Leadership alternation in East Africa?

One of the biggest challenges for the institutionalization of democracy in Africa has been that leaders, once in power, have refused to leave. Several hypotheses abound for this epidemic of presidential inertia — unlike in rich democracies, the prospects for maintaining a decent lifestyle drop precipitously once out of office because there are so few opportunities for lectures, books, or cushy seats on corporate boards ; friends and family depend on the largesse associated with power; and so on. At the extreme, there’s Robert Mugabe, who has hung around more than three decades.

As a result, various organizations have tried to induce African presidents to leave office gracefully — for example Mo Ibrahim’s award for good governance. (Unfortunately, he’s had a tough time finding suitable candidates for the award, because too few presidents have met the criteria of leaving office within term limits and demonstrating excellence.)

But the East African is reporting that four Presidents from the region — in Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda — seem inclined to respect their term limits. The departures are not quite imminent, as the timetable for this group extends out all the way to 2017. Nonetheless, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is stating explicitly that he will not try to pull a Museveni and re-write the constitution to stay in power. This type of signaling bodes well for the institutionalization of democratic norms — specifically the norm to respect the constitution and rules of conduct more generally, and should help to inspire others to do the same.

That said, making promises is one thing, keep them is another.