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A U.S. Home For African Leaders, Acclaimed Or Notorious


American presidents can look forward to rewarding lives after leaving office. There are limitless opportunities and millions of dollars for speaking fees and memoirs. The future is much less clear for former African leaders. Some have become respected figures in international and humanitarian circles. Others, like Laurent Gbagbo, suffer ignominious exits. And some former African leaders, both acclaimed and notorious, have ended up in Boston at the invitation of the African President-in-Residence program at Boston University.

Charles Stith is the creator of the program. He's the director of Boston University's African Presidential Archives and Research Center. He joins us from WBUR. Welcome to the program.

Mr. CHARLES STITH (Creator, African President-in-Residence Program, African Presidential Archives and Research Center, Boston University): Well, thank you.

HANSEN: Now, you were U.S. ambassador to Tanzania in the 1990s and you said that during that time you noticed that African leaders, even those "democratically inclined" - to quote you - were hesitant to step down. And after Laurent Gbagbo's arrest you said, power is a seductive mistress who, once kissed, is hard to walk away from.

Elaborate a little bit on where that hesitancy comes from.

Mr. STITH: You know, I think it's part of the DNA of politicians. I mean, even in our system where you've got term limits prescribed constitutionally, part of it is guys just like doing what they do. And then I think that there are some folks who don't want to concede power because of the benefits that accrue from having that power.

HANSEN: Is a university residency enough of a lure for men who have ruled nations?

Mr. STITH: Well, the short answer for folks who've led nations who don't want to leave, probably not. But we do think that the work that we've done over 10 years has helped change the conversation about African leadership. When we started, we were somewhat maligned because, first of all, there wasn't a great appreciation of the leadership on the continent that had developed accountable government and who were stepping aside.

I mean, I had people who asked the question, well, after Mandela, what other democratically-elected or retired leader could you bring to Boston University? You know, there was a lack of appreciation for people like Sir Ketumile Masire, the former president of Botswana.

Now, we currently have Amani Abeid Karume from Zanzibar, who did exceptional work in terms of bridging of some of the political tensions that have been an issue, and in addition instituted an anti-malaria campaign in Zanzibar that resulted in almost zero new cases of malaria over the past couple of years.

HANSEN: So, in other words, what you're saying is this program is not a - I mean, what could be called a school for scoundrels, you know...

Mr. STITH: No, or rest home for retired dictators.

HANSEN: Yeah. 'Cause you get, what, you get more good guys than bad guys?

Mr. STITH: Yeah, the people that we engage for our residency program are folks who have acquitted themselves well while they are in office. And the thing that we're really excited about is the growing number of folks who would qualify for our program because democracy really is taking root on the continent.

HANSEN: We understand you extended an offer to Laurent Gbagbo. I mean, what did you offer him? How did you communicate it to him and...

Mr. STITH: You know, our selection process is a very discrete process. It's ongoing. And nobody extends an offer and nobody can announce a residency but me. I have not had any official of unofficial contact with Gbagbo or with any of his people. I would add, though, that had he left office after the November election, he would have then satisfied at least a baseline in terms of the criteria for our residency, and that is to leave office by virtue of a democratic process.

HANSEN: And the residency would have allowed him to have what it's referred to as a dignified exit.

Mr. STITH: Theoretically, yes.

HANSEN: Charles Stith is the former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania. He's the creator of the African President-in-Residence Program at Boston University. He joined us from member station WBUR. Thanks very much, Mr. Ambassador.

Mr. STITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.