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Presidential term limits in Africa: The real story

In the last decade a number of African presidents their countries constitutions to extend their stay in stay in power.

While others succeeded, others were stopped in their tracks, but that has not discouraged more incumbents from trying their luck. Whenever and wherever attempts have been made to change the constitutions against the will of the people, a country’s stability has always been threatened. The most disconcerting thing though is how such potential for instability rarely moves some leaders. It must be pointed out that this should not be the case on a continent where several countries are still reeling from such acts of self-induced insecurity. But it clearly seems there is no learning. That a leader can willingly plunge a country into turmoil just to secure another term demonstrates the highest scale of irresponsible ambition.

One characteristic of ‘third termers’ is their knack for exploiting potential legal loopholes. For example Pierre Nkurunziza has been Burundi’s president since 2005, serving ten years. According to the spirit of the two terms principle that time in office should be enough. However Nkurunziza pursued a technicality by arguing he was elected by parliament for his first term, not by universal suffrage, and therefore entitled to run for a second directly elected term. The constitutional court seemingly under duress agreed with him. There were reports of the Vice President of the court fleeing the country amid death threats made against him  coercing him to find Nkurunziza eligible for a further mandate which he ultimately won in 21 June  controversial elections. There are third term noises in Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. Flaunted as a benevolent dictator, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been praised for bringing his country back from the brink after the genocide. Rwanda is quoted in various development reports as a model for economic development in Africa. One might ask if Kagame is exploiting this to extend his stay at the helm.  Doesn’t this threaten to reverse the gains? In the Democratic Republic of Congo the constitution provides for two terms. President Kabila has been in power since 2001 ran in 2006 and 2011, but reports indicate he is intent on succeeding himself.

Elsewhere in Congo Brazzaville, President Dennis Sassou Nguesso in March announced the holding of a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for third term in 2016. He surely needs no reminding that he was president from 1979 to 1992 and bounced back in 1997 and has been there ever since, a combined term of 29 years at the helm. He too wants a third term when, reality, he is close to six. In Togo, The Gnassimbe dynasty lives on. Faure Gnassimbe won the 25 April election to start his third term. Aged 48 and armed with a constitution that has no term limits, nothing stops him from attempting to rival his father, Gnassimbe Eyadema, who was until 2005 Africa’s second longest serving president, only outdone by Gabon’s Omar Bongo.

From the 1960s when most of the continent became independent, African leaders enjoyed an extended honeymoon after delivering liberation. The multi-party order that took effect in the early 1990s placed limitations on how a leader should stay in power. For a while these old guards embraced the changed even though some of them probably had no intention of respecting the law and step down. It was not only the liberation heroes who overstayed their welcome. Some self- styled modern day democrats are struggling to resist the temptation of

bastardising the constitutions and are on the verge of committing the cardinal sin or have already had. In the last decade or so, constitutions have been changed in a greater number of African countries. Some leaders such as  Sam Nujoma of Namibia, left office after serving third, but others stuck on and were unceremoniously swept from power through popular revolutions and military coups. Professor Ndulo of Cornwell University rightly observed that the problems of Africa are caused by leaders who overstay in power, which breeds impunity, corruption and promotes patronage.

Some leaders (Like Nkurunziza) claim to be popular and say by changing constitutions they are “merely responding to the demands of the people.”  However Professor Ndulo disagrees as he believes that it is not a question of popularity and that the argument that the masses do not want change is an argument popular with dictators.

Schemes to change constitutions have followed a similar, almost scripted pattern. First the leader sits tight and shows no signs of heading for the exit despite their time being nearly up. Then the lobbying starts within the party, advancing a host of reasons why a third term is needed. To sycophantic levels, the leader is praised as nature’s greatest gift to the country and without him, it is like there is no tomorrow. As all this political nonsense is happening, the principal beneficiary is quite, purporting to be uninterested, yet stoking the fires from behind. The incumbent then begins to dodge the debate and when cornered some of them either duck the question or say “I will go by what the people say and I can’t refuse to serve my people.”

Dr Kobusingye posits that Ugandans were taken by surprise when calls to lift presidential term limit which originally started as a bad joke gained momentum until it overshadowed all the other debates. Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and district leaders who stood to gain from Museveni’s continued rule came forth to support the “third term” project. Ministers who did not support it were summarily dropped from cabinet. In the case of Zambia, when Fredrick Chiluba’s time was nearly up in 2001, calls arose from within the ruling party for him to continue because his cronies claimed he has not finished ‘‘his’’ development project! In no time a flurry of dubious NGOs surfaced and took over space in the state media demanding alteration to the constitution. Some academics were drafted to produce an opinion poll which purported to show that “majority” of  Zambians were in favour. As in Uganda ministers and party officials who opposed the campaign were sacked. It was only after a massive campaign led by civil society stopped Chiluba, who in the end claimed he had no intention of running again. In Malawi Bakili Muluzi was stopped, as was Olesegun Obasanjo in Nigeria.

Ideally, the constitution is supposed to be the safeguard against tyranny. As Professor Ndulo noted, the constitution is the framework on which governance of a country is anchored. However the rate at which African leaders are vandalising the law and tailoring it to suit their personal interests means people must always be on guard to protect the constitution from being mutilated by power hungry zealots intent on turning the national estate into a private kiosk.

Solly Rakgomo*

*Rakgomo is an educator, politics and security analyst


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