Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja is the latest in a long line of African leaders who seem to want to be president-for-life. His rationale, like those before him, is that he is the only one who can complete his work. A decade in office, it seems, is not enough. That was the same rationale used by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and others.
Sometimes these African leaders succeed in getting politicians and voters to approve of their continuation in office as Tandja did in achieving the overwhelming support of his countrymen to overturn the constitutional two-term limit. Conversely, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was not able to convince his country’s Parliament to accept the third term.
The continent is full of leaders who have been in power for decades. In its current issue, Time magazine cites 18 African countries that have either removed or extended term limits for their presidents: Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gambia, Lesotho, Libya, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, Swaziland, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Muammar Gaddafi has been in power in Libya for 40 years, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has ruled for 30 years and Robert Mugabe has been Zimbabwe’s president for 29 years. Can anyone state with assurance that the citizens of these countries have been better served by maintaining their leader in power beyond the original mandate?
A credible argument can be made that voters should have the right to maintain their politicians in office for as long as they are felt to be useful. There have been instances, after all, in which African voters have turned out leaders they have believed to have outlived their usefulness. In 1995, Benin became the first African country to move from a dictatorship to a popularly elected government when Nicéphore Soglo defeated longtime incumbent Mathieu Kérékou. In 2001, Kérérekou reclaimed the presidency, albeit in an election marred by irregularities.
In theory, voters should have the freedom to select the leader of their choice for as many times as they choose. However, all too often in Africa, leaders use various tactics to prevent their opponents from having a genuine chance to contest an election. Opposition parties have found themselves prevented from effectively campaigning, candidates have been jailed or tried for trumped-up crimes or vote counts have been manipulated. Consequently, the third term movements have been more about allowing leaders to get around the need to pass on power than it has been to provide choice to voters.
When he spoke in Ghana a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama said what Africa needs is strong institutions and not strong men. Truer words were never spoken.