Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had promised not to run for a second term. However, she recently changed her mind. In 2002, Mwai Kibaki of Kenya had made a similar promise only to renege on it immediately after his election. Now, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, has abandoned plans to retire and will run for re-election – after 20 years in power.
Across Africa, there are very few countries where presidents respect term limits – Tanzania, Benin, Mozambique, Botswana, Mali and Ghana are among the few examples. In Namibia, Cameroun, Gabon, Togo, Angola, Congo Brazzaville, Chad, CAR, Zimbabwe, Niger, Mauritania, Djibouti, Algeria, Burkina Faso and Uganda, term limits have been removed. In Zambia, Nigeria, Malawi and Senegal, presidents have tried but failed.
If the anti-term limits trend was limited to a few countries, we would seek the explanation from the character traits of individual presidents. But when the tendency is so widely spread, then it means that the fundamentals of the answer lie in something bigger and structural within our societies and their politics.
Take the example of Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. No president in Africa has ever spoken more grandiloquently against presidential longevity than he has. In 1986, he promised to be in office for only four years. In 1989, he extended this period for five years in order to finish writing a new constitution. In 1996, he promised he was running for only one term. In 2001, he promised he would retire after his second term.
In 2005, Museveni amended the constitution and removed term limits. Now we know he is not only in it for life but even beyond i.e. through his son. Many other African leaders have already begun to build family dynasties – in Togo, DRC and Gabon, family succession has worked. In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, it is underway.
The case of Sirleaf’s betrayal of her promise is more intriguing because she is a female (women have so far not come across as power hungry as men). Further, she does not come from a background of deprivation having had a good international career working with the World Bank. Why did she promise something that she has found so easy to abandon?
To put it broadly, why did Kibaki, Museveni, Nujoma, Zenawi, Idris Debby etc change their mind? What incentives sustain this tendency across Africa? If the problem was one of individual presidents and their immediate praise singers, then we would see an assembly of wider societal forces resisting them. Yet we have seen few caseslike those of Nigeria, Malawi and Zambia. But it seems these were possible because the presidents of these nations had not been in power long enough to develop powerful constituencies with a vested interest in perpetuating their time in office.
Daniel arap Moi in Kenya, Jerry Rawlings in Ghana and Joachim Chisano in Mozambique are the rare examples of presidents who had served for more than 15 years and respected term limits. But close observers say there were limited possibilities for these presidents to succeed in removing term limits and therefore had to retire. Their colleagues like Omar Bongo in Gabon, Gnanssingbe Eyadema in Togo, Paul Biya in Cameroon and Museveni in Uganda removed term limits because they could.
From this perspective therefore, it seems that the longer a president stays in power, the harder it becomes to respect term limits. This is partly because longevity may create many constituencies of hostility, but it also entrenches powerful interests in the body politic. In a 2008 Afro Barometer survey, most Africans said they want term limits. Yet this popular feeling does not find much currency in politics because the powerful can still manipulate electoral politics to remain in power.
The evidence from these countries therefore is a major challenge to Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. Like Museveni before him, he has made categorical statements denouncing the removal of term limits. Critics say that when recently asked by Christiane Amanpour on CNN, Kagame seemed to hesitate. There is nothing in Rwanda’s social structure, history and politics to stop him from removing term limits if he wished.
I do not know a leader of an insurgent army that captured power as RPF did and left power voluntarily – in Zimbabwe, Uganda, North Korea, Cuba, etc. If Kagame respects term limits and retires in 2017, it will be an act with few precedents, if any. Many in RPF will want him to stay. How can we tell whether he will resist or yield?
I believe Kagame may actually leave power voluntarily like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere because he has a strong interest in his legacy. And if precedent is a guide, his personal role in the history of RPF and Rwanda gives an indication that he will.
When the RPF captured power in 1994, its politburo met to elect a president for the country. Its chairman, Alex Kanyarwengwe, was unanimously rejected. Everyone in the meeting chose Kagame. He refused. Faustine Twagiramungu, then Prime Minister Designate under the Arusha accords led a delegation of all opposition parties to ask him to be president. Kagame still refused.
Interestingly, the Twagiramungu delegation was against the idea of Seth Sendashonga and Pastuer Bizimungu (both Hutu) becoming president. Instead Kagame proposed Bizimungu and as compromise accepted to become vice president and minister of defence. Few people who have fought as Kagame did to capture power can resist the temptation to become president. So Kagame exhibited extraordinary restraint.
One could say that times have changed; in 1994, Kagame had never been president and did not know the pleasures of the office. Now recognised as statesman all over the world for reconstructing Rwanda, he may become convinced that Rwanda’s destiny and his are intertwined. If you add the pressure from vested interests, Kagame of 2017 may look at things differently from the one of 1994.
Will Kagame prove the cynics right or wrong? Zenawi in Ethiopia and Sirleaf in Liberia have already fallen on this hurdle. Even those presidents who failed to remove term limits rigged elections for a chosen successor – Nigeria, Malawi, Zambia and Sierra Leone. It is tempting to remove term limits; difficult to restrain oneself fr-om doing so. Put differently, it is very difficult to leave power but good to do so.