The REAL DEMOCRACY RANKINGS; or why African presidents rarely lose elections

The odds favour success in repealing term limits laws to allow African Big Men to remain in power, especially if they have already stayed a long time.

THIS week, former Mozambican president Joachim Chissano has controversially argued that two terms are “not enough” for an African president to get anything meaningful done.

Speaking to a Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) lawyers’ forum in scenic Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, Chissano said he did not ascribe to the doctrine of two terms for African presidents.

 However, he quickly qualified it saying that they should not stay “more than enough”.

It’s a telling statement from an African president who left as a result of term limits, and was the first winner in 2007 of the very lucrative and these days rarely-given Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, and considering that the majority of countries instituted two-term laws in the 1990s as a deterrent to the Big Man Syndrome.

The Mo Ibrahim Prize rewards former African presidents who have achieved big strides in improving the lives of their people, and who have resisted the temptation to plunder the treasury or fiddle with the constitution to allow them to stay longer than their term limit.

No worthy candidates

Since its inception in 2007, the prize has only been awarded three times—in 2007 to Chissano, in 2008 to Festus Mogae of Botswana and in 2011 to Pedro Pires of Cape Verde.

In the other years, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation said because their standards were so high, there were no “suitable candidates” for the award—and it was not necessarily an annual award.

But in the media’s familiar manner, newspaper headlines around the world sensationally reported it as a sign of a total dearth of good leadership on the continent; a few sample headlines: “Does anyone govern well in Africa?”, “No-one worthy” and “African ‘good leader’ award fails to find winner”. 

But looking at the Prize’s criteria, it seems that we may not have another winner any time soon.

First, nine countries in Africa have no provision for term limits—so their leaders can never qualify for the award. A few of these are monarchies: Swaziland is an absolute monarchy so no elections there, while Lesotho and Morocco are constitutional monarchies but the head of government has no term limits. The others are Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, The Gambia, Sudan, South Sudan, Libya and Somalia.

Elsewhere in Africa, presidents have disqualified themselves from the prize by getting Parliament to do away with term limits.

Obasanjo foiled in Nigeria

The data shows that if a president goes down this route, he is more likely to get his way and stay longer, than be rejected by Parliament.

Three countries in Africa have seen presidents try and fail to remove term limits—Nigeria, under Olusegun Obasanjo, Zambia under Frederick Chiluba and Malawi under Bakili Muluzi. These leaders came to power in the 1990s, riding on the “democratic wave” that was sweeping Africa. But once elected, it seems the fruits of power were too sweet to let go.

Still, the odds favour success in repealing the law to allow African Big Men to remain in power, particularly they have already stayed a long time.

Eleven countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Niger, Togo, Uganda, Algeria and Djibouti have all seen term-limit laws repealed.

The majority of these leaders are? veterans of African politics, and had? been in power before the adoption of term-limiting constitutions in the 1990s.

Thirteen countries have seen leaders leave power when their constitutional term ends —Benin, Ghana, Tanzania, Mali, Botswana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, South Africa; the others are the island nations of Cape Verde, Sao Tome & Principe, Seychelles and Mauritius.

 So former presidents of these countries should look out for the Prize, maybe one of them could soon be $5million richer.

Loss by incumbents rare

But we at Mail & Guardian Africa have even higher standards for democracy. If we consider the most democratic country to be that in which the incumbent has run for a second term, lost, and accepted defeat, we discover that the pool is narrow indeed.

Loss by incumbents is rare in Africa: the African Development Bank analysed all the 653 elections held on the continent between 1960 and 2010, and its findings revealed that the incumbent wins with no contestation 64% of the time, the incumbent loses and accepts defeat 16% of the time, and coalitions are formed for the remainder.

In our “peaceful loss by incumbent” measure, Ghana and Mauritius show up there, but some very “unlikely” countries are also eligible for M&G Africa’s most democratic country.

Despite their many troubles with war and now Ebola, Sierra Leone and Liberia are “democracy star performers” here, as are culturally conservative countries such as  Comoros, Mauritania and Morocco. Indeed, by this measure, north-west Africa is the continent’s most democratic region.

One other unlikely star performer is Somaliland, the self-declared autonomous region of northern Somalia, which has seen four democratic elections since 1991, and in the latest one, 2010, incumbent Dahir Riyale Kahin ran but lost to Ahmed Mahamoud Silanyo.

The remaining countries in Africa do have term limits, but they have never been tested, for example, a president is yet to reach the end of the constitutional limit.

Which countries will be likely to do away with term limits and let the president stay on? Which ones are we likely to see the president go home and herd his cows after his time in office ends?

If we apply the insights from African countries, we find that if a president has already stayed long, he is likely to stay even longer…long incumbency becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos in Angola, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Republic of Congo, Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Joseph Kabila in DRC and good old Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe (if he continues to drink from the elixir of life) fit this bill of presidents likely to run for a third term.

Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza is already down that road, jostling to have Parliament remove term limits.

Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar, Senegal, Tunisia and Egypt at the moment have low chances of their presidents fiddling with the law to stay longer, as most of them just got into power a year or two ago.

And for Mauritania, Liberia and Comoros, because they have already experienced loss by incumbent, the chances are very slim indeed.


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