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Picture: Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/December 2022 – President of Rwanda Paul Kagame delivers remarks at the US Africa Space Forum in Washington, DC, US. A number of countries have amended constitutions or manipulated legislative loopholes to facilitate this democratic elasticity that has allowed presidents such as Kagame to extend their terms of office, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

Much has been written of the long tenure of many African Presidents, as if this power play was particular to the Continent. It is not. If history is to be believed, way back in 45 BC, military general and politician Julius Caesar not only proclaimed himself head of the Roman Empire but attempted to extend his rule indefinitely. But his wish to be a “perpetual dictator” was short-lived when he was assassinated by political opponents within his first year of rule.

The modern world is in no short supply of those who believe they should either be Presidents for life or enjoy extended Presidential terms well beyond constitutional prescribes or best practice democratic principles. In current day China, Xi Jinping, has just begun his third term as the President of this world power. The two-term limit for Presidents was lifted in 2018. In 2020, Russia’s constitution was successfully amended, which effectively restarted Vladimir Putin term count. This will allow him to stand for re-election in 2024.

In the African post-colonial political landscape “long-serving” leaders and “Presidents for life” have become a common feature. Several African nations, including Uganda, Cameroon, Chad, and Sudan, do not limit the length of Presidential office. In other countries on the Continent, limited terms are stretched out well beyond the original intent. In 1964, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah declared himself as President for life. A decade later, other Presidents on the Continent including Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba and Uganda’s Idi Amin followed suit.

The Council on Foreign Relations reports that “since the turn of the century, at least two dozen heads of state have tried to remain in power by tweaking their countries’ constitutions or evading term limits”.

The report states how this tendency among post-colonial leaders allowed many to stay in power for three or more terms, and how this “entrenched leadership” has spurred corruption, instability, societal fractures, and economic stagnation”.

A number of countries have amended constitutions or manipulated legislative loopholes to facilitate this democratic elasticity. These power gymnastics allowed the President of the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, to serve three five-year terms and will see President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, stay in power until 2025.

In the case of the Republic of Congo, the 2015 constitutional amendment, which allowed for longer Presidential terms, appears to have entrenched governance and human rights abuses, rather than development or stability. In Burundi, the lengthy reign of former President Pierre Nkurunziza, who held power for almost fifteen years, saw the rise of human rights abuses and oppression of opponents.

Leaders like Kagame would argue that extending the Presidential term safeguards rather than damages or undermines development. They would argue that it provides secure and stable leadership and policies that will help to root out rather than create conflict. Following the genocide in Rwanda, and the reconstruction of the cultural, social, and economic fabric of the country, Kagame’s point may well be salient for Rwanda’s trajectory from devastation to democracy.

Speaking at the 2022 US-Africa Leaders’ Summit, Sassou-Nguesso said “As for the leaders who have stayed in power for a long time, what if that was the will of the people? Elections are meant to ask people to share their opinions. What if the people vote in favour of stability?”

A referendum in Rwanda on extending the President’s term of office found overwhelming support for the granting of an extension. Afrobarometer’s Boniface Dulani challenges the retort by long-serving African presidents that the people want them to stay on. He refers to the most recent Afrobarometer’s report, which found that support for term limits “is strong and growing stronger” for ordinary Africans. Across 34 countries, an average of 76 percent of citizens believe that their President’s term should be limited to two terms.

The late Ethiopian President Meles Zenaida once said “I would love to be the African leader that steps down, that overthrows this idea of a Big Man ruler. I don’t want to stay in office forever”. But he changed his tune when he was fast approaching the end of his term. He was to stay in power for 21 years. Similarly, at his inauguration in 1986, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni spoke out against Africa’s Presidents who cling to power for too long, arguing that this damaged rather than built the Continent. Yet he remains in power today, serving his sixth term in office.

Ethiopia’s Zenaida, “While all democratic systems are works in progress, ours started rather late and therefore has a longer distance to cover. But democratic transformation for us is not mimicking some facets of Western governance. The focus has been on building institutions of democratic governance.”

During his lengthy tenure, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe said that the call for term limits by Western governments and organisations was an attempt to “place a yoke around the necks of African leaders”.

The intervention of Western governments and organisations on this matter must be viewed with some suspicion for their motives are typically driven by matters of self-interest, control, and their own development objectives, rather than by an interest in the wellbeing of Africa. Each country must determine what would work for it depending on the challenges it faces. Often, the problem in Africa has more to do with external interference by parties that are interested in looting its natural resources. With an unedifying experience, Africans must take themselves seriously and determine their own future – a future that is not based on some external formula that is imposed on them. Any intervention by bodies such as the African Union needs to take cognisance of all these factors.

But for now, African leaders have largely failed to build home-grown authentic democracies. With many “constitutional coups” by sitting Presidents who uproot their own county’s Constitutions for their own ends, rather than to safeguard the rights of citizens, African nations are being treated as the personal province of Presidents.

In an interesting piece by academic Claire Wilmot entitled How and why term limits matter, published in African Arguments in 2015, she writes, “Authoritarian legacies in Africa have their roots in colonial state apparatuses, which were designed to facilitate resource extraction, and relied on state control over its subjects. The state became a bastion of wealth and a locus of exclusionary power, so access to the state guaranteed access to resources and security, usually at the expense of excluded groups. In many former African colonies, the state remains a prize to be captured and maintained at all costs.”

The long-serving Ugandan President, Museveni, once wrote that the longer a President is in office, the harder it is to remove him democratically. The plea of former US President Barack Obama for African leaders to honour term limits was largely ignored. It is likely that calls by the African Union are also likely to be dismissed by many intransigent leaders, who are likely to justify their lengthy power reigns as the will of the people.

Length matters when legions of old men with sterile rule. The Afrobarometer survey found that 76 percent of African citizens interviewed were in favour of an age limit for Presidential candidates. In the end the focus should vest on what Presidents are doing with their power than for how long they reign. And for now, many are failing to perform. In Africa, long term Presidents are likely to be the fascism of democracy for some time to come.

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.