Knowing when to quit is an important part of being a good leader

Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Cameroon’s Paul Biya have a lot to learn from New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern.

Cameroon President Paul Biya attends the Paris Peace Forum
Paul Biya, the 89-year-old president of Cameroon, has been in power since 1982 [File: Charles Platiau/Reuters]

On January 19, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that she would not seek re-election and would resign by no later than February 7.

Ardern admitted that she “no longer had enough in the tank” to do justice to “the most privileged job anyone could ever have”.

To this end, she listed her achievements and promised to “try and find ways to keep working for New Zealand”.

While some argued she resigned only because she knew she would not be able to win another election, many applauded her for recognising her limits and described her ability to put the interests of her country above her own as inspiring.

As I watched Ardern’s resignation speech on TV, I too was inspired by the magnanimous leadership and selflessness on display.

Unfortunately, Ardern is an anomaly – leaders hardly ever resign from office voluntarily, let alone admit they may no longer have “enough in the tank” to do justice to their undoubtedly demanding jobs.

Even the most hopelessly incompetent and politically spent among them rarely accept the time has come for them to call it quits. They cling to power even after it becomes obvious that they have nothing left to offer to the people and that they cannot win another free and fair election.

Such lack of self-awareness, often fuelled by selfishness, illusions of grandeur and an insatiable thirst for power, is firmly embedded in the fabric of politics, everywhere.

Indeed, politicians who try to cling to power at any cost are not the products of specific geography. Just remember how Britain’s Boris Johnson refused to leave office in the face of countless humiliating scandals and plunging public trust, or how Donald Trump desperately tried to hold on to power after losing the White House to Joe Biden.

However, watching Ardern elegantly and honourably take a bow from politics made me think primarily of Africa – my home continent which produced some of the world’s most, for lack of a better word, “clingy” leaders in the modern era.

Take Yoweri Museveni, the 78-year-old president of Uganda.

After six presidential terms, or 37 years in power, he remains indifferent to suggestions that he may be better off passing the job on to someone more capable.

Under Museveni’s watch, more than half of Uganda’s 45 million people were plunged into poverty. Today, some 60 percent of Ugandans earn only 200,000 Ugandan shillings ($54,74) a month, and 42.1 percent experience multidimensional poverty.

In December 2022, Museveni tried to defend his long tenure as president in an interview with Al Jazeera, claiming he is “in government supported by the people every five years”.

Of course, Uganda has not held a peaceful and credible election for more than two decades, so his professed democratic mandate is pretty questionable. Ugandan presidential elections held in 2001, 2006, 2012, 2016 and 2021 were all blemished by government-orchestrated repression and violence, as well as severe electoral irregularities.

Museveni is continuing to “lead” Uganda not because he is the best man for the job or because he still has something to offer to the nation. He is still occupying the presidency because he is incapable of acknowledging his limitations.

And he is sadly not alone among his African peers in clinging to power at a heavy cost to his people.

Take Paul Biya, the 89-year-old president of Cameroon, who has been in power since 1982.

On January 20, a video of the elderly leader looking extremely disorientated moments before he was set to make a speech at the United States–Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC went viral on social media.

In the video, clearly struggling to remember why he is on the stage, Biya remarks, “Wow. So I have become a celebrity”, and asks, “Who are all these people present?” When an aide tells him people are waiting for him to give a speech, he responds, “Are there important personalities amongst them?” He takes quite a while to gather his wits as the audience waits in stunned silence.

This shocking and embarrassing incident confirmed once again that Biya, who has been Cameroon’s president for 41 years, is no longer fit for office.

For seven presidential terms, Biya ruled Cameroon with an iron fist and essentially criminalised any opposition to his rule. Today, he is clearly not in a state to rule anything, but is still refusing to leave office. His country is crippled with extreme poverty, widespread corruption and violent conflicts, yet he appears to have no intention to admit he no longer has “enough left in the tank” to fulfil his most basic responsibilities as president.

As he prepares to celebrate his 90th birthday in February, it is only fair to ask: what more can Biya do for his country?

The same can be asked of Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the Republic of the Congo’s Denis Sassou, or Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki: what do they have left in the tank?

Thankfully, Africa has also seen leaders who knew perfectly well when to call it quits.

Take Ketumile Masire, Botswana’s second president.

Like Biya and Museveni, Masire came to power in the 1980s, when much of Africa was ruled by so-called “strong men” who viewed themselves as above electoral politics. Unlike many of his peers, however, during his 18 years in power, Masire proved himself to be a massively effective leader. Under his stewardship, Botswana established one of the world’s most stable democracies and best-performing economies.

Despite his many successes, however, Masire never attempted to indefinitely hold on to power. In 1988, at the end of his third full term as president, he retired from politics and handed the country’s reins over to Festus Mogae. Today, Botswana is still considered a beacon of economic and democratic development, thanks largely to Masire’s outstanding leadership at a crucial time in the country’s history.

Botswana, of course, is not the only African country that benefitted from leaders who knew when to retire. Ghana, Mauritius, Cape Verde and Namibia, among others, have also experienced regular and seamless leadership changes that have helped to secure stable democracies.

None of these examples, however, seems to have registered with Africa’s remaining strongmen who, even at the twilight of their lives, show no inclination to voluntarily give up on power.

As the international community celebrates the many achievements of Ardern and congratulates her for knowing her limits, Biya, Moseveni, and others like them should pay attention.

Knowing when to call it a day is an important part of being a good leader. Ardern clearly and admirably knows this. It is high time some of her African counterparts learned it too.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.