As August begins and many Washingtonians leave the city’s notorious humidity, a remarkable group of people will be arriving. Next week, one thousand emerging African leaders will gather in our nation’s capital as part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, an effort that began in 2010 and has aimed to strengthen bonds between the United States and Africa’s next generation of leaders, and further enhance their leadership skills.
The gathering comes at a time when many Africans are asking questions about those charged with leading their countries.
Some of those questions concern the remarkable staying power of aging leaders. Ninety-three year-old Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, in office for thirty-seven years, often gets the most attention given his age, but he is only the third longest-serving head of state on the continent. Equitorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos have both been in office for almost thirty-eight years. In fact, the four longest serving leaders in the world are in Africa, as are seven of the top ten. This is all the more striking given that Africa has the youngest population in the world, with an average age of nineteen.
It may be no coincidence that the countries that these long-serving leaders rule—Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon (led by Paul Biya , in office for thirty-five years) and Sudan (led by Omar al-Bashir, in power for twenty-eight years)—are some of the most troubled in Africa. Their leaders have done little to develop strong institutions of accountability or advance transparency, and have over many years in office used the state to serve their purposes and enrich their inner circles that support their hold on power.
These countries are robbed of the benefits of regular leadership rotation, which refreshes democratic institutions, creates opportunities for greater diversity in government and for new generations to rise, and holds leaders accountable since they know they will leave office when their term ends.
In several countries, long-serving leaders have recently changed the rules of the game concerning term limits in order to extend their stay. Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, already in office for seventeen years, oversaw a referendum to change term limits that could allow him to stay in office until 2034. In neighboring Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza successfully evaded term limits built into the peace agreement that ended Burundi’s civil war, which led directly to a new crisis and violence that has forced more than four hundred thousand people to flee the country.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, President Joseph Kabila is also working to evade term limits. Elections were scheduled for 2016, but Kabila’s strategy of glissement—essentially slowing the political process and putting many obstacles in the way of elections—has kept him in office despite widespread desire for change among Congolese. Congo has the largest land mass in sub-Saharan Africa and borders nine countries; as witnessed during Congo’s devastating civil war that killed an estimated five million people in the 1990s and 2000s, political instability there can have wide-ranging consequences.
Despite these efforts, it is important to note that African citizens strongly support term limits. Surveys by the Afrobarometer across several dozen African countries show that about seventy-five percent of respondents support a two-term limit for their leaders.
These aging leaders’ grip on power stands in sharp contrast to the young profile of the continent. Measured by the percentage of population under eighteen, twenty-eight of the thirty youngest countries in the world are in Africa. In many of those countries, a large portion of the population has known only one head of state. When leaders and those around them refuse to cede power, opportunities for young leaders to emerge and develop their skills are limited, leading some to seek opportunities abroad.
To be sure, there are countries and regions in Africa that have overcome strongman, personalist rule. Across West Africa, following the ouster of long-serving and erratic Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh, there now appears to be an institutional commitment to term limits, backed by populations who would reject any efforts to alter them.
Nor are these challenges unique to Africa. In Central Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere, countries are encumbered by the grip of long-serving leaders and their families. By comparison, democratic norms are more developed in much of Africa.
The young African leaders, formally known as the Mandela Washington Fellows , soon to arrive in Washington, DC are determined to see their countries succeed. They are twenty-five to thirty-five years of age and come from every country in sub-Saharan Africa. They are serving their countries, whether in national or local government, in the private sector or leading nonprofits. Eventually, their generation is going to take over from the aging leaders, and they will work to build the institutions and strengthen the democratic norms that are the foundation of free and prosperous societies. Such change is in the interest of the United States: America will benefit enormously from a more prosperous, stable and democratic Africa. Even more so, it is in the interest of Africans.
Kristin Lord is president of the international education and development organization IREX, which implements the Mandela Washington Fellowship program in partnership with the U.S. State Department and USAID. Jon Temin is director of policy and research at the Enough Project and a former member of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff.