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Reviewed by:
  • Legacies of Power: Leadership, Change, and Former Presidents in African Politics
  • John W. Harbeson
Roger Southall and Henning Melber , eds. 2006. Legacies of Power: Leadership, Change, and Former Presidents in African Politics. Uppsala, Sweden: Nordic Africa Institute. 350 pp. $24.95 (paper).

Legacies of Power is almost the first book-length examination of a routinely ignored but quite significant problem of contemporary politics: what role(s), if any, should former presidents or prime ministers play in the political life of their countries after they have left office or have been ousted from power? The British House of Lords is one of the few institutions in mature democracies that routinely provides formal political roles for former prime ministers after their days in the House of Commons are over. Elsewhere, only those with imagination and energy create post–head-of-government roles for themselves, most notably in the case of the former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who established the world-renowned Carter Center, and William Howard Taft, who became Chief Justice of the United States after he left the presidency.

Perhaps it is a waste of talent, energy, and experience that most former prominent presidents and prime ministers in mature democracies generally seem to fade into obscurity, but their presence rarely threatens political stability. In contrast, for fragile postindependence African states, particularly those that have become democratized or partially democratized, former presidents, prime ministers, and dictators may loom large. In retirement, they may have roles that weaken or strengthen the state itself, as well as democratic transitions. Contrast the positive influences of Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere with the corrupt networks of power left behind by Daniel arap Moi, that have bedeviled Kenya's troubled democratic transition. Residual loyalties to ousted presidents and ill-defined roles of presidents who leave office voluntarily complicate executive transitions in a continent accustomed to rule by "big men." Also, uncertainties about how ex-presidents and their followings will comport themselves have a bearing on the problem of presidential term limits.

Legacies of Power considers the lessons of 204 presidents and prime ministers who left office in sub-Saharan African between 1960 and 2004, exactly 20 percent of whom left office voluntarily or as a result of electoral defeat. It offers three general observations concerning these transitions. First, hybrid constitutions, blending elements of presidential and parliamentary democracies, leave the roles of former leaders ambiguous and controversial, the former implying full retirement and the latter better accommodating former leaders seeking to return to power. The ambiguity creates tensions between incumbent and former leaders. Second, Legacies contends that leaders who leave office voluntarily enjoy greater latitude in seeking to fashion constructive political roles for themselves, while those who are ousted are more constrained. Third, Legacies seems to suggest that the interests of stability may need to take precedence over seeking justice for former rulers' misdeeds. Roger Southall and his colleagues argue that "whatever the desirability of subjecting brutal and corrupt dictators to criminal proceedings, the [End Page 122] quickest and surest way to peace and stability may lie along the road, if not of forgiveness, then of bargained protection for the tyrant."

Legacies culls these observations from its case-study chapters, covering former presidents whose impacts on the politics of their countries and the continent have varied enormously, all controversial to varying degrees in one way or another, and none unqualifiedly positive. Julius Nyerere receives the best marks for encouraging democracy at home while supporting peacekeeping regionally during his postpresidency. Nelson Mandela's postpresidency receives good marks, his role viewed as "enormously constructive (but not always uncontroversial)," his success in conflict management elsewhere on the continent mixed. Charles Taylor receives the worst marks for his human-rights offenses and, as the book was written, a "poorly regulated exile," leaving him in a position potentially to wreak further havoc on Liberia and the region. Ketumile Masire receives a good review for his peacekeeping work, while Botswana's presidential transition processes have served mostly to "consolidate elite power." Robert Mugabe has already made himself indispensable, even before he leaves office, to those who have benefited from his patronage. Nigeria is unique in having many former heads of state...


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pp. 122-123
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