The Politics of Power Transition

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Power is transient. Despite this ancient and eternal truth, transition of power from an incumbent to a successor can be quite complex. Very few can be as seamless as that in Mauritius on Monday January 23. Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth, 86, told his fellow citizens that his age can no longer bear the weight of his office. He called his 55-year old son, Pravind Jugnauth, who is also the Finance Minister and handed over to him. This is a father-to-son deal which is usual in a monarchy, not a ‘democracy’

Usually the non-complicated transitions are those like Mauritius where an incumbent choses his successor. Perhaps the easiest possible transition will be in Nicaragua where former liberation fighter, Daniel Ortega has installed his wife, Rosario Murillo as Vice President following the November 2016 democratic elections in which the couple secured over 70 percent of the votes. Barring any domestic hiccups, power will simply flow from husband to wife as happens in many family businesses. Ortega may be following in the footsteps of Argentina President Juan Peron who in his third term in 1973, got his third wife, Isabela Peron elected as Vice President. When on June 28, 1974, Peron suffered a series of heart attacks, Isabela the First Lady, was secretly sworn in. Three days later when Peron died, his wife who had already taken the oath of office was simply pronounced President.

The transition drama we have witnessed in the last one week include the one in the Gambia where the incumbent rejected his successor. In a case of trying to kill a fly with a sledge hammer, West African countries sent troops rumbling into the tiny country from the north, east and west, with naval blockade in the south and air power in the sky. Military might was the midwife of the Gambian transition and the world seems happy. Even the successor, Adama Barrow who had been as quiet as a mouse, suddenly became lionized; he said he will not live in the same country as his successor, Yahya Jammeh. So you have the scenario of one Gambian ordering his fellow citizen to get out of the country. This gives credence to the African proverb that says if a dog has human backing, it can kill a monkey. The assurances of the United Nations, African Union and the Economic Community of West African States that they will fully guarantee the dignity, security, safety and rights of Jammeh, seem to have evaporated. I will not be surprised if Jammeh is haunted in exile, and his extradition sought. One lesson from Gambia is that it is a crime to be tiny territory which can easily be squeezed. If a Nigerian or South African President were to reject a transition as Jammeh did, I doubt whether a regional force will be quickly put together or troops invade without challenge.

The day after Gambia swore in a new President in neigbouring Senegal, the United States put up a spectacular transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. I wondered what was going on in Obama’s mind as he led his successor from the White House to the inauguration grounds. They were two men of contrast, and Obama, despite his outward civility, was aware that Trump was a nemesis; an unapologetic megalomania who is bent on undoing many of his legacies like the Obamacare. Trump had the advantage of being the incoming President and although he would not have been comfortable with Obama who has a low opinion of him, he knew he had to stomach the last hours of the transition. The inauguration was a choreograph where a Mitchell Obama with not too modern ideas of etiquette had to keep up with Melania Trump a lady of the free spirit ‘Facebook’ age.

While the Obamas and Trumps were on their way to the inauguration ground, the streets of Washington were exploding with violent protests. There are no reported shootings at those protests nor the larger ones across America which came the day after inauguration. Ironically, where there were shootings on Inauguration Day was in Nigeria where the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) staged rallies supposedly to welcome Trump to the White House. Since transition, Trump has resumed his battles particularly against the press. The take-off point were media reports that Trump’s inauguration crowds were significantly lower than those of Obama eight years before. Reince Priebus, Trump Chief of Staff responded “The point is not the crowd size. The point is the attacks and the attempt to delegitimize this President.”

There are also assumed transitions. For instance when Togolese President Gnasingbe Eyadema died on February 5, 2005 after 38 years in office, his sons, Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe, the Minister of Equipment, Mines, Posts and Telecommunication, took over. Constitutionally, the National Assembly President was supposed to act for 60 days within which elections were to hold. But Faure pushed National Assembly President, Fambare Ouattara Natchaba aside and took over. When there were grumblings, the Army asked Natchaba to resign and allow Faure to legally take over. Within twenty four hours of the President’s demise, the National Assembly was instructed to impeach its President so that the constitutional provisions of transition could be circumvented. The Assembly did, and even amended the constitution to enable Faure complete his father’s term, rather than new elections being held within sixty days as constitutionally required.
Three years before Eyadema passed away, the constitutional age limit of 45 years for the Presidency was reduced to 35 years to enable the then 36-year old Faure eligible to be President.

Following in the father-son transition, was Omar Bongo of Garbon who after 42 years in office, passed away in 2009. An internal struggle to replace their father was said to have raged between the daughter, Pascaline who was Director of the Presidential Cabinet, and son, Ali who was Defence Minister. The latter won and was elected on August 30, 2009 to replace his father.

There have been shocking transitions where none was expected. That was the case of Pope Benedict XVI who like his predecessors was expected to remain in office until death do him part. But on February 11, 2013, the Papacy announced the Pope’s intention to abdicate, which he did seventeen days later.

One power transition long expected is that of 90-year old Queen Elizabeth II who became Queen at 25 and has been on the throne for 65 years. Not a few around the world expect her to handover the throne to the 68-year old heir apparent, Charles, Prince of Wales, but ‘Mama Charlie’ as Nigerians call her, has remained Queen despite her failing health.

All power is transient, but the transition to a successor, is coloured by politics, or settled by nature.

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