On February 15, First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon announced that she would resign as first minister and SNP leader as soon as a successor was elected.
Her exit was said to be unexpected, with residents of her constituency calling the announcement “a real shock” and saying “there (had been) no hint”, according to Guardian. She said her decision had come after "a deeper and longer-term assessment". As speculators insisted she had bowed to pressure over her government’s gender reforms, she became the latest national leader to give up the top position unexpectedly.
On January 19, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern fought back tears as she announced her decision to resign, claiming she no longer had the requisite energy to keep going.
“I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility – the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple,” she said.
Two days before, the Vietnamese had seen their President Nguyen Xuan Phuc tender in his resignation letter, just two years after he took over the ceremonial position. Hot on his, and his party’s, heels were anti-corruption activists and agencies in a crackdown that targeted some key people who served under him when the 69-year-old was Prime Minister, between 2016 and 2021.
This one was somewhat expected. Two deputy prime ministers who served under him had swiftly exited amid the corruption investigations.
In Britain, a chaotic run of exits at No.10 Downing Street defined a most dramatic six years to 2022.
In 2016, then Prime Minister David Cameron called for a referendum on the (in)famous Brexit.
“Cameron hoped the vote in 2016 would end a civil war inside his own Conservative Party on Britain's relationship with Europe and keep the party in power,” wrote NPR. A flopped bid to keep Britain in the European Union, with the people voting for an exit by a narrow margin, sounded the death knell for Mr Cameron.
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Theresa May succeeded him but lost control of the house in a snap election in 2017, and the subsequent support of her Conservative Party, paving way for Brexit crusader Boris Johnson to take over leadership of the island nation in 2019.
But Boris would, in the wake of Covid-19, find himself under investigation for repeatedly flouting lockdown rules, and as confidence in his leadership faded, his trusted lieutenants exited in a haste. He was forced to resign in July 2022, and Liz Truss became the new premier. She was, however, out of office barely six weeks after her failed mini-budget, becoming the country’s shortest serving prime minister in history. Former chancellor of Treasury, Rishi Sunak, took over.
Closer home, iconic South Africa’s first black head of State Nelson Mandela resigned after only one term in office, between 1994 and 1999, and Thabo Mbeki ascended to the presidency.
Jose Eduardo dos Santos, former president of Angola who died last year after 38 years as president, resigned in August 2017. And in November of the same year, 93-year-old Robert Mugabe was pushed out of power after a 37-year reign as Zimbabwe’s president. Many months later, on February 14 2018, South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma stepped down as his party, the African National Congress (ANC) edged him out.
These latter three leaders were pushed out, leaving tarnished legacies and economic crises amid allegations of wanton corruption.
It is common for leaders in some parts of the world to resign when they feel their subjects no longer have confidence in them, or when they have faltered in a way that jeopardises the well-being of the public. Or when they feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities ahead of them.
In Africa, though, despotic leaders, people who have been presidents for decades and have run their countries’ coffers dry, are keen to cling onto power for as long as they can. Sometimes, for the entirety of their lifetimes.
Political commentator Tom Mboya says that the ability to make this decision comes with political maturity, which could take time in some democracies.
“You see a leader like Jacinda (Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister) has had tremendous leadership skills and guided her country in exemplary fashion through Covid-19 and other crises. She has been an effective and progressive leader throughout and has gone above and beyond what she was called to do. But it takes political maturity to give up, to leave leadership to someone who can carry on,” he says.
It will finally catch up with us here in Kenya, and in Africa, where leaders can easily exit once they feel they cannot offer the best there is to.
“Different countries evolve at a different pace politically, based on their political tradition and culture. Each country is unique and follows a unique political path,” he said.
But one of the reasons despotic leaders would be glad to groom their kin to inherit positions of power is the fear that newer faces they are not acquainted with could revisit instances of injustices and corruption and punish the corrupt, retired leaders.
“They want to be shielded from persecution in their retirement. That is one of the main reasons they want their family members to occupy the top seat,” says Njau Gitu, a governance, policy and strategy adviser.
Most of the leaders are under pressure from their cronies not to exit the position as it benefits their self-interests, says Dr Gitu.
“Our political culture does not encourage leaders to exit when unable to continue. Whoever is in leadership is there for their own interests and their cronies,” he says, adding that our political architecture is “very toxic”.
Strict observance of the constitution would eliminate these fears, he says. Mr Mboya agrees; corrupt leaders would be hauled out of office long before they left their positions to their preferred successors.
“As we better deal with corruption, holding on to power or having your offspring do so will no longer be a do or die situation,” says Mr Mboya.
Another reason leaders want to be in power forever is that politics has been made a most lucrative business in Kenya.
“People leave private practice to go into public office, to enrich selves. It should not be so, those going into public office should know they are only in pursuit of service,” he says.
“Sadly, we have created a situation that is simply not sustainable and encourages the pursuit of public office for purely financial and selfish gain. Why reward the self-seeking and avaricious gravitation towards public office? The very notion of ‘public service’ is rendered superfluous as professionals and the politically connected jostle for what are in many cases, the most lucrative jobs in the Kenyan market,” he says.
Dr Gitu says that African leaders lack “conscience in terms of honesty”. They are under pressure of not stepping down.
“See, Mandela and Nyerere (Julius, Tanzania’s first president) were under a lot of pressure from allies not to resign. But they left their positions. Long after, their parties are still ruling!”
In our local leadership, leaders who are unable to perform “hang in there whether people get service or not, and even when they are sickly”, he says.
Wagiita Theuri, an advocate, says that the cause of all this rot, and the core problem, is the electorate.
“We sing songs of praise to them even when they are wrong. We praise them unduly. We back mtu wetu (a political tag for a tribesman) even when we are the offended. Now that we over-glorify and overpraise them, why would they even think of quitting?”
Mr Theuri says that in those countries where leaders announce decisions to step down voluntarily, the offended do not side with their corrupt, or underperforming, leaders.
In those countries, the electorate does not side with the offenders.
The expectation here that a leader should soon be wealthy, with ridicule directed towards those that ascend to power but do not necessarily show immediate wealth, is motivation for them to loot for selfish gain.
Like happens in every representative democracy, the elected leaders are a representation of society, of their subjects.
“We have chosen the best amongst ourselves. And if those corrupt ones are our best, then the rest of us must be very rotten. Why would you expect us to complain, and them to resign?” he says.