On January 19, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that she would not seek re-election and would resign on February 7 at the latest.
Ardern admitted she “has run out of money” to do justice to “the most privileged job anyone can have”.
To that end, she listed her achievements and pledged to “work hard to find ways to keep working for New Zealand”.
While some thought she resigned simply because she knew she couldn’t win another election, many praised her for recognizing her limitations and described her ability to put the country’s interests ahead of her own as inspirational.
When I watched Ardern’s resignation speech on TV, I was also inspired by the magnanimous leadership and selflessness she displayed.
Unfortunately, Ardern is an anomaly – leaders almost never resign voluntarily, let alone admit that they may no longer “have enough money” to do their undoubtedly demanding jobs justly.
Even the most incompetent and politically incompetent of them rarely accept that the time has come for them to quit. They stayed in power even after it became clear they had nothing to offer the people and they couldn’t win another free and fair election.
This lack of self-awareness, often fueled by fantasies of selfishness, arrogance and an insatiable thirst for power, is firmly embedded in the political structure and pervasive.
In fact, politicians who try to keep power at any cost are not a product of a particular geography. Just remember how Britain’s Boris Johnson refused to leave office amid numerous humiliating scandals and declining public trust, or how Donald Trump desperately tried to hold on to power after losing the White House to Joe Biden.
However, watching Ardern bow gracefully and honorably from the political arena got me thinking first of all about Africa – my home continent which, for lack of a better word, has produced the world’s most “sticky” modern leaders describe.
Take Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, 78, for example.
After six presidencies, or 37 years in power, he has shrugged off suggestions that it might be better to hand the job to someone more capable.
Under Museveni, more than half of Uganda’s 45 million people fell into poverty. Today, about 60 percent of Ugandans earn as little as Uganda Shillings (US$54.74) per month, and 42.1 percent experience multidimensional poverty.
In an interview with Al Jazeera in December 2022, Museveni attempted to justify his long-term presidency, claiming that he “has the support of the people in the government every five years”.
Of course, Uganda hasn’t had a peaceful, credible election in more than two decades, so his professed democratic mandate is questionable. Uganda’s presidential elections in 2001, 2006, 2012, 2016 and 2021 have all been marred by government-orchestrated repression and violence, as well as serious electoral irregularities.
Museveni continues to “lead” Uganda not because he is the best man for the job or because he still has something to offer the country. He still holds the presidency because he cannot acknowledge his limitations.
Regrettably, he is not alone among his African counterparts in assuming power at the heavy cost of his people.
Take Cameroon’s 89-year-old President Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982.
On Jan. 20, a video went viral on social media showing the elderly leader looking desperately disoriented before preparing to deliver a speech at the U.S.-African leaders summit in Washington, D.C.
In the video, Bea is clearly trying to remember why he was on stage, saying, “Wow. So I’m a celebrity,” and asking, “Who are all these people here?” When an aide told him that people were waiting for him to deliver his speech, he replied, “Is there someone important among them?” It took him a long time to come to his senses as the audience waited in stunned silence.
The shocking and embarrassing incident once again confirmed that Biya, who has been president of Cameroon for 41 years, is no longer fit to take office.
During seven presidential terms, Biya ruled Cameroon with an iron fist, essentially criminalizing anyone who opposed his rule. Today, he’s clearly not in a position to rule anything, but he still refuses to step down. His country is crippled by extreme poverty, widespread corruption and violent conflict, yet he seems intent on acknowledging that he no longer has “enough money left in the tank” to carry out his most basic duties as president.
As he prepares to celebrate his 90th birthday in February, it begs the question: What else could Biya do for his country?
The same question could be asked of Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou or Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki: what’s left in their tanks ?
Thankfully, Africa has also emerged with leaders who know very well when to quit.
Take Botswana’s second president, Ketumile Masire, for example.
Like Biya and Museveni, Masire came to power in the 1980s, when much of Africa was ruled by so-called “strongmen” who considered themselves above electoral politics. However, unlike many of his peers, Masire has proven himself to be a very effective leader during his 18 years in power. Under his leadership, Botswana built one of the most stable democracies and best-performing economies in the world.
However, despite his many successes, Masire never attempted to stay in power indefinitely. In 1988, at the end of his third full term as president, he withdrew from politics and handed over control of the country to Festus Mogae. Today, Botswana is still considered a beacon of economic and democratic development, thanks in large part to Masire’s outstanding leadership at a pivotal moment in the country’s history.
Of course, Botswana is not the only African country that benefits from leaders who know when to retire. Countries such as Ghana, Mauritius, Cape Verde, and Namibia have also experienced regular and seamless leadership changes, which help ensure stable democracies.
None of these examples, however, appear to be present among extant African strongmen who, even in the twilight of their lives, show no tendency to voluntarily relinquish power.
As the international community celebrates Ardern’s many achievements and congratulates her on knowing her limits, Biya, Moseveni and others like them should take note.
Knowing when to call it a day is an important part of being a good leader. Ardern knows this clearly and admirably. Now is the time for some of her African counterparts to learn it too.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.