Presidents for life intolerable

‘NOBODY should be president for life!”

Editor’s Memo with Dumisani Muleya

This is how United States President Barack Obama ended his visit to Africa on Tuesday with a candid yet blunt message to leaders who change their constitutions to seek third terms or harbour ambitions of being presidents for life.

During visits to Ethiopia and Kenya, where his roots are, Obama, speaking at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa inside Mandela Hall, said perpetual incumbency is undesirable.

“When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife — as we’ve seen in Burundi. (Applause). And this is often just a first step down a perilous path,” he said. “And sometimes you’ll hear leaders say, well, I’m the only person who can hold this nation together. (Laughter). If that’s true, then that leader has failed to truly build their nation.

“You look at Nelson Mandela, Madiba, like George Washington, forged a lasting legacy not only because of what they did in office, but because they were willing to leave office and transfer power peacefully.” (Applause).

Obama’s message, delivered with a mixture of humour and gravity, would have resonated with millions across Africa judging by the reception he got and traction on the issue.

It was timely given the situation around where he was — in the Great Lakes region. In Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza has just secured a third term at huge cost to his country, while his neighbour Paul Kagame is in the process of doing the same.

Joseph Kabila in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) seems to be thinking of a third term as well. They are following in the footsteps of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, in the same neighbourhood, in power since 1986.

Not far away from there is Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir who just extended his 26-year rule.

While third terms bids have failed in some countries, they have succeeded elsewhere. As it stands, Africa has nine countries: Uganda, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Gambia, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Djibouti and Angola, going to presidential elections between 2015 and 2017. What their leaders have in common is that they will have already served two terms or more by then, but wouldn’t want to go.

Nkurunziza has just done so in Burundi. In April, Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé did that. His father Gnassingbé Eyadéma ruled for 38 years.

Blaise Compaoré was in power for 27 years in Burkina Faso, while Omar Bongo ruled Gabon for 41 years. Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi reigned for 42 years. The Arab Spring uprisings toppled long-serving leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in 2011.
South African President Jacob Zuma and his Botswana counterpart Ian Khama, like Obama, recently scoffed at third terms and life presidents.

Many African leaders have been in power for long periods. These include Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, at the helm for 36 years; Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos (36), Cameroon’s Paul Biya (33), Chad’s Idriss Deby (24), Eriteria’s Isaias Afwerki (24) and Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh (21). Congo-Brazzaville’s Denis Sassou Nguesso has been there for 13 years, the same number of years he served before he was interrupted by defeat in-between.

Ironically, President Robert Mugabe — current AU chairman — has been in power for 35 years and might stand in 2018 to finish in 2023 at 99, God willing.

Obama predictably snubbed Mugabe. It would have been however good if he was there to hear it for himself.

“I don’t understand why people want to stay so long, especially when they have got a lot of money,” Obama said, adding he has done his part and he must now rest. He said while he could win a third term, it was time to go for the US to move forward.

African leaders must embrace this approach and spirit because prolonged incumbency, especially by incompetent and corrupt officeholders, is insufferable.