On January 19, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that she would not seek re-election and would resign by February 7 at the latest.
Ardern admitted that “Tank wasn’t good enough anymore” to justify “the most privileged job anyone could have.”
To this end, she listed her accomplishments and promised to “try to find a way to continue working for New Zealand”.
While some claimed she resigned simply because she knew she could not win the next election, many applauded her for recognizing her limitations, and her country’s interests. She said her ability to put others before herself was inspiring.
When I saw President Ardern’s resignation speech on television, I too was struck by his generous leadership and selflessness.
Unfortunately, President Ardern is an exception. Leaders rarely resign voluntarily. Let alone admit that you may not have “enough funds” to justify an arguably demanding job.
Even the most hopelessly incompetent and politically spent among them rarely accept that it’s time they call it quits. They cling to power even after it becomes clear that they have nothing left to offer the people and that they cannot win free and fair elections.
This lack of self-awareness, often fueled by selfishness, illusions of grandeur and an insatiable thirst for power, is firmly embedded in the fabric of politics everywhere.
In fact, politicians who seek to cling to power at all costs are not the product of any particular region. How Britain’s Boris Johnson refused to resign in the face of countless humiliating scandals and plummeting public confidence, or how Donald Trump desperately took power after losing the White House to Joe Biden. Remember how you tried to keep it.
But seeing Ardern gracefully and honorably bow out of politics made me think mostly of Africa. Africa, for lack of a better word for modern ‘clingy’ leaders, is my homeland, producing the most leaders in the world.
Take Uganda’s 78-year-old President Yoweri Museveni, for example.
After six presidential terms, or 37 years in power, he remains indifferent to suggestions that he might be better off handing the job over to someone more capable.
Under Museveni’s watch, more than half of Uganda’s 45 million people fell into poverty. Today, about 60% of Ugandans earn only his 200,000 Ugandan shillings ($54,74) a month and 42.1% experience multidimensional poverty.
In December 2022, Museveni tried to defend his long tenure as president in an interview with Al Jazeera, claiming that “every five years he is backed by the people.”
Of course, Uganda has not had peaceful and credible elections in over 20 years, so his professed democratic powers are highly questionable. Uganda’s presidential elections in 2001, 2006, 2012, 2016 and 2021 have all been tainted by government-orchestrated repression and violence, as well as serious election fraud.
Museveni continues to “lead” Uganda not because he is the best person for the job or because he still has something to offer the country. He still occupies the presidency because he cannot admit his limitations.
And sadly, he is not the only one among his African peers to cling to power at great cost to his people.
Take Paul Biya, the 89-year-old president of Cameroon, who has been in power since 1982.
A video of the elderly leader appearing very disoriented went viral on social media before speaking at the US-Africa Summit in Washington DC on January 20.
In the video, Biya, who struggles to remember clearly why she’s on stage, says: So I became a celebrity,” and ask, “Who are all the people here?” When the aide says that there are people waiting for his speech, he replies, “Are there any important people among them?” It takes him considerable time to gather wisdom as the audience waits in stunned silence.
This shocking and embarrassing incident has once again confirmed that Biya, who has been Cameroon’s president for 41 years, is no longer fit for office.
During his seven-term presidency, Biya ruled Cameroon with an iron fist, essentially criminalizing those who opposed his rule. Today, he’s clearly not in control of anything, but he still refuses to resign. He seems unwilling to admit that he “doesn’t have enough in the tank” to fulfill his most basic responsibilities as president.
What more could he do for his country as he prepares for his 90th birthday in February?
The same is true for Teodoro Obiang Nugema from Equatorial Guinea, Dennis Sass from the Republic of the Congo and Isaias Afwerki from Eritrea.
Thankfully, Africa also has leaders who know perfectly well when to quit.
Take Ketumire Masile, the second president of Botswana.
Like Biya and Museveni, Masile rose to power in the 1980s. At that time, much of Africa was ruled by the so-called “strong men”. However, unlike many of his peers, Masile has proven to be a highly effective leader during his 18 years in power. Under his administration, Botswana has established one of the most stable democracies and best performing economies in the world.
However, despite his many successes, Masire did not seek to stay in power indefinitely. In 1988, at the end of his third term as president, he retired from politics and ceded the reins of his country to his Festus Mogae. Botswana is still considered a beacon of economic and democratic development today, thanks to Masiré’s outstanding leadership during a key period in the country’s history.
Of course, Botswana is not the only African country to benefit from a leader who knew when to retire. Ghana, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Namibia and others have also undergone regular and seamless leadership changes that have helped ensure stable democracies.
None of these examples, however, seem to register with the rest of Africa’s magnates, who show no tendency to voluntarily relinquish power, even in the twilight of their lives.
As the international community celebrates Ardern’s many achievements and congratulates her for knowing her limits, Biya, Moseveni, and others like them should take heed.
Knowing the end of the day is an important part of being a great leader. Ardern knows this clearly and brilliantly. It’s time some of her African counterparts learned that too.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial attitude of Al Jazeera.