Two controversial African leaders left office unexpectedly this week.
Cameroon’s Paul Biya announced Friday that he won’t seek re-election next year. He had ruled the west African nation since 1982. His replacement is a member of the same Generation-O party that Biya began his political career with in 1965.
Meanwhile, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou handed in his resignation on Wednesday, hours after having unsuccessfully tried to reach a power-sharing deal with the opposition. Issoufou was overthrown by soldiers in 2007 and then regained power after his election in 2011.
These leaders are the first to face such change since 2012, when President Thomas Sankara, a leader with a strong anti-establishment, anti-Kremlin and pro-Stalinist ideology, was killed after a coup attempt in Burkina Faso.
In some ways, the outcome in Burkina Faso was not surprising. Where Issoufou’s coup in Niger was all about grabbing power and looking for a “unity government,” Biya’s was about purging any potential opposition. While Sankara saw a coup as an act of defiance against an autocratic, corrupt regime, Biya’s only goal was a peaceful, planned handover.
Indeed, there may not be a more anti-democratic regime in Africa than Biya’s. One result of his subversion of multiparty democracy is that numerous countries have placed sanctions on Cameroon, and others, like Zimbabwe, have severed diplomatic relations. One point of instability and scandal for Cameroon is the fact that Biya, 84, is putting off retirement, despite a constitutional provision for him to do so by age 75.
As Issoufou may be finding out, coups have become a sort of invitation to political opportunism in Africa. Such movements are making it difficult for Africa’s democratic norms to compete with developments such as a young continent and local power struggles. More ambitious young men are turning to coups as an effective way to turn state power into wealth, and also as a way to pursue a personal political agenda.
Cheikh Ahmadou Cisse, Biya’s opponent in the 2012 presidential election, said that the actions of the two leaders were “upsetting and tragic.”