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Africa’s presidents: Should they stay or go now?

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Africa’s presidents: Should they stay or go now?

In the last decade, a number of African presidents have changed their countries’ constitutions to extend their stay in power. While some succeeded, others were stopped in their tracks, but that has not discouraged more incumbents from trying their luck. But if the recent explosion of popular opinion against third-term presidency in Burundi is anything to go by, this term extension trend may have its days numbered. Reginald Ntomba reports.  

Events of the last few weeks in Burundi exemplify the importance of the rule of law in governance. They also indicate what the people are capable of in their bid to stop what they believe is unlawful conduct by a sitting head of state. The thousands that poured onto the streets of Bujumbura to protest against manoeuvres by President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third term showed that when all else fails, the ordinary people – at whose pleasure incumbents govern and who bear the brunt of instability – take it upon themselves to defend the law, the very fabric on which statehood is anchored.

Military coups are undesirable, but the celebration that followed the 13 May attempted coup in Bujumbura ironically demonstrated how much opposition there was to Nkurunziza’s endeavour, despite his claim of 90% support for his bid. Thus the failed putsch served as an unintended opinion poll which should help him reassess.  Whenever and wherever attempts have been made to change 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. This should not be the case on a continent where several countries are still reeling from such acts of self-induced insecurity.  But it 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. 

The writing was on the wall for what would happen if Nkurunziza insisted on having his way in elections scheduled for 26 June. But Nkurunziza was intent on pushing his luck. As is the case with leaders intending to overstay their welcome, Nkurunziza underestimated the masses’ opposition to his plan. From his seat of authority surrounded by courtiers who told him exactly what his ears were prepared to absorb, he reckoned that the protests would fizzle out, thereby granting him a free ride to another round of five years. The massive scare he eventually got via an attempted coup was probably nothing he anticipated. As he flew out to Tanzania for talks with other regional leaders on the situation in his country, he calculated that his forces would protect the throne and he would find it intact on his return. But in his absence, the throne was almost swept away.

Missed opportunity in Dar es Salaam

One characteristic of “third termers” is their knack for exploiting potential legal loopholes. Nkurunziza has been Burundi’s president since 2005, serving ten years. According to the spirit of the two term principle, that time in office should be enough. But no, 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 agreed with him, but seemingly under duress. The Vice President of the Court fled the country claiming death threats had been made against him to encourage him to find Nkurunziza eligible for a further mandate.

The Arusha Peace Agreement of 2000, which brought to an end Burundi’s civil war, formed the basis for Burundi’s constitution. When the various parties signed on the dotted line in 2000, it was hoped the country had closed a chapter of its history. But recent events have taken the country perilously close to the abyss. Although, the current crisis is not so divided on ethnic lines as the bloody civil war often was. The ease with which leaders discard peace agreements in part explains the resurgence of previously settled conflicts in some parts of Africa. Burundi has taken a step backwards and the effects may continue to manifest beyond the country’s borders. 

The threat to the region, already witnessed by refugees fleeing Burundi into neighbouring Tanzania, DRCongo and Rwanda, should have focused minds at the East African leaders’ meeting in Dar es Salaam that was derailed by the attempted coup in Burundi on 13 May. The gathered leaders swiftly condemned the attempted coup, but were not as swift in moving in on one of their own, when it was clear much earlier that Nkurunziza’s insistence on standing again, regardless of the legal loopholes claimed, was putting not only Burundi but the entire region at risk. That brings their conflict detection mechanisms into question. As if that is not enough, they showed their indifference again when they went back to their capitals without dealing with other similar cases in their midst.

There are third term noises in Kigali and Kinshasa.Flaunted as a “benevolent dictator”, Kagame has been praised for bringing his country back from the brink after the genocide. Rwanda is today quoted in various development reports as a model for economic development in Africa. Is Kagame exploiting this to extend his stay at the helm? Doesn’t this threaten to reverse the gains?

Kinshasa’s constitution provides for two terms. Kabila, in power since 2001, ran in 2006 and 2011, but reports indicate he is intent on succeeding himself. Deadly riots in January demonstrated yet again the price of such manoeuvres.

So, if the events in Bujumbura were a preview, shouldn’t the leaders meeting in Dar-es-Salaam have employed pre-emptive diplomacy and read the riot act to both Kagame and Kabila, well aware that trouble in one of their countries has previously been seen to spill over into the entire region? Are they waiting for another tipping point before they act?

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 a 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 since, a combined 29 years at the helm. But he too wants a third term when, in reality, he is close to six.

In Togo, the Gnassingbé dynasty lives on. Faure Gnassingbé won the 25 April election to start his third term. Aged 48 and armed with a constitution without term limits, nothing stops him from attempting to rival his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who was until 2005 Africa’s second longest serving leader, only outdone by Gabon’s Omar Bongo. 

The Museveni gospel

From the 1960s when most of the continent became independent, African leaders enjoyed an extended honeymoon after delivering liberation. But the multiparty order that took effect in the early 1990s placed limitations on how long a leader could stay in power. For a while, the old guards embraced the change even though some of them probably had no intentions of respecting the law, as the future would reveal.

By nature, the law is not retroactive. The new multiparty constitutions did not take into account the time incumbents had already served. Therefore, even those that had been at the helm for decades were still eligible for two terms. However, 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 constitutions and are on the verge of committing the cardinal sin or already have.

This scenario augments the view that you cannot build a democracy without democrats. African leaders signed up to multiparty democracy with the constitution as the ultimate guide, but they are still wedded to the “Big Man” syndrome. As their time to leave office approaches, the full measure of patrimonial politics comes on display. 

Agreed, Africa’s democracy is work in progress but tinkering with constitutions undermines the very essence of a constitutional, multiparty democracy.  It appears the only “democracy” some African leaders know is holding elections (or selections in some cases). The reality that democracy is a wider concept governed by a framework called a constitution and the rule of law is yet to sink in.

In the last decade or so, constitutions have been changed in a great number of African countries. Some leaders, like Namibia’s Sam Nujoma, left office after serving a third term, but others stuck on and were unceremoniously swept from power through popular revolutions and military coups – a fate they could have most likely avoided if they had realised that the orchestra had packed its instruments and the audience had long stopped clapping.

“The problems of Africa, and Uganda in particular, are caused by leaders who overstay in power, which breeds impunity, corruption and promotes patronage,” declared President Yoweri Museveni in his inaugural speech in 1986. 

I imagine he must have received a round of applause and been praised for representing a new breed of African leaders. But whatever happened between 1986 and 2005 must have been so profound to have changed Museveni’s view of power and the pitfalls of overstaying. To think Museveni would have rebuked Nkurunziza at last month’s meeting for trying a third term is expecting too much, it would be a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

But why exactly do constitutions limit the terms of president to two? 

“Many constitutions have two-term limits because there is consensus that two terms is a long time for a country to be run by one person.  A two-term limit ensures that after two terms there will be a change. The country can get a new perspective. In fact, most wrongs done by governments are only found out when there is a change of government. The US was the first to adopt the two-term limits,” Muna Ndulo, a professor of law at Cornell University told New African.

Some leaders claim to be popular (like Nkurunziza claimed 90% popularity) and say by changing constitutions they are “merely responding to demands of the people”.

But Professor Ndulo disagrees. “It is not a question of being popular. It is a question of how do you promote good governance. A constitution is the charter of governance. Without a sound constitution you cannot have good governance and you will not have accountability. The argument that people do not want change is an argument popular with dictators.”

Same old tricks

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. The campaign is thereafter turned into a “national issue” as supporters whip up sentiment. The same constitution which has governed the country for many years is denounced as inadequate and is said to be in desperate need of change. 

As all this is happening, the principal beneficiary is quiet, purporting to be uninterested, yet stoking the fires from behind. The incumbent then begins to dodge the debate. When cornered, some of them either duck the question or say “I will go by what the people say” or more meekly “I am a public servant, I can’t refuse to serve my people.”

In most, if not all, cases, the so-called “people” rarely, if ever, refer to the common populace. It is not “the people” who lead such campaigns. They are normally in the forefront opposing as seen in Zambia, Malawi, Nigeria and more recent in Burundi.

In her book, The Correct Line? Uganda Under Museveni, Dr Olive Kobusingye recalls how the third- term debate unfolded in Kampala.

“Talk of amending the ten-year-old constitution to lift presidential term limits started like a joke in bad taste. Many Ugandans were taken by surprise when it gained momentum, until it had overshadowed all other debate, both in the national Parliament and in the ‘bimeeza’, or the ‘people’s Parliament’ – live radio talk shows, some of which were open-air broadcasts. In characteristic fashion, the man at the heart of the debate – in fact, the only person who stood to gain from this amendment, having been in power for two consecutive terms and due to step down – initially kept quiet. Museveni let other people do the begging on his behalf. Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, district leaders – all those wishing to gain from Museveni’s continued rule came forth to support the ‘third term’ project. The lifting of presidential term limits became a major project for the executive. Ministers who did not support it were summarily dropped from cabinet,” she wrote.

One cabinet minister, Dr Kobusingye adds, said Museveni should continue because he was “the only one whose language is understood in Washington where Uganda gets funds to do work such as the rural electrification.”

How that is possible in a country of over 35 million people is hard to imagine.

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 supporters claimed, he had not finished “his” development projects. Party members opposed to the bid argued that governance of a country could not be reduced to an individual. Their voice was drowned out.

In no time, a flurry of dubious “NGOs” surfaced and took over space in the state media, demanding alteration of the constitution. College and university students were sponsored to demonstrate in support of the “third term”. Some academics were drafted in to produce an opinion poll which purported to show that “majority Zambians” were in favour.

While the Catholic Church and some evangelicals openly campaigned against the scheme, some charismatics admonished the country not to “oppose God’s will”. Chiluba professed to be a born-again Christian. It was not surprising that some of his supporters tried to spiritualise the issue. For his part, Chiluba kept the country guessing, insisting: “As a democrat, I will let the people debate.” As in Uganda, ministers and party officials who opposed the campaign were sacked.

As seen from the list of countries above, many leaders succeeded in their shenanigans, but others were not so lucky and were shown where the real power lies – in the hands of the people. A massive campaign led by civil society stopped Chiluba, who in the end claimed he had no intentions of running again. In Malawi, Bakili Muluzi was stopped, as was Olusegun 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.

It is no wonder that the masses strongly oppose attempts to manipulate the law to suit the interest of individuals. But the rate at which African leaders are vandalising the law and tailoring it to suit their personal interests means the 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.

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