No, Mr President, You Don’t Need 26 Years in Power to Become ‘an Expert in Governance’

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After over two and half decades in power, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda recently boasted of expertise in governance – brought by his 26 years of presidency. 26 years in power is a very long time, by any measure. There is a whole generation of Ugandans that have not known any other leader but Museveni.

President Museveni takes an oath (1986) Image via Wikipedia

Yet history recalls that President Museveni’s remarks contracts what he said when he initially came to power in 1986:

“The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.”

And here is President Museveni 26 years later (2012):

“Some people think that being in the government for a long time is a bad thing. But the more you stay, the more you learn. I am now an expert in governance.”

That is the difference presidency make. Yet Museveni is not a lone in this, it is a continental problem. Malawi’s former president, Bakili Muluzi once believed that African presidents, Malawi in particular, should not be in power for more than a decade. This was in the aftermath of the fall of Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s 31 years of dictatorship.

After winning a re-election for a second and last term in office, Muluzi saw things differently. Now he need more than two terms in office “to finish his development projects.” Muluzi launched a ferocious campaign for a constitutional change to allow himself more time in power. Fortunately, parliamentarians vetoed the motion and democracy carried the day – credit to Muluzi for accepting the defeating though.

President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal must have learned from Muluzi’s failed attempt. Wade came into power in 2000 for a 7-year term and got re-elected in 2007 under a new constitution, which reduced the term limits to five years. In 2008 the constitution was changed again to allow for two 7-year terms. This would be from 2012. It is important here to notice that these constitutional changes happened on Wade’s watch. Now Wade has refused to step down after two consecutive terms in office. He has argued that the constitutional changes allow him to run again. The Senegalese courts have backed him, and bar Wade’s most formidable opponent, musician Youssou N’Dour.

After fracas and political unrest that has followed these events, Nigerian former president, Olusegun Obasanjo tried in vain to talk Wade into stepping down. Ironically, Obasanjo himself tried in vain to extend his term limits in 2007.

Surely there is something about African presidential seat that only people like Museveni, Muluzi, Wade and Obasanjo can explain. However, it has nothing to do with experience or development, as Museveni and Muluzi, respectively, want the world to believe. It has everything to do with self-serving politics of the continent.

While in the West politicians are not corrupt-free, UK’s MPs expenses scandal is the best example. Yet if people in the West want to get filthy rich they get into banking, stock trading, hedge funds etc., in Africa you join politics. This is what incentivise African politicians, particularly presidents to cling on to power.

Yes, experience is desirable in many aspects of our lives and activities but not with governance. Unless if we decide to ignore traditional forms of democratic governance, and adopt chief executive style of leadership – with one man calling the shots. Presidents come to power without experience of that position anyway, unless it is a comeback, which is unlikely in places where term limits apply.

To have good governance and functioning governments you need a vibrant and independent civil service and civil society, independent police, in the service of the people not the state, separation of powers between the arms of government and respect for the rule of law. It’s presidents like Museveni who have convinced themselves of their expertise that compromise good governance because they do not listen to anyone and this underestimate the rule of law.

This article was first published on The Spirit of uMunthu

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