Africa's elected monarchs: presidential term limits and democracy in Africa

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Democracy derives from the Greek word dēmokratía, which literally means “people rule”. It is a system of political organization in which the people participate equally in their government. Due to size of modern states, direct participation is generally unfeasible if not impossible; therefore, people participate indirectly through elected representatives.

One fundamental tenant of the democratic system is the frequent, free and fair election of representatives. The notion of a “life president” is thus antithetical to democracy. Yet, “life presidents” or quasi-monarchs are very common—if they are not the norm—in Africa. Even in self-professed democracies.

Any analysis of Africa’s elected monarchs must begin at independence, and specifically at the nature of liberation movements. Hyden points out that liberation movements were different from traditional political parties. They were social movements that demanded not just control of parliament, but society at large.

Leaders of liberation movements also mirrored the status of liberation movements. They were more than politicians; they were revolutionary freedom fighters. Hyden points out that nationalistic leaders were optimistic about their future but insecure, and anxious to secure their own power.

These two factors were the main contributors to the proliferation of one party states (“revolutionary-centralist states”) in post-independence Africa. Leaders who were perceived to the indispensable to the preservation of order and stability in Africa declared themselves “life presidents” of their countries.

Kwame Nkrumah was the first to declare himself the “life president” of Ghana in 1964. Nkrumah was followed by Hastings Banda of Malawi in 1971; Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic in 1972; Francisco Macías Nguema of Equatorial Guinea in 1972; Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia in 1975; Idi Amin of Uganda in 1976 and Lennox Sebe of Ciskei in 1983.

In the early late ‘80s to early ‘90s some African states adopted constitutional checks and balances to curb the trend of elected leaders turning into dictators. One check is the constitutional entrenchment of a limit to the number of terms a person can be elected as president (“presidential term limits”).

There are generally three types of limits. First, most constitutions limit a president to two terms. A person becomes ineligible to run for president after serving as president for two terms. Second, rarely constitutions limit a presidential term to three terms. A person becomes ineligible after serving three terms in office. The third type is a compromise between the two. A person who has served as a president for two terms must be out of office for at least five years before he can run for office for the third and last term (Mozambican Constitution, 1990). The requirement of one term out of office is a “cooling off” period.

Presidential term limits have proved indispensable in Africa due to the reluctance of leaders to voluntarily leave office. African leaders have a startling propensity for perpetual rule.

A study of 204 African presidents between 1960 and 2004 found that: of the 204 presidents, more than half were overthrown.  Only 25 presidents retired from office voluntarily. More importantly, 17 of the 25 voluntary retirements took place since 1990.

Yoweri Museveni once declared that ‘no African head of a state should in power for more than 10 years.’  Museveni explained in his book that the longer a president is in office, the harder it is to remove him democratically. Ironically, Museveni has been the president of Uganda for 27 years.

However, Museveni’s hypothesis stands. Perpetual presidencies erode the system of majoritarian democracy. The length of time spent by an incumbent in office gives him the clout to consolidate his position and to de-evolve a democratic state into a pseudo-monarchy (if not an outright dictatorship). It creates a patronage network in which successors are handpicked rather than elected into office democratically.

Perpetual rule allows presidents to monopolize and personalize power. The personalization of power leads to “personality cults” – ‘the use mass media, propaganda, or other methods, to create an idealized and heroic public image’ or demigod.

Perpetual rule erodes other basic principles of democracy such as accountability, transparency and responsiveness of government. Perpetual rulers often use underhand tactics such as violence, murder and the abuse of law to exclude competitors, which dilutes healthy political competition. A lack of competition removes the incentive to serve as there is no risk of losing elections.

The most recent example is Zimbabwe. In 2008 Robert Mugabe, who has been president of Zimbabwe for 33 years, refused to concede defeat and forced the electoral commission to recount votes. The recount led to a run-off election. Human rights organizations and independent observers report that Mugabe’s Zanu-PF resorted to murder, torture, illegal detentions, intimidation and threats in order to hedge the risk of losing the run-off election.

Perpetual rule also increase the likelihood of violence and war. Firstly, the use of underhand tactics by a pseudo-monarch increases the opposition’s inclination towards violence. This is the main cause of rebel movements. Secondly, perpetual rule ferments ethnic tensions. It is well known that a perception of marginalization gave rise to the “Hutu Power” ideology in Rwanda, which exarcebated ethnic conflict and led to genocide.

Similar marginalization sentiment have arisen in many other African countries, notably Kenya and Nigeria.

Monique Theron’s work showed that the use of violence to cause regime change has decreased significantly since 1990. This correlates with the increase in voluntary retirements since 1990.

Source: Monique Theron, African Trends and Transformation

However, Constitutional entrenchment of presidential terms limits is not a foolproof solution. Vencovsky found that “Seven presidents, most of them long-serving leaders of their countries, secured constitutional amendments that allowed them to stand for a third term in office, and all seven won subsequent re-elections. These were presidents Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, Idriss Deby of Chad, Omar Bongo of Gabon, Lansana Conte of Guinea, Sam Nujoma of Namibia, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.”

Other presidents have tried unsuccessfully to amend constitutions to remove limits. These presidents include: Fred Chiluba of Zambia, Bakili Muluzi of Malawi and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria.

Third-Term Amendments in Sub-Saharan Africa Since 1990 (source: Daniel Vencovsky)

Role of Business

Another culprit is business. Business often prefers to deal with one president. It is not uncommon for business to lobby against elections in order to avoid the disturbances caused by change of regime.

During an interview with President Robert Mugabe, talk show host Supa Mandiwanzira asked a strange question: “The biggest question business is asking is why do we have to go for elections given the fact that in the past experience, elections have been disruptive to business?” Mugabe responded by saying: “That is an aweful question. Why do we have to follow our policies and systems? If there are people of that mind, than they don’t know what to live in an organized democratic society means… we don’t have a one party system…”

In conclusion, presidential term limits enhance democracy. Perpetual rule on the other hand deprives people of a fundamental right of electing their leaders. It increases the chances of rigged elections. However, term limits alone are not enough. Leaders need to commit themselves to democracy and to respect of the constitution and the rule of law.

A list of long serving African leaders:

15 longest serving African Presidents. Source: Brad Cibane

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