Former British MP and minister Chris Mullin discusses the enduring trend of despotic African leaders clinging to power, while also recognizing Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano as a remarkable exception.

Some years ago, at an African Union conference in Addis Ababa, I heard the then UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, say to an audience stuffed with life presidents: “One of the tests of leadership is knowing when to leave the stage.” All the big offenders were present—Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe, Omar Bongo from Gabon, Teodoro Obiang from Equatorial Guinea and Yoweri Museveni from Uganda. They sat stony-faced amid much nervous foot-shuffling and laughter as the chairman, the former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano (one of the few African leaders who stood down when his time was up,) pointed at them and said, “And we all know who Kofi was talking about, don’t we?” It was an electric moment.

Despotic African leaders cling to power through manipulation, repression, and corruption, disregarding democratic principles and citizen welfare. Joaquim Chissano, President of Mozambique (1986-2005,) notably transitioned Mozambique from turmoil to democracy, shifting from communism to capitalism. His post-presidential roles as a respected elder statesman and diplomat underscore his exceptional leadership. This peaceful transfer of leadership demonstrated the maturity and resilience of Mozambique’s democratic institutions, setting a powerful example for the African continent and beyond.

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