It was on February 11, 2013 that the world woke up to the news of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. The move was unexpected as in the modern era popes have held the position from election until death.
The Pope stated that the reason for his decision was his declining health due to old age. This may sound funny, especially in Africa where presidents have held on to power for many years. Very few African leaders have been said to resign because of illness. In fact, in most cases they prefer to stay mute and conceal the nature of their sickness from their subjects.
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has been in power for 27 years; President Paul Biya of Cameroon has been in power for 31 years; while President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has been president for 33 years. President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos and President Teodoro Obiang Nguema are currently the longest-serving presidents in Africa. Both have been in power for 34 years in Angola and Equatorial Guinea, respectively. Yet, despite its new-found oil wealth, 60 percent of the people of Equatorial Guinea live on less than one dollar a day.
The lessons are there for these African leaders to learn from the Pope’s resignation. Although some may argue that the scenarios are different, and that the papacy is more spiritual than political, yet the central issue is leadership. After all we have seen popes hold on to power, in spite of failing health, until death.
For Pope Benedict XVI, power is not a do-or-die affair, hence he doesn’t see his relinquishing of power as defeatist or an act of cowardice. Rather it is a show of strength and allegiance to a people he has led for more than seven years. As he said, he acted with “full freedom”, being conscious of the deep spiritual implication of his action. By his decision, the Holy Father has acted gallantly and as such we must commend and respect his decision.
Also, the Pope believes in an equitable relationship between the wealthy and the poor, the ruler and the ruled. Hence he came out to clearly state his reasons for resigning at the time he did. For him, the number of years he stays on in power does not matter, what matters rather is the state of his health and the proper care of the sheep he is supposed to shepherd. An ailing pope cannot adequately care for the Church.
Someone like Robert Mugabe may learn directly from the Pope’s decision. There have been rumours about his ailing health, yet he still hangs on to power. His administration has also been criticised around the world for corruption, suppression of political opposition, mishandling of land reform, economic mismanagement, and the deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe.
As the Conclave to select his successor begins today, Tuesday, March 12, 2013, it is instructive that African leaders learn from the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI. No matter how traditional Benedict’s ideologies may be, his unorthodox decision to abdicate is his greatest legacy because it will surely signal a new era for the Church.