ALGERIA’S 79-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been in and out of French hospitals several times the last four years. He is rarely seen in public these days.
In the midst of opposition clamour and signs that he might be on the way out, the ailing Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999, won a controversial presidential vote in 2014 with an eyebrow-raising 82%.
From his wheelchair, and behind the curtains, he maintains a firm grip and feverish speculation about his exit has died down.
To his credit, though, Bouteflika has kept Algeria together, and his rule has seen its economy continuing to grow. He has also ruthlessly beaten down the scourge of terrorism more successfully than most leaders in North Africa.
The same cannot be said of Zimbabwe’s 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe. Not only is the third longest-serving African president soon notching nearly 37 years in power, he is also the oldest national leader in the world. And unlike Bouteflika, he has wrecked his once-promising nation in almost all ways.
MUGABE RUMOUR MILL
Also, the signs of fraility have been very public, with fainting spells, falls, and stumbles. The Mugabe death rumor mill, and the denials of the nonagenarian’s demise or sickness, form the most vibrant sector of Zimbabwean public life.
But amidst the intense factional wars in his ruling ZANU-PF, and the ever-mounting economic and social problems, Mugabe is like the monster in the movies that won’t stay down.
His wife, Grace Mugabe, seen as one of the possible claimants to the throne should he finally bow out, and some hardline supporters, have said even if he is half-dead, they will carry him in a wheelbarrow to the next election in 2018, when he will be nearly 95.
That means Mugabe would have a shot at turning 100 while he’s still a president.
Leaders like Mugabe and Bouteflika survive, in part because after so many years in politics they learn a few handy survival tricks, but mostly their seeming senility and physical incapacitation becomes an asset at some point.
Few independence parties in Africa, the few exceptions being the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), Tanzania’s Cha Cha Mapinduzi (Party of Revolution or CCM), the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), and Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN) have survived the death of their founding fathers.
Even more notable, none of them has ever lost power, and been able to regain it again in a free vote. The impending departure of their president is therefore usually an existential threat, and focuses minds in these parties in ways that most of their rivals often underestimate at their peril.
‘GOOD’ TO BE SENILE
The interest of the parties, therefore, is to keep the leader on, even if he is a comatose state, because it is always a safer option.
The situation, as in Zimbabwe, is also good for the party factions. Because they are unable to push back much because of their fraility, the factions usually take advantage to amass power and grab wealth in corrupt deals, without taking political responsibility for the mess, and giving themselves time to size each up for the inevitable battle for succession.
The aging big man becomes the perfect scapegoat, taking blame for everything, enabling the faction leaders to shift to new political alliances in future, or present themselves as the reformists of their party by distancing themselves from its tainted past when he’s gone.
This might explain why the only thing that never happens in Africa is a premature official announcement of the death of a national leader.
From way back with Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, to more recent years with the death of Nigeria’s president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2010, and Malawi’s president Bingu wa Mutharika in 2012, the announcement always comes days after the actual departure of the head of state.
Thus while the wider country always demands an active leader who is in charge, ruling parties (especially old authoritarian ones) often like them old and infirm. Leaders like Mugabe, once they have been in power long enough, frequently become some like a well-aged wine to the party factions, and enjoy more job security than outsiders imagine.