The 'presidents for life' cabal - how Mugabe and other African leaders stay in power

Leaders like Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe use term-limit changes to extend their reign - but people are protesting, fighting for change.

  Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (92) is famous for quirky responses when asked why he has stayed in power since 1980. Asked whether it isn’t time he said farewell to the people of Zimbabwe, he replied: “Why, where are they going?”

On a serious note, he also angrily told journalists who asked about his decades-long presidency: “Have you ever asked the queen that question or is it just for African leaders?”

Mugabe has also said: “Only God, who appointed me, can remove me.”

As the oldest serving president in the world, Mugabe has become a caricatured leader who clings to power at all costs, ignoring the principles of democratic change of power. Are African leaders being judged too harshly?

Today, September 15, is the United Nation’s International Day of Democracy. The essential elements of democracy are “the values of freedom, respect for human rights and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage”, according to the UN.

In his message for this year’s event, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon says: “Human development is more likely to take hold if people are given a real say in their own governance and a chance to share in the fruits of progress. They want to live without fear and want to be able to trust their governments.”

Having a real say in who governs them is the driving force behind protesters who take to the streets against long-serving presidents – from Angola and Burundi to the Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe. In all of these places, people are fed up with their governments but don’t see a democratic way out.

In Zimbabwe, things are unravelling for Mugabe. The increasing thirst for change has pushed thousands of protesters into the streets of Zimbabwe’s big cities, risking a crackdown by the security forces.

The latest wave of protests was prompted by the economic meltdown and the inability of the government to pay salaries – the final straw for those who have suffered through years of hardship as a result of Mugabe’s policies. Elections have been marred by serious violence, especially those in 2008. No succession plan is in place either. This is creating instability and fears from the international community of a violent transition should Mugabe die while in office.

The call for long-serving presidents such as Mugabe, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and others to step down is not driven by pressure from the international community, as some allege, but from African citizens who see how these leaders frustrate development and govern in the interests of a small elite.

In the last few months, democracy has suffered a number of blows with presidential elections in Chad, the Republic of Congo and Gabon being contested. The opposition in Zambia is also still rejecting the results of the August 11 elections, despite a court ruling that dismissed its petition, without holding a hearing. The court ruled that the delay for addressing the opposition’s claims had expired.

The extension of their term limits by several African leaders has eroded democratic gains. Term limits are a necessary bulwark against abuse of power, especially when electoral systems are weak.

A number of African countries have no term limits for presidents. These include Gabon, Togo, Uganda, Cameroon, Chad, the Gambia and Sudan.

In others, presidents have only very recently agreed to such limits, often window-dressing while they plot to prolong their stay at the helm. Mugabe agreed in 2013 that presidents should have two five-year terms, which would technically allow him to stay in power until 2023.

In Rwanda, two term limits of five years now start only from 2015, enabling President Paul Kagame to stay on until 2025. In the Republic of Congo, according to changes made at the end of last year, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso will in future serve up to three five-year terms. Sassou-Nguesso pushed through these changes thanks to a hastily organised referendum on October 25 last year.

In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza’s insistence in 2015 to run for a third term, despite constitutional term limits, caused serious and ongoing conflict. Citizens are risking life and limb to oppose his long stay in power.

Burundi’s instability is seen as an example of what can happen when leaders fail to stick to term limits.

It is also considered a litmus test for continental institutions in dealing with the fallout from term extensions. So far, all efforts by the African Union have failed.

At the beginning of last year, African heads of state halted an initiative by the AU’s Peace and Security Council to send a 5 000-strong intervention force to deal with the instability that followed Nkurunziza’s election.

Observers also fear violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo if presidential elections aren’t held in November, as the Constitution requires. President Joseph Kabila should then step down after two terms in office.

Presidents make these constitutional changes because they believe, like Mugabe, that they should rule indefinitely.

In countries with no term limits, elections are often contested but through the abuse of incumbency, leaders manipulate the process and, as in Gabon, manage to stay on.

In many other parts of the world, presidents sometimes serve for life. Often, the head of state is purely symbolic.

In many European countries an executive prime minister runs things and is appointed through regular general elections. In this case, to reply to Mugabe, the queen is little more than a figurehead.

Despite the serious threat to democracy posed by the extension of presidential term limits, as well as the manipulation of election results, several countries on the continent have recently managed to hold credible presidential elections that saw a democratic change of leadership.

These include Nigeria and Benin. In Senegal and Burkina Faso, attempts by leaders to extend their mandates were successfully thwarted.

Africa has also adopted important instruments and agreements to promote democracy. This includes the African Peer Review Mechanism, which has faced serious problems, but attempts are now being made to revive it.

After much campaigning by civil society, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance came into existence in 2012. This was after the minimum of 15 AU member states ratified the charter.

The document has far-reaching provisions for promoting the rule of law, the respect for human rights and for holding democratic elections “to institutionalise legitimate authority of representative government as well as democratic changes of government”.

It binds signatories to best practices in the management of elections and acknowledges that unconstitutional changes of government are “a threat to stability, peace, security and development”.

The charter, for example, describes the “amendment or revision of the Constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government” as one of the “illegal means of accessing or maintaining power”.

Some have described the adoption of the charter as “a new dawn for democracy and the rule of law in Africa”, though four years down the line, its implementation has been disappointing.

If this is a true benchmark for African governance, why have the AU and African leaders not spoken up about the leaders who change their Constitutions to stay in power?

As the world marks Democracy Day, storm clouds are gathering and in several African countries, citizens will have little to celebrate. – ISS Today

Liesl Louw-Vaudran is a consultant for the Institute of Security Studies

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