As Sierra Leone’s president seeks to amend the constitution and extend his presidency, it is time for Africa to pause and reflect
The president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, wants to amend the constitution and remove term limits on the presidency. Koroma is not the first and will not be the last president of an African country to attempt this. Many others have done it with success while a few have failed. Yet each time a country attempts to remove term limits, we have a standard explanation: the leader is greedy for power. Since the 1990s, we have regurgitated this explanation, reducing a social issue to the character of an individual.
Term limits were entrenched in the constitutions of many nations of Africa in the 1990s and 2000s. From thence, the efforts to remove them have been widespread in many countries regardless of how the government that seeks to remove them came to power: whether it was through an election victory by an opposition party, a military coup, an armed struggle, a popular insurrection or a peaceful succession after the death of an incumbent president.
The countries that have attempted it have different regime types in different regions of the continent; different bases of power, their leaders have different age, the colonial masters were different, etc. So why does this diversity produce the same politics? Anyone can infer from this that the problem is not leaders but term limits. Theoretically, term limits are an attractive innovation but they seem not well suited to the political circumstances of some nations. Hence, each time to respect term limits comes; the political elite seek to remove them.
Africa needs to think! Term limits may be too much ado over little or nothing. Most of Europe does not have them. Some leaders of Western European democracies in the post-World War Two era have served for long: President Urho Kekkonen of Finland did 26 years, Prime Ministers Tage Erlander of Sweden and Ainar Gerhardsen of Norway did 23 and 17 years respectively. Therefore, long tenure by leaders is not distinctly African. But all too often poorly performing governments get voted out of office.
Even Africa does not need term limits to change governments. In Senegal, presidents Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade were both defeated by rivals as happened in Benin against Mathieu Kerekou and Nicephore Soglo, Madagascar against Didier Ratsiraka, Congo Brazaville against Denis Sassou Nguesso, Malawi against Kamuzu Banda and Joyce Banda, in Zambia against Kenneth Kaunda and Rupia Banda, in Nigeria against Goodluck Jonathan, most recently in Ghana against John Mahama and in Gambia against Yahya Jammeh. In all these cases, poorly performing incumbents were shown the exit by irate voters without need for term limits.
Secondly Africans are not passive victims of manipulative leaders. Some leaders in Africa tried to remove term limits and failed – Frederick Chiluba in Zambia, Bakili Muluzi in Malawi and Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria. Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso was in 2015 chased out of power by angry youths for attempting to remove term limits. In DRC, the opposition last year succeeded (at least for now) in stopping President Joseph Kabila from amending the constitution to remove term limits and he has agreed on a retirement timetable.
Yet many others have succeeded – Paul Biya in Cameroun, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Idris Derby in Chad etc. And in all these cases, incumbents who removed term limits proceeded to win re-election. This only goes to show that there was either limited political capacity within society to rein in such leaders or they were still popular.
Most people who comment on African politics miss the fact that law (or a constitution) is a function of politics. For a law to be effective it must be rooted in political reality, not in idealistic exhortations. Take the example of the United States: Its constitution stated quite clearly: “All men are born equal”. But it took another 42 years before poor white men could get the vote in 1832, 133 years before women were allow voting in 1920, and 177 years before black people are practically allowed to vote in 1965.
Even in Western Europe, the concept of liberal democracy and representative government developed long before many nations put it into practice. Enlightenment philosophers who wrote like Jean Jacquis Rosseou, John Locke, Voltaire etc. articulated a vision of the rule of the people in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet most of Europe where these ideas germinated organically took another 150 to 200 years before they could have they were effectively implemented in practice. And even then, the implementation did not grow in a linear fashion but through feats and starts.
The lesson we learn from this brief excursion is that civilisation is built on human nature, not human ideals. This is not to say human ideas do not matter. They offer a moral vision to which we aspire. But aspiration is not arrival; it is only a desired goal to which we constantly strive. Yet ideals are difficult to uphold because all too often they conflict with what reality demands. I admire the teachings of Jesus Christ on love and forgiveness, patience and charity. Every day I pray and hope I can live up to those ideals. I am always frustrated that I consistently fail to live up to them and I am only redeemed by the recognition that I am human.
Constitutions do not work because leaders are nice women and men committed to respecting them. They work when they are self-enforcing i.e. there are strong incentives for honouring them and dangerous consequences for not doing so. Ideals written in a constitution that are not backed by political reality would be hard to implement. The 15th amendment to the U.S. constitution in 1865 removed discrimination against voting based on race. Yet many African Americans did not get the right to vote until 1965 – 100 years later.
There was no chance that Barack Obama could amend the U.S. constitution and remove term limits even if he wished to. The political conditions in America could not allow it. Political conditions in Uganda today make amending the constitution to remove age limit possible; so it is likely happen. This is because those in power see that their interests are best served by keeping Museveni as president. They have the numbers in parliament and the political machinery that gives them a good chance to win or rig elections in 2021. Therefore, if you want term limits restored and age limits respected, do not moralise; analyse, do not agonise; organise.
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