Hidden leaders: vacuums of leadership

What happens when a head of state goes AWOL?

The aptly named Goodluck Jonathan took over as acting president of Nigeria this week, filling the vacuum left by the long absence of President Umaru Yar'Adua. It's not as unusual as you might think: other heads of state have been ill, have died, or have simply not been there much of the time.

But let's begin with the case of Nigeria today:

1. President Umaru Yar'Adua (Nigeria)

Yar'Adua has not been seen in public since he went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment on 23 November 2009. The Nigerian constitution requires the president to inform parliament formally of his absence before power can be transferred -- but he didn't do this before he flew out of Abuja, leaving his country leaderless.

Conspiracy theories abounded, variously that he was dead, brain-dead, or no longer in hospital. The past three months have been fraught with legal challenges, cabinet splits, mass protests, and tensions resurfacing in the Niger Delta. Eventually, the National Assembly voted in favour of Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan stepping in. It remains to be seen how successful he will be in ending the turmoil.

2. Kim Jong-il (North Korea)

The whereabouts of the elusive North Korean leader have been the subject of heavy speculation since 2008. In August that year, Toshimitsu Shigemura, a Japanese academic and expert on North Korea, claimed that the Great Leader had died in late 2003 and been replaced at public appearances by stand-ins, previously employed to protect him from assassination attempts.

On a slightly less far-fetched note, questions about Kim's health were raised when he failed to appear at a military parade for the 60th anniversary of the founding of North Korea, on 9 September 2008. US intelligence agencies believed that he could be "gravely ill" after suffering a major stroke, although Pyongyang downplayed this.

Various reports have suggested that he has since suffered a second stroke, or that he has pancreatic cancer. The Times has questioned the veracity of at least one photograph released to prove that he is still alive. However, Kim met with Bill Clinton in August last year to negotiate the release of two Americans. No doubt conspiracy theorists would say that Clinton met with one of his impersonators.

3. Fidel Castro (Cuba)

The long-time Cuban leader handed over power to his brother, Raúl, in July 2006, and resigned from the presidency in 2008. But this followed years of speculation about Castro's health, beginning in 1998 with the rumour -- since discredited -- that he has a terrible brain disease.

The belief that his health was failing gathered force in 2004, when the mayor of Bogotá said that he "seemed very sick to me", and the following year when the CIA said he had Parkinson's disease (which he denied).

Since then, it has been widely accepted that he is seriously sick, with some speculating that he has a terminal illness. On reports of his recovery, George W Bush said: "One day the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away." Although he has officially retired from public affairs, Cubans still worry that he might be dead.

4. Lansana Conté (Guinea)

Conté became Guinea's leader by staging a coup d'état in 1984. On falling ill in 2006, he was reluctant to relinquish power, creating a leadership vacuum that led to an outbreak of violence. In April 2006, he was flown to Morocco for medical treatment, amid riots in Guinea over the price of rice and fuel. He returned, but was physically and mentally incapacitated, leaving the door open for his wife, Henriette, to flout the rule of law.

Despite his illness, Conté insisted he would stay in office until the end of his term in 2010. A general strike brought the country to a halt for two weeks in 2007, hundreds of thousands of workers taking to the streets to protest against his leadership.

Many died in violent clashes with security forces. The strike came to an end when Conté agreed to appoint a new prime minister, Lansana Kouyaté, as acting head of government. Yet he declared on television that year: "I'm the boss, others are my subordinates." He then undermined Kouyaté and soon replaced him with another proxy.

Conté died of natural causes in December 2008. Within hours of the new prime minister announcing his death, junior army officers staged a coup, bringing Captain Moussa Dadis Camara to power. His junta failed to bring stability to Guinea. Last September, a contingent of presidential guardsmen massacred more than 150 opposition supporters at a rally in the capital, Conakry. Then, in December, an aide to Camara shot him in the head; he was flown out to Morocco for medical treatment.

On 13 January, after an absence of six weeks, Camara left Morocco for Burkina Faso. He is yet to return from there to Guinea, but in his absence an official investigation declared him free of all responsibility for the September massacre.

5. Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenistan)

And finally, a potential crisis of leadership that ended well. You might not have heard of Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmen dictator, who was compared to Stalin and -- yes -- Kim Jong-il for his draconian rule.

Criticised internationally as one of the world's most repressive dictators, he encouraged a bizarre cult of personality, renaming months of the year after members of his family, and replacing the word for bread with his mother's name. He also banned the opera and the circus for not being Turkmen enough.

When he died in December 2006, the oil- and gas-rich central Asian nation was left in turmoil as essentially he was the entire state. Happily, fears that the vacuum created by his death would lead to a power struggle between different regions, or even civil war, were not realised. Vice-President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow took over, repealing some of Niyazov's stranger policies, and tentatively opened up relations with the west.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue