reinforced, have the potential to ensure smooth democratic transition within member African states.

By Simpson Muhwezi

He loves telling stories about Africa.

1 reply on “Unseating Africa’s Incumbents: Myth or Possibility?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.