Africa has made progress in democratic governance over the last 30 years. Most countries in the continent now hold fairly regular elections and have, at least on paper, most institutions of democracy – a parliament, judiciary, press and civil society. In fact, in 1990, almost no country in Africa had set a constitutional term limit for leaders. However, by the turn of the century following the wave of democratization, over 30 have inserted term limits in their constitutions.
But as we are coming to realize, inserting term limits in the constitution is one thing; getting the leaders to honour it is another. Uganda provides a very good example here. Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. He ruled the country forcefully until 1996 when elections were held. However, nearing the end of his two five-year presidential terms, he got a compliant parliament to remove the term limits in the constitution in 2005.
Not content still, at 73, Museveni again got a compliant parliament to remove the last hurdle to his perpetuation in office – a presidential age limit of 75 – from the constitution, allowing him to run for a sixth term in 2021. For their troubles, each parliamentarian was paid $8000 (29 million Ugandan shillings) to, in the words of parliament spokesman Chris Obore, “help them to consult with their constituents.”
Expectedly, the growth and stability Museveni restored after long years of war and chaos is being reversed and the country is sliding into another dark era characterised by widespread corruption, human rights violation and inadequate public services. Haven refused to be bound by the constitution; he now finds it difficult to take action against senior officials implicated in corruption scandals. It does not matter that Uganda has one of the most comprehensive anti-corruption legislation in the world. Institutions just do not work in Uganda.
This behaviour is not limited to small countries alone. Even larger countries like Nigeria with highly diversified power bases that depend on the rotation of power among the different ethnic groups and power bases for their sustenance still face this problem.
In the 1990s, Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s military ruler from 1976 – 1979 on hearing that his former deputy, Shehu Musa Yar’adua was aspiring to become president famously asked him what he forgot in the ‘state house’ (seat of power) that he wanted to go back there. Yet in 1999 not only did Obasanjo return to spend two terms of eight years in the Aso Rock (Nigeria’s seat of power), he got used to the goodies of being in public office that he was reluctant to leave office on the expiration of his second term and was reported to have said to his deputy, Atiku Abubakar: “ I left power twenty years ago, I left Mubarak in office, I left Mugabe in office, I left Eyadema in office, I left Umar Bongo, and even Paul Biya and I came back and they are still in power, and I just did 8 years and you are asking me to go; why?”
Although Obasanjo’s move to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term failed, it failed not because of the strength of Nigeria’s institutions but largely because of the diffused ethnoreligious power blocs in Nigeria and their competition for, and rotation of power.
Of course, African leaders get defensive when questioned about their proclivity for abolishing term limits. Some, like the late Robert Mugabe, turn the question around requesting to know how many terms the Queen of England has served. Others point to Russia and China who have equally abolished term limits. Others also point to western countries like Germany where Angela Merkel was Chancellor from 2005 to 2021.
At the root of this proclivity to abolish term limits and centre governance around themselves is a total dislike for accountability. Once elected or catapulted into office, African leaders feel they are the embodiment of the will of the people and do not need to render account to anyone or be subjected to the various institutions of restraints that mature democracies erect to prevent abuse of power. Parliaments are often packed with loyalists and or ignored completely. The judiciary is compromised or intimidated while the press is simply muzzled. Like Senegal’s Leopard Senghor once said, sharing (or allowing checks on) power in un-African.
Check the evidence: all British colonies in Africa that inherited the more collegiate and accountability-laden parliamentary system have replaced the system with more dictatorial and personality-type presidential systems. But while they love the powers of the presidential system, they detest the term limits that come with it. So, they developed a hybrid: a presidential system with little checks on their powers and the no-terms limit of the parliamentary system. No wonder the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in its 2021 ranking index of democracies in 50 African countries ranked only Mauritius as “full democracy”. The others are either ‘flawed’ democracies, ‘hybrid’ regimes or outright authoritarian regimes.