Old versus young lions of Africa

Yesterday I wrote about Uganda’s elections. Both pieces I quoted provoked ideas relevant beyond this election, and beyond Uganda.

Across Africa, I think the old lions of politics will die rather than walk or fade away. And many of them have at least a decade or two of vigor left. So I expect the shenanigans of Ugandan and Kenyan and Ivoirian elections to persist for some years. I can’t think of many (any?) places below the Sahara ready for a Tunisian or Egyptian style street revolution.

But behind the scenes there is a very different generation of younger political leaders, men and women in their forties and fifties rather than their sixties and seventies. The generational difference is important, far more so than in the West.

A 70-year old politician in Africa is more likely to have grown up in a small village, in a position of privilege, possibly the son of a prominent local leader. He came of political age at Independence, in a climate much friendlier to autocracy and central planning, and where democracy and capitalism had been thought to fail.

A 40-year old leader was more likely to grow up in a town or city, and while undoubtedly privileged, probably came from a broader and public system of schooling. He or she came of political age at the end of a lost decade of growth, at a peaking of war and political instability, and at the failure of an unfree and statist model of governing.

None of these experiences are necessarily better or worse. Different readers will have different reactions. But the point is that these are very, very different formative experiences. It’s difficult to predict how the African leaders of 2020 will behave.

(To head off the obvious criticism: Yes, the variation across leaders may be more important than the change across generations. Blah blah politics is very complicated blah blah. But life is too short to avoid provocative and interesting generalizations.)

Andrew Mwenda is optimistic, possibly because he sees himself in the Ugandan seat. But I’m optimistic for other reasons as well. There are a lot of crucial elections in the next few months. Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire were just the beginning. We are headed for interesting times. I hope I remain optimistic.