Why obsession with presidential term limits in Africa is a secular gospel based on faith than historic facts
US President Barack Obama excited a section of Africa’s elite when he denounced African leaders who rule for very long, some even dying in office. This seems common sense. But how long is long? The ancient Romans thought a year was long enough. When in 509 BC they abolished monarchy and established a republic, they created a senate that would elect two councils (later tribunes) who would serve a one-year non-renewable term. When in 132 BC Tiberius Gracchus attempted to violate this rule and run for a second term, senators led by Scipio Nasica accused him of trying to become king. They attacked him wielding clubs in the Forum and killed him. So by the standards of the ancient republican Rome, Obama’s eight years is a very long time for a leader to be in power.
This system had served the republic through external attack and internal rebellion for almost 400 years. But as Rome’s economy transformed from village tillage to urban industry, and as its realm spread from the Italian peninsular to cover most of Southern and Central Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the system began to falter. Beginning with the murder of Tiberius, Rome was consumed by never ending civil wars until the Republic ended when Octavian was declared princeps (effectively emperor) in 27BC.
The founding fathers of America in establishing the republic copied their constitutional design from Republican Rome. Like the ancient Romans, they had overthrown a monarch. In the initial Articles of Confederation, Congress would elect a president who would serve a non-renewable term of one year. But after sevens years, the Americans realized that this formula was not suited to their circumstances. In 1789 they wrote a new constitution creating a president elected by Electoral College to serve four-year terms. It was not until 1951 (162 years later) that America established term limits. Lesson: nations should not be very rigid with their constitutions. Instead they should be open-minded on amending them to fit their circumstances.
Coming to Africa, term limits although echoed by Obama is not a foreign imposition but an endogenous demand. Many Africans believe that leaders should serve two five year terms and retire, giving others a chance at leadership. This demand is both reasonable and self-evident for republican government. Regular change of government gives a country an opportunity to test the different leaders. The problem of course is that all too often, we hold this principle as a religious creed than a political objective.
There is an assumption that longevity of leaders in Africa is a cause of instability. But is this really true? The laboratory of politics is history. If we look the nations of Africa with the most stable democracies, they are the ones that had preceding presidents that ruled for very long: Zambia (Kenneth Kaunda, 27 years), Malawi (Kamuzu Banda, 30), Tanzania (Julius Nyerere, 24), Ghana (Jerry Rawlings, 18), Kenya (Daniel arap Moi, 24), Benin (Mathieu Kerekou, 19 plus 10), Botswana (Katumile Matsire, 17) and Senegal (Abdou Diof, 20).
Even those who ruled till death contradict Obama’s doomsday prediction. The most successful democracy in Africa is Botswana. Its first president, Sir Tseretse Khama, died in office after 14 years in power. Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, ruled for 15 years and died in office. In Mozambique, Samora Machel died in office after 12 years in power, there was a peaceful transition leading to term limits and a stable democracy. Recently in Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi died in office after 23 years in power and left the most successful economy on our continent – and a peaceful transition.
In Ivory Coast, Felix Boigny ruled for 33 years, died in office paving away to a peaceful transition. Under the successor multiparty democratic government the country succumbed to a coup, then civil war and near collapse. In Togo and Gabon, Presidents Nansiggbe Eyadema and Omar Bongo ruled for 38 and 41 years respectively, died in office and bequeathed peaceful transitions to their sons. Ahmed Ahidjo served Cameroun for 22 years and retired peacefully and handed over power to Paul Biya who has ruled for 33 years now.
In Mali, Moussa Traore ruled for 23 years and was overthrown in a military coup. The coup leader, Gen. Amadou Toumani ruled for one year and handed over power, to a democratic government with term limits. But this experiment collapsed in 2012 with a coup. Today, the country is held together by French troops.
Indeed, let us look at presidents in Africa who did “the right thing” i.e. took power and kept their promise to rule for a short time and transfer power to a democratically elected multiparty government. All in cases, the experiment backfired. Brig. Akwasi Afrifa in Ghana ruled for one year in 1968-69 and returned power to civilian rule. Within three years the multiparty democracy succumbed to a coup followed by prolonged instability.
Jerry Rawlings ruled for six months in 1978-79 and handed over power to a civilian multi party government. The experiment lasted two years and ended in another coup led by him. It is after he gave Ghana a long reign of 18 years that he bequeathed it its current stability and democracy. Olusegun Obasanjo ruled Nigeria for four years and returned power to a multiparty civilian government in 1979 that collapsed in 1983. Brig. Mada Bio of Sierra Leone ruled for one year in 1995 and returned power to multiparty civilian rule. This precipitated another coup, civil war worsened and the state collapsed.
In fact, most nations of Africa that have been unstable are those that did not have a founding president who served for very long – Ghana, Uganda, Congo DRC, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Chad, CAR, Nigeria, Chad, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, etc. Indeed the first president in post independence Africa to do “the right thing” and relinquish power peacefully after electoral defeat was Osman Daar in Somalia in 1967 – he had served seven years. Two years later Somalia had a coup, then civil war and the current dismemberment of the country. Liberia had 17 peaceful transfers of power from 1848 when it was established and 1980 when Sgt. Samuel Doe staged a coup i.e. each president serving an average of six years. From then the country degenerated into civil war, state and economic collapse.
In Sierra Leone, President Siaka Stevens retired peacefully in 1985 after serving 16 years. Within seven years, civil war, military coups and counter coups turned the country into a failed state that was only rescued by British troops. Uganda had its experiment in peaceful democratic change of government. On June 19th, 1979 a vote of no confidence in President Yusuf Lule was passed by parliament. When the results were announced, the Speaker, Edward Rugumayo, turned to the stone-faced Lule and told him: “you are no longer president of Uganda.” After that, the country succumbed to military coups, civil war and near collapse.
There are presidents who ruled for long and their countries unraveled –Siad Barre in Somalia (22 years), emperor Haile Selasi in Ethiopia (45 years), Juvenal Habyarimana in Rwanda (20 years) and Mobutu in Congo/Zaire (32 years). It is not clear whether Congo/Zaire would have been more stable if its presidents had served a short time. There are many inconsistencies among these countries – and it is hard to see one clear pattern that ensured stability and peaceful transitions to stable democracies. Each country’s development seems to have been shaped by its unique circumstances.
If you are open-minded, this brief history is a moment to pause and reflect. We see that serving for a short time and peacefully handing over power did not guarantee stability. In most cases, it precipitated coups and civil war. Second, there are very few cases where a long serving president bequeathed instability. In most cases they delivered peaceful transitions leading to stable democracies.
These facts contradict our secular gospel that condemns those of our leaders who served long. In fact they teach us that longevity and term limits are not mutually contradictory – one seems to lay a foundation for the other. Therefore the real issue facing Africa is not the length of time a president serves but how he/she organizes politics. Secondly, the worst mistake would be to treat all our countries as the same and prescribe one solution for all of them.