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Where retired leaders still lend a hand

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In his inaugural speech after being sworn in, President Ruto announced that he had nominated exiting President Uhuru to be a regional peace envoy for Ethiopia.

A recent photo showing President Ruto and former President Uhuru together in public was powerful. They met at a meeting dubbed Third inter-Congolese consultations of the Nairobi Peace Process held at Safari Park in Nairobi on November 28, 2022. But the appointment of retired President Uhuru by President Ruto speaks to a larger question: what should a retired president do?

 This is a very important question, particularly for countries where democracy is yet to consolidate like in many African countries. With Uhuru exiting the presidency and being engaged productively in his retirement, this gives an incentive to political actors not to fear political retirement. Presidential political retirement is not public inactivity. The question of what former presidents like Uhuru should do will become more pressing as more countries democratise and as life expectancy continues to rise.

Concerns and fears for democratic leaders’ post-political lives include thoughts on how to earn a living, to secure one’s historical legacy, and pass the baton to the next generation of leaders. When retired US president Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived at his Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farm, after his presidency, it is said that he did not know how to place a telephone call.

In his memoirs, Vicente Fox, a former president of Mexico, declared “The most important thing the president of a new democracy does is to leave.

As Shakespeare writes of the Thane of Cawdor, “Nothing in his life so became him like the leaving of it.” So it is with a new democracy, the true test occurs not with the election of the peaceful revolutionary but when that leader has delivered enough results that he or she can pass the torch to another freely elected leader’.

If powerful political actors were to fear retirement, they could change rules and extend their terms. Alternatively, they would rig elections to ensure only allies succeed them. And if politicians fear retiring because of the crave for public limelight, Uhuru’s high-profile retirement ought to mollify such fears.

Africa has many examples of powerful presidents who dislike retirement. Think of regional examples in Uganda, South Sudan or Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has served as the second president of Equatorial Guinea since August 1979. 

Obiang overthrew his uncle on August 3, 1979 in a bloody coup d’état, and placed him on trial. The former was sentenced to death and executed by a firing squad on September 29, 1979.

In some democracies, retired presidents keep a low profile and handle private business. Others wallow in poverty. When former Polish president Lech Wałęsa’s severance pay ended three months after he left office in 1996, he famously showed up at the Gdansk shipyard asking for his old electrician’s job back. The Polish parliament quickly passed a law providing a pension for ex-presidents.

Others make money by way of public speeches. Former US president William Howard Taft travelled around the country giving lectures to such organisations as the National Geographic Society and the Electrical Manufacturers.

Some former leaders move actively to the private sector after leaving office. Barely six months after leaving office, former British prime minister Tony Blair joined J.P. Morgan where he earned millions. Former UK Prime Minister, John Major, advised a private equity firm, the Carlyle Group, as did former Philippine president Fidel Ramos.

Product endorsements

 Former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo served on the boards of Procter and Gamble, Union Pacific, and Alcoa; former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, on the board of several Finnish firms; and former Canadian premier Kim Campbell, on the boards of several biotechnology companies. Gerald Ford offered product endorsements. Margaret Thatcher became a “geopolitical consultant” to tobacco giant Philip Morris (now Altria).

 Some former leaders have also been willing to serve in lower positions. Former US president John Quincy Adams became a member of parliament and said, “No person could be degraded by serving the people as a representative in Congress.

Nor, in my opinion, would a former President of the United States be degraded by serving as a selectman of his town, if elected by the people.”

Former Belgian premier Jean-Luc Dehaene served as mayor of Vilroorde after losing a national election; President Nicéphore Soglo of Benin was elected mayor of Cotonou, the country’s economic capital, some years after losing his re-election bid; and President León Febres Cordero of Ecuador subsequently served as mayor of Guayaquil.

In 1921, former president Taft was finally nominated to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Linda Anderson writes in the Journal of Democracy an article titled “Ex-Presidents” and shows how these appointments at times can go wrong. She states in 2005, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe named his predecessor Andrés Pastrana ambassador to the United States and then announced that Pastrana’s predecessor, Ernesto Samper, would be ambassador to France.

Both Pastrana and Samper resigned, each apparently offended by the other’s appointment.

The best opportunities for post-presidential service that Kenya and many African countries should consider are 

in international and regional organisations. Retired presidents have crucial political skills that are needed to guide these budding organisations.

Former Irish president Mary Robinson became the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; former Norwegian premier Gro Harlem Brundtland served as Director General of the WHO; Mali’s two-term president Alpha Oumar Konaré became chairperson of the African Union, and former Columbian president César Gaviria served as secretary-general of the Organization of American States.

There are informal or short-term international roles that deal with controversial issues. Uhuru seems to have taken this route. Other former leaders who have served recently as “special envoys” are Ricardo Lagos of Chile, Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, and Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique.

The team that accompanied Kofi Annan to Kenya to stem the post-electoral violence of 2007 included Chissano, former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, and former Botswana president Ketumire Masire.

Current European Union President Ursula von der Leyen is a former German cabinet minister. Her predecessor was Jean Claude Juncker, a former Luxembourg Prime Minister. The East Africa Community can adopt such a practice.

Dr Kang’ata is the governor of Murang’a County.



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