Hage Geingob, the 82-year-old president of Namibia, died Sunday, just months before the end of his second – and constitutionally final – term in office. Nangolo Mbumba, Geingob’s vice president since 2018, has become acting president.
This recent succession in Namibia follows procedures laid out in the country’s constitution. That’s now a common form of leadership transition in African countries.
Constitutional successions are increasingly common in Africa
African constitutions offer a roadmap for presidential succession. My research with Boniface Dulani analyzing African presidents’ deaths in office showed greater frequency of constitutional successions (as opposed to coups or military appointments) following the third wave of democratization in Africa, post-1990. Our findings are consistent with Dan Posner and Dan Young’s work that argues that political institutions became more important than personal relationships in shaping African politics since the third wave of democratization.
We counted 51 African leaders’ deaths in office from 1960 to 2012: a total of 26 deaths between 1960 and 1990, and 25 deaths between 1990 and 2012. Only 35% of the successions in the pre-1990 period were constitutional, compared to 56% in the post-1990 period. Coups d’état were three times as likely to be associated with an executive’s death in the pre-1990 period than in the post-1990 period.
The rules for presidential succession in Namibia
According to Namibia’s constitution, the vice president serves as acting president following a president’s death in office. If a president’s death occurs more than a year before the next scheduled presidential elections, the constitution stipulates a special election must be held within 90 days of the president’s death.
Namibia’s next elections are scheduled for November 2024, however, so no special election is required in the wake of Geingob’s death. Mbumba has already declared he will not run in the upcoming elections.
In November 2022, Mbumba’s party, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), selected its next presidential candidate: Namibia’s deputy prime minister, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah. Nandi-Ndaitwah is expected to win the upcoming presidential elections, given SWAPO’s dominance since the country achieved its independence in 1990.
Mbumba was sworn in as interim president on Sunday, and named Nandi-Ndaitwah as vice president. Voters will likely be watching the acting president and especially his vice president closely. Inequality, corruption scandals, and increasing unemployment may push voters to support more opposition candidates. Even if Nandi-Ndaitwah wins the presidential election later this year, her party’s margins of victory have been declining over time, as has its share of seats in parliament.