It has long been a theory of mine that a successful transition government must be exactly that – transitional. Take Nelson Mandela. After assuming power with the ANC, he served one term only before stepping down of his own accord. Part of his effectiveness as a leader was his ability to reach out to every group in the country, and the perception of him as above party politics. He could afford to be above party politics, because he had no long-term designs on power for himself. Crucially, he understood that the future of South Africa and the future of Nelson Mandela were two different things; and, no matter how important the world thought he was, South Africa could and would function just fine without him.
Contrast this with the Iraqi transitional government, where Iyad Allawi attempted an impossible double act: unifying the Iraqi state while maintaining his grip on power. Notwithstanding the results of the recent election, he failed at both, with devastating consequences
Liberia’s oft-lauded President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf well understood this dynamic when she came to power. A central pledge of her campaign was that she would serve only one four year term. It seems, however, that during the course of that first term, she began to believe her own hype. Last week, she announced she was breaking that pledge. “I know where we are today, I know where we ought to be tomorrow and I know how we will get there,” she said, adding that her decision had been prompted by her success in governing and the considerable challenges still to be surmounted. I don’t doubt her sincerity, and she is still within her constitutional mandate; but in identifying herself so closely with the success of the state she is falling into the same trap of so many presidents-for-life, from Robert Mugabe to Kim Jong-Il. This is the first step down that well-trodden path. It is also a poor reflection on her leadership that she has not groomed someone who she believes can assume her position.