AFRICAN POLITICS: IS CHANGING THE CONSTITUTION AND STAYING IN POWER BEYOND TERM LIMITS A SHOW OF LOVE FOR ONE’S COUNTRY OR JUST A WAY OF IGNORING THE VOICE OF THE VERY PEOPLE THAT CATAPULTED YOU TO POWER?
By Dr. Sorie Gassama
In a speech to the African Union last year in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, US President Barack Hussein Obama had this to say:
“I am in my second term. It has been an extraordinary privilege for me to serve as president of the United States. I cannot imagine a greater honor or a more interesting job. I love my work, but under the constitution I cannot run again. I can’t run again. I actually think I am a really good president. I think if I run I will win, but I can’t. There is a lot that I will like to do to keep America moving, but the law is the law, and no person is above the law; not even the President. And I will be honest with you, I am looking forward to life after being president. I won’t have all these security details all the time. It means I can go take a walk, I can spend time with my family, I can find other ways to serve, I can visit Africa more often.
The fun is I don’t understand why people want to stay in power so long, especially when they’ve got a lot of money. When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of a game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife as we have seen in Burundi. And this is often just the first step down a peerless path. Sometimes you can hear a leader say, ‘I am the only person who can hold this nation together.’ If this is true, that leader has failed to truly build their nation. You look at Nelson Mandela (Madiba), like George Washington, forged a lasting legacy not because of what they did in office but because they were willing to leave office and transfer power peacefully. And just as the African Union has condemned coups and illegitimate transfers of powers, the African Union’s authority and voice can also help the people of Africa to ensure that their leaders abide by term limits and constitutions. Nobody should be president for life.”
This speech by a smart young man many years the junior of most if not all African leaders was a wakeup call. The young smart custodian of the White House of African origin was not only simply telling African leaders that it was time for real democracy on the African continent, but that they should stop plundering the economies of the very nations they were voted for to improve. As I write, I am pondering whether the message got through to the very audience it was meant for.
President Obama cited Burundi as an on-going example. As it is at the moment, the streets of Bujumbura are a-washed with anarchy; neighbors who used to be friends are now bitter enemies grappling for each other’s throat; children who used to smile all the way to school now sadly sit at home frightened by the violence around them; non-supporters of Pierre Nkurunziza’s party cannot afford their basic needs; more than a quarter-million citizens, those who can afford to escape, are now living in refugee camps in the Congo and elsewhere. While all this is happening, Pierre is still failing to realize that the lives of his people should be a priority. He has become a complete snob to the welfare of the very citizens who voted him in. It is quite obvious that the recent visit of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has meant little to Nkurunziza. Even though he told the visiting UN chief that he would release 2000 detained people, he had never ruled out his third-term bid.
Across the frontier, Paul Kagame, Nkurunziza’s counterpart and who was his number one critic, has also just concluded a referendum for an unconstitutional third term because it is his belief that there is no one like him to continue leading Rwanda on the path to progress. I am pretty certain that if he survives his third term Rwandans, like Burundians, out of frustration, will one day take to the streets to force him out of power.
Also a neighbor, Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo (Congo Brazzaville), who has been in power since 1979, just a few weeks ago, did not stop at using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) against his own people who rose to stop a referendum supporting his third term. While he succeeded in quelling the agitated crowd for the moment, it should not come as a surprise if rebels soon emerge from the jungle in a bid to oust him and send him speeding for his life, leaving behind him the resultant destruction of life and property.
Take yet another African leader who has just won a controversial election for his fifth five-year term as president – Yoweri Museveni. He boldly told a BBC journalist that his party does not accept the logic of term limits. In his bid to clamp down on opposition, his security forces arrested and detained his keenest rival for the presidency, Kizza Besigye, about four times within a week.
Leaders who try to cling to power have just soon forgotten what happened to Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast and Blaise Campaoré of Burkina Faso. At present he (Blaise Campaoré) is being illegally hosted in Ivory Coast waiting for his day in court for the many crimes he committed against his own people. Laurent Gbagbo, a man who once considered himself as nothing more than a demi-god and the only lawful custodian of the Ivory Coast, is now obviously getting accustomed to his new address, a cell room in The Hague no bigger than a European closet. At this very moment, a man who once thought he was superior to any other person in the Ivory Coast has now found himself dejectedly sitting behind a bare desk in a courthouse in The Hague and answering to accusations of crimes against his own people. I pray and hope that he is kept behind bars for the rest of his life. In fact I hope he could be handed to the poor Ivorians to be disgraced and lynched as it happened to Samuel K. Doe of Liberia and some other stubborn African leaders. That is what shameless and self-conceited leaders deserve – those who consider staying in power as a priority against the welfare of the masses. Seated not far from him in the courthouse is Charles Blé Goudé, Gbagbo’s so-called former Youth Minister and his partner-in-crime. Once a loud and potty-mouthed boychick, with lots of money embezzled from state coffers as do most African politicians, he now looks saddened and depressed like a fallen angel in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He is now doing all he can to detach himself as much as possible from his former boss, like the coward he is. In his own words, “Je ne jamais étais le patron.” I hope he gets the same punishment as his boss. After all, they were cohorts with one giving orders and the other following the orders to the letter. They are both killers and a disgrace to their nation.
While Blaise Campaoré might believe he is out of the woods, it is far from that. He is more or less buying time while he waits for his own day in court. If for nothing else, he will face justice for killing a progressive leader like Thomas Sankara. What he should know is that a coward who fights and runs away will live to fight another day. The only difference is that in his own case, he will not live to fight but live to face justice. As it is, people who once benefitted from his 27 years in power have long since started to detach themselves from him. Most of his henchmen who occupied higher positions are presently even condemning him. Some even say that they were very much against his policies. Don’t be surprised as this is politics the African way. Be rest-assured, however, that all of those henchmen are just buying time before the law gets them in its noose.
It is worthwhile for all African leaders to realize that the wind of change is blowing through the African continent and whether it is liked or not, this growth of African national consciousness is a political fact now boldly written in indelible ink. This is to say that what African leaders of the past did and went scot-free can no longer be accepted. Africans have woken up from their slumbers and with the vigilance of the mass media as it is today, nothing escapes the curious eyes of Western societies. African leaders must know that while a man can build for himself a throne of bayonets, he cannot sit on it, and that, as wise people say, self-aggrandizement in politics at the expense of the masses is seldom the truest wisdom. While times have changed, people have changed with them, not for the worse though.
Are African leaders bad people? No. In fact all African leaders get into politics for the right reason, which is to help their people and achieve what past leaders never did achieve. The fact is that they are corrupted along the way by the very people they trust and bring in to help them achieve their objectives. Most African leaders appoint to higher offices not the capable but those they believe are friends or close associates. Through this, while they make sure that they are protected in the company of families and friends, the work of governance is neglected and left undone. The result is that those close associates, believing that they can do anything with impunity, compete with one another to embezzle state funds. Usually, they make the best use of it believing that once their leader-friend leaves power, there is no way they can make money anymore. The logic is that a well-educated individual can make ends meet after politics by doing something academic but the incapable is doomed thereafter and can therefore do anything to secure the future of uncertainties.
Usually the idea of changing the constitution to allow for a third term is never the idea of the president himself but the people that surround him. They are certain that once the president leaves power, the purse strings are tightened and their power to embezzle is gone. They therefore start looking for excuses and convince their leader that doing the wrong thing by changing the constitution to stay in power is normal and more heroic. In doing this, they pretend to adore the president while they harbor their own secret goals, which are to stay in power along with the president and continue their acts of avarice. They are always very much aware that this is a gamble that might fail and, indeed, it won’t work in today’s Africa. The fact is that when push comes to shove, as the saying goes, they can always abandon the very leader that they now pretend to cherish. Blé Goudé , President Gbagbo’s close associate, is now denying him in The Hague, while Blaise Campaoré’s cronies of 27 years are now furiously criticizing him on the streets of Burkina. This is enough for any African leader to think twice, especially those who are being pushed by greedy politicians to change a working document so as to stay in power indefinitely. Our elders always say that people who love you are never tired of advising you not to eat from a narrow bowl with your eyes closed. A constitution is a legally binding document that describes the system of beliefs and laws by which a country or organization is governed. No one has the right to turn it around for their own benefit. Like President Obama said, this can simply lead to civil strife.
Political leaders who have led their countries for a two-term limit must be content and grateful to the voting populace. They must be wise enough to peacefully exit and not over-stay their welcome. Problems can easily flare up if those people who love you today become disgruntled. When this happens, all the henchmen who pretended to be friends will melt away. Nothing is better than to stay in power for two terms, oversee the conduction of a fair election with the awareness that democracy is not in the voting but in the counting, hand-over power peacefully, and stay in the country you have helped build as a respected and peace-loving citizen. It is wise to leave office smiling with triumph and pride than weeping with regrets and indignity. In Gbagbo’s words, “No man should listen to a greedy wife; I hope I hadn’t listened to mine.” Presently, Gbagbo is in pain and will be for a long time. There is no greater pain than to remember a happy time in the midst of misery.
This article is not meant for all African leaders; it is mainly for those dishonest and rapacious tyrants. I am writing with the hope that all such leaders who are thinking of breaking the rules will wise up and abide by their constitutions. In the words of UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, “African leaders should stop looking for technicalities to stay in power.” Using a state of emergency as a reason to stay in power is not good enough, nor is it feasible for a politician to say that he wants more time to be able to achieve what he couldn’t achieve during his two terms. Africa today, with it riches and suffering masses need more peace than ever before.
Africans in power must remember that people crushed by law have no hope and trust in governance. If laws become their enemies, they will become enemies to laws; and those who have much to hope and nothing to lose will always be dangerous, more or less. People don’t give up their freedom except under delusion.