Around the end of 2018, Japan’s Emperor Akihito will resign. A less dedicated public servant would no doubt have retired earlier. He has sat on the Chrysanthemum throne since 1989, hog-tied by imperial protocol. He has not been allowed to mingle spontaneously with friends, express political opinions or live a normal life of any kind. Granted, he got to have dinner with the Sun Goddess—once, at the beginning of his reign, in a ritual that no non-emperor has ever witnessed and is whispered to be conducted naked. But after that it was all bland speeches and watching people bow. At 83, he has had enough. In 2017 Japan’s Diet (parliament) passed a law that will allow him to step down and spend more time studying gobies, his favourite fish.
Why can’t more leaders be like Akihito? Knowing when to bow out gracefully is a virtue as essential as it is rare. George Washington had it. So did Nelson Mandela, Pope Benedict XVI and even, at the age of only 51, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan. Bill Gates quit the job that made him the richest man alive and went on to make an even bigger difference as a philanthropist. Most leaders, however, think themselves indispensable long after the evidence suggests the opposite.
Consider Robert Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe thuggishly and incompetently for 37 years, rigging elections that might have ejected him. Only a coup in November 2017 stopped him establishing his wife as his successor.
I’ll be here till the end of time
There are worse despots than Mr Mugabe. Kim Jong Un, for example, is far more brutal towards his own people; and with his nuclear weapons, he is also more of a threat to the world. Alas, there is little chance that the “Rocket Man” will burn out his fuse in 2018: he is only in his 30s, and is following the example of a father and grandfather who both ruled until they died.
Neither is Mr Mugabe the longest-serving; two autocrats have been in power for longer. Both are African; both should have stepped down long ago. The most persistent is Paul Biya, has been running Cameroon badly since 1975 without attracting much international attention (unlike Mr Mugabe, he never says incendiary things in English). Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been in charge of Equatorial Guinea since 1979, when he overthrew his uncle and had him shot. Mr Obiang has transformed the country from a violent kleptocracy into a violent kleptocracy with lots of oil. José Eduardo dos Santos, who rose to power in Angola in the same year and ran a similarly awful oil-soaked regime, stepped down in 2017. However, he plans to remain head of the ruling party, and his son runs Angola’s sovereign-wealth fund. His astoundingly rich daughter was sacked as head of the national oil firm, so it is unclear how much influence the former first family will retain. For now, those without connections will steer clear of Angola.
Few rulers grow wiser in their second decade in office, let alone the third or fourth. Even if they start well, they eventually run out of ideas and come to believe their own propaganda. All power tends to corrupt, and a lifetime of it is irresistibly corrupting.
So it is disheartening to see rulers such as Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who were once hailed as revolutionary reformers, try to glue their trousers to the throne. Mr Kagame has had the constitution changed to allow him potentially to remain president until 2034. Mr Museveni is trying to have an age limit lifted so he can remain in office for life.
The best antidotes to such folly are term limits for presidents and vigorously contested elections. Say what you like about Donald Trump, he won’t be in the White House for longer than eight years.
The Economist predicts that the big men who will formally retire in 2018 but carry on wielding influence behind the scenes are: Raúl Castro in Cuba, Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, and perhaps King Salman bin Abdel Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia (who would give way to his son, Muhammad).
The leaders who ought to quit but won’t include Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Najib Razak in Malaysia and Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. And the leader who deserves a rest even more than Akihito is surely Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. After 66 years of waving at her subjects, it is time to hand over to her son, Charles, whose passionate advocacy of homeopathy for cows will remind people that only powerless positions should ever be for life.
Please note: This article has been updated to reflect new developments that have occurred between November 1st, our print editorial close, and November 20th, the digital one.
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