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Africa's Longtime Rulers

Gabon's president Omar Bongo came to power in 1967, the same year as the recently deceased President Eyadema of Togo. Like Mr. Eyadema, he was a military officer who seized power in a coup. He is heading a sizeable list of African leaders who have served for several decades, including Libya's Moammar Gaddafi, Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and many others.

Gilbert Khadiagala, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, says these leaders have much in common.

Mr. Khadiagala says, "Most of them do seem to come from either a military background, or they've been legitimized through the use of military force, or over the years, they have belonged to ethnic minorities that have had to use force in order to survive."

Professor Khadiagala says long-serving leaders typically have control over their country's resources, such as oil or minerals, which help finance their regimes. And the longer they stay in power, the more difficult it becomes to remove them. Often they groom their sons as successors.

"They prepare their children to take over because the longer they stay, the more insecure they become," says Mr. Khadiagala. "They are quasi-monarchical regimes, if we can call them that."

In the case of Togo, the constitutional succession plan required that the speaker of parliament should succeed the deceased president and call for elections within 60 days. Instead, the military took control, naming the president's son Faure Gnassingbe as the new leader. There is talk that Egypt's president Mubarak and Uganda's Museveni may be grooming their sons to take over after them.

Many historians blame this state of affairs on the colonial era.

James Mittleman notes, "The nature of colonialism was to centralize administrative structures."

James Mittleman, professor of international affairs at American University in Washington, says colonialism disrupted pre-existing political systems on the continent.

Mr. Mittelman contends, "In some cases there were pre-colonial states as in the case of the Zulu Empire, the Ashanti Empire. In other cases they were decentralized types of political structures."

With the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, all present African countries began as colonies. Many gained independence only after waging long wars against their colonial masters. Leaders of those wars typically became leaders of new states. But most were unable to meet their people's social and economic needs, which resulted in tensions and sometimes civil war.

Professor Khadiagala says the military or other authoritarian leaders, fearing their countries would fall apart politically, decided they could provide more stability.

Mr. Khadiagala says, "They have paraded as fathers of the nations and the longer they stay, the tougher it is for the opposition to organize."

As in the communist world, many of these leaders have over the years developed a personality cult, living in growing luxury and enjoying increased power, while their people suffered. Zimbabwe's Mugabe is an example. When he took over in 1980, his country, then Rhodesia, was relatively prosperous and he promised equal treatment to all his people, black and white. Today the people of Zimbabwe are on the verge of starvation and unable to remove their leader.

With the departure of some of the rulers, says Professor Khadiagala, democratization has gained momentum. For example, when Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya decided to step down in 2003 after a quarter-century rule, he was not able to install a successor.

Mr. Khadiagala says, "When they had the elections in 2003, people were so tired of one-party rule that the opposition was able to unite under a new leader and Moi's successor in the party was defeated."

Even if Faure Gnassingbe does not depart, says Professor Khadiagala, he may not have the same power as his father.

Mr. Khadiagala says, "In the new millennium, there are too many pressures around these countries that they cannot avoid the 'problem' of making political transitions to a democratic rule."

In addition to outside pressures, African leaders today face the growing antagonism of their own people. New generations of Africans, half younger then 20, appear to want democratic change. Professor Khadiagala says regardless of whether Faure Gnassingbe remains in power or not, the era of the "Big Man" in Africa may be over.