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Former Presidents in Africa

There's been much talk recently among leaders of western governments (as they look ahead to the G8 summit in Scotland in July) about what can be done to help Africa. There's been discussion about increasing aid, cancelling debt and providing fairer trading conditions. Meanwhile, fifteen of Africa's former heads of state have been meeting in Mali to consider what THEY can do to assist political and economic development. But as Elizabeth Blunt's been learning, many of the former leaders have already been putting their skills to good use.

African presidents used to be notorious for only leaving State House feet first.  Some were murdered by the men who took over from them in a coup d'etat; Those who survived clung on grimly to power, for ten, twenty, thirty years.  The late president of Togo was a man in that tradition. He murdered his predecessor, and then held on tight to power and ruled for thirty eight years until he finally succombed to a heart attack. Ex-presidents used to be rare as hen's teeth.   

The main exception was Nigeria where military leaders were quite prepared to overthrow each other but then on the whole treated their fellow predecessors as fellow officers and gentlemen -- presumably because they had all been to staff college together. And President Nyerere of Tanzania did famously go into voluntary retirement (although only it has to be said after a pretty long innings).

In Bamako last week much was made of the fact that things have now changed enough in Africa for a meeting of ex-presidents to be possible -- and ex-presidents who have stood down or accepted defeat in elections, and who are able to live in retirement in their own countries, as would be considered perfectly normal elsewhere in the world. The organisers sent out twenty five invitations and fifteen were able to attend.

As old boys clubs go, this one was pretty good. There were delighted reunions with former colleagues not seen for years, and the ex-leaders were treated with full honours and always scrupulously addressed as Mr President.

But under it all lay a serious issue -- how to find a role after retirement, and how to make a success of what can be a tricky relationship with those who come after.

Having your predecessor around can be a bit of an embarrassment for anyone.  No one who is new in a job likes to have the person who did it before, hanging about and criticising what he is doing -- especially if that person never really wanted to leave. And Presidents are no exception.So those ex-heads of state who live harmoniously with their successors are usually very careful not to interfere, and to choose their activities wisely.

Some simply go back and pick up the threads of their old lives, before they lived in State House. Liberia's Professor Amos Sawyer returned to academic life, and former President Albert Zafy of Madagascar is once again a doctor.  Sam Nujoma, whose own education lost out to the independence struggle, is studying geology at university in Namibia, going off on field trips with his fellow students and -- I'm told -- enjoying it hugely.

But it's not always easy. Sir Ketumile Masire told his colleagues at this meeting that when he finally retired from the presidency of Botswana he wanted nothing more than to go back to his farm and to raise cattle. But he was pressured to get involved first with the enquiry into the massacres in Rwanda, and then with the inter-Congolese dialogue. The cattle are still waiting, but Sir Ketumile has enhanced his reputation both inside and outside his country.  He did good work, and, crucially, neither project had anything to do with Botswana.

Similarly with election monitoring. Ex-presidents can make very good monitors (cynics would say because they already know all the tricks) but it's only a good idea to do it abroad -- never in your own country. And probably not in the country next door either. The one political row here was over the elections in Togo, and that involved three ex-leaders -- Jerry Rawlings, Nicephore Soglo and Yakubu Gowon all of whom had past personal history with Togo.

If you must work at home then the trick is to find a good cause which is totally uncontroversial. So health issues are very popular. Several ex-presidents have campaigned on AIDS. It's something that sitting presidents are often reluctant to do; in traditionally modest societies they may have doubts about the dignity and propriety of talking about sex -- and that, after all, is what you have to do if you're running an AIDS campaign. But old men, true elders, can rise above these concerns. Sir Dawda Jawara, the former President of the Gambia, said this was something that someone of his age and his stature could now do.

And a much younger retiree, Jerry Rawlings, plays on these social tensions for deliberate effect, as a UN special representative on sexually transmitted diseases. He electrified the session of health with stories of his attempts to persuade old men in rural Ghana that they didn't actually have to stop having sex in order to avoid aids and unwanted babies. And after all, if your former president comes to your village and tells you that he too is only human, and he knows that sex is sweet, then it's going to be a lesson that you certainly won't forget.