Emma Emeozor, [email protected]
The Japanese monarchy is one of the most revered royal institutions in the world. For the Japanese, the monarch is the symbol of the state. Indeed, he is seen as a god. He exercises unlimited powers over his domain.
Despite the enormous influence he enjoys, Akihito, the 125th Emperor of Japan, on April 30, 2019, voluntarily abdicated the throne for his 59-year-old son, Naruhito. After sitting on the throne for 30 years, the 85-year-old monarch bowed out to live a private life. In taking the decision, he took into cognisance several factors, particularly his age and health condition.
Akihito was a humble man who was not carried away by the paraphernalia of his office. He encouraged the advancement of democratic institutions and processes and was in touch with his subjects.
He is, however, not the first monarch in world history to voluntarily abdicate the throne. In many countries of the world, monarchs have resigned for various reasons. Fanfare and big headlines trailed Akihito’s resignation because he was the first to voluntarily abdicate the world’s oldest monarchy in 200 years.
But more importantly, his resignation sent a clear message to world leaders, particularly in Africa, to always remember the words of wisdom as contained in Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens; a time to be born and a time to die.”
For Akihito, leaders don’t need to wait to die on the throne when there are others to take the baton of leadership. He believes 30 years on the throne was enough. Put differently, a leader should be prepared to shape society such that successors are trained in advance to succeed them. Akihito was popular among his subjects and enjoyed unrestricted privileges. The office of the monarch is for a lifetime, yet he threw in the towel.
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on December 1, 2017, that the Emperor would abdicate on April 30, 2019, many received the news with mixed feelings. Some observers were skeptical. The thinking at the time was that the Emperor might rescind his decision. But they were wrong. Akihito stood by his words and kept to the time table of his exit. And he exited happily, convinced that he had taken the right decision and at the right time.
By voluntarily resigning, he has further endeared himself to the Japanese including anti-monarchy groups. He has left office at a time when he still had a sound mind. Though he handed over authority to his son in line with tradition, he would still be seen as the father of the nation.
It is instructive that Akihito did not just wake up and announce his decision to abdicate the throne. He followed due process, allowing a transition period during which the government, the people and his successor prepared. During this period, the royal family was able to gauge the tempo of the society as to the degree of acceptability of his son and necessary ‘amendments’ made in the lifestyle of the Crown Prince.
At 85, Akihito knew that the best role for him was that of counselling and mediating to ensure the peace, unity and development of his country was sustained. In other words, instead of staying put in power and relying on advisers and other aides, he chose to quit and play the role of a chief adviser to his son (successor), and political leaders.
Akihito’s exit came on the heels of the ignoble exit of two African leaders, even though they were not monarchs. Algeria’s former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika tendered his resignation after it dawned on him that the people were resolved not to accept his leadership anymore.
At 82, with ailing health following a stroke, Bouteflika refused to listen to the voice of wisdom and voluntarily quit. Apparently, he was a victim of a political class that was not willing to quit the corridors of power and was using him as a tool to make the people acquiesce to their plans. Today, Bouteflika has lost the glory he had earned as a veteran leader.
In Sudan, 75-year-old Omar al-Bashir transformed from a military dictator to a civilian president and for 30 years held the country hostage, believing that he was the only person qualified to rule.
Even when he and his team had run out of ideas, he refused to bow out. His was a leadership of wars, abuse of human rights, corruption and gangsterism. But legitimacy of power comes from the people (the electorate). Ii is a matter of time, and there must come a day when the power of the people will prevail, and that was exactly what happened when the Sudanese took to the streets to march against al-Bashir’s rule.
Ironically, the military that came in support of the protesters has seized power in disguise. It has become the pattern in Sudan for the military to wait till there are anti-government protests before it strikes and takes power. The ongoing standoff between the military and the protest leaders shows that the military in Africa is yet to align itself with modern practices, where the military remains apolitical.
Today, the question begging for answer is, when will democracy take root in Africa? Though African leaders claim to be democrats, in practice, they are totalitarians. They abhor any form of opposition or dissent. Every emerging leader eventually becomes power-drunk to the extent that every ploy is deployed to silence the opposition, civil society organisations and indeed the voice of wisdom.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has refused to quit. One of the reasons he gave for refusing to share power with General Tito Okello after the overthrow of President Milton Obote was that Okello was abusing human rights.
After seizing power and becoming president in 1986, he assured Ugandans that his regime was “not a mere change of guard, it is a fundamental change.”
He boasted that democracy would be restored in Uganda: “The people of Africa, the people of Uganda, are entitled to a democratic government. It is not a favour from any regime. The sovereign people must be the public, not the government.”
Apparently, still basking in his victory over Obote and Okello, Museveni lamented that, “The main problem in Africa is of leaders who do not want to leave power.”
Ironically, 30 years after becoming president, Museveni is still not done. Under his rule, Uganda has become unsafe for the opposition. His desperation to remain in power indefinite came to the fore in April when the Supreme Court upheld constitution amendments removing presidential age limits, thus giving Museveni the chance to contest presidential election in 2021. The president is currently serving his fifth term in office.
Birds of a feather flock together. Therefore, it was not surprising that Museveni was one of the African leaders that did not only defended Sudan’s ousted al-Bashir but gave him full protection against arrest by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In Cameroon, 86-year-old President Paul Biya is currently in his seventh term in office. The Cameroonian parliament, obviously under the influence of the presidency, amended the constitution to extend Biya’s tenure. Nicknamed ‘Absentee President’ because he is hardly seen in public due to his failing health, Biya has been in government since the era of the country’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo. He served as minister and prime minister before becoming president.
Similarly, 76-year-old Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of Equatorial Guinea, has been in power since 1979.
Mbasogo rules the country with an iron fist. Corruption is endemic in the country. His son and other family members have been enmeshed in various scandals within and outside the country, especially in the area of money laundering, extravagant lifestyles and abuse of power.
There is also 61-year-old Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who came to power in 2000. He had served as defense minister and vice president before becoming president. He is currently serving his third term in office and analysts have said he could rule until 2034.
The opposition has been practically silenced. Credited with ending the genocide that threw the country into war, Kagame has forgotten that it is more honourable to quit the stage when the ovation is loudest. It is hoped that he will not allow the political situation to degenerate to the level of conflict that will return the country to its dark past.
It may be argued that monarchs are not politicians and, therefore, are not involved in power struggle. This school of thought believes that political office holders are subject to periodic contests, in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. In other words, political leaders are free to contest and re-contest elections as long as the constitution allows them.
This argument is premised on the belief that depriving a person the chance of contesting elections because he has been in office for too long (several years) is tantamount to violating his fundamental rights.
Again, others have argued that, as long as there is peace and development, there is nothing wrong with a leader being in office for many years. Still, there have been arguments in favour of leaders considered to be ‘benevolent’ but unwilling to quit office.
Whatever be the arguments, the fact remains that nobody has a monopoly of knowledge and political power. The essence of democracy is to enable a free, fair and credible process of electing leaders. Power belongs to the people and democracy acknowledges it.
Constitution amendment for the purpose of tenure elongation makes it difficult for young and vibrant leaders to emerge. Besides the tyranny of the system in Africa, politics has been monetised such that only the wealthy and those who enjoy the support of godfathers are able to contest elections.
The lesson to be learnt from monarchs like Akihito is that there is dignity in quitting and it is good to do it when the ovation is loudest. It also points to the fact that age determines the extent to which a leader can go.
African leaders must begin to learn that the rights of the people must be respected always. Respect for the rights of the people requires that the people have a clear voice in affairs of state and the imposition of draconian laws to gag the opposition, civil society organisations and the media must be discouraged. This is the only way Africa can embrace true democracy.