To ask whether Africa needs term-timed Presidential democracy is bound to linger on the absurd. However, if Africa is to adopt, promote and remain democratically stable, it is worth looking again at Africa’s version of democracy? The widely held notion is that “democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people”. No one should pretend that democracy is perfect, but it can be the best in comparison to other forms of government. In theory, democracy can be beautiful, but a big fallacy in practice. One man’s democracy can be another mans’ dictatorship.
The African continent has been historically autocratic and monarchical. Such autocratic practices were grounded on the democratic functions of the select few. This was and is still common with the selection of Paramount Chiefs, as is practised in Sierra Leone to this day. Americans call it the Electoral college. But over time, this practice has morphed into systems that give Africa the unenviable accolade of having the longest serving heads of states in the world. With the exception of Monarchs, Paul Biya of Cameroon holds the record as head of state for 45 years ,29 days and counting. It is neither right, nor morally acceptable that one man, and one man only should conclude that they know what’s best for his country.
But Africa has been witnessing a recent surge in the recalibration of Presidential term times, and in effect democracy. The majority of African countries is now replacing the autocratic and one-party systems that have plagued the continent for so long. The system of two term limits is widely practiced in the Western world; and relatively works well. But it is not surprising that due to our umbilical cord to the begging bowl, our colonial masters have been prescribing this type of governance, as the diagnostic test for all our political ailments. The lack of such a well defined and well-run political system has been identified as one of the main reasons for Africa’s predicament. You may struggle to argue against this.
As we all know, the term time limits for leaders is not perfect but has worked relatively better in the West. The chances of that working in Africa are fraught with potentially dismal failures. It is one thing to inculcate and transplant a political system or change in general. But in most cases, political changes occur better in communities where there is sufficient social movement and self reliance. It is very easy for us Africans to conclude that like the west, we are practising democratic two term limit presidential systems. But that is where the similarities end. Unlike in Africa, Presidential term time limits are safeguarded by ACCOUNTABILITY. We cannot import just some aspects of a system. If we are to succeed, we need the whole works; and that includes the safeguards.
Democracy only works when the people keep the government in check; for it is the only form of government in which the free are rulers. The term time limits (TTL) work in the West because those elected know full well that they are held accountable for their tenure in office. There are systems in place to ensure that. The rule of law and lots of checks and balances in the form of constitutions, negate the potential for excesses. There are systems in place to call them to account for their actions or inactions even after their terms. Where such systems of checks and balances prevail, where such systems are guarded by the rule of law, leaders of such are most inclined to work for the next generation, rather than for the next election as their legacy.
Do we have such safeguards in Africa, to ensure that this brand of Western democracy obtains? It is an unfortunate situation that the rule of law is more often than not compromised in our societies. We tend to have systems where the judiciary, like most parts of government organs dance to the tune of the sitting governments. The independence and impartiality required of the organs of governments are suspect. They tend to dance to the tunes of those who pay the pipers. When a leader knows that their tenure is just for two terms, do they think about what they can achieve for the country or for themselves? Do they think about their legacies or how they can enrich and themselves?
When you look at people like Paul Biya, then you can appreciate the value of TTLs. It’s meant to prevent people like him treating the leadership like a birth right. The newfound TTLs may have coincided with the reduction of coup d’états, the quick changeovers of power, but how many African countries have really moved forward? When they know that their tenure is up shortly, what foresight comes to mind, other than to enrich and empower themselves and families? In order for the TTL to work, African countries need to strengthen the foundations of government. Leaders need to know that if they squander, embezzle, abuse their power or bastardise their countries constitution, they will be held accountable in or out of office.
In order for TTLs to work, we need a strong sense of democracy that will ensure free and fair elections. Incoming leaders tend to set expectations low during their first terms by blaming rightly or wrongly, outgoing administrations for pillaging their country’s coffers. So, what happens during their second terms? Alpha Conde (Guinea) Pierre Nkurunziza (Burundi) Idris Deby(Chad) Alassane Ouattara( Cote D’Ivoire) and even Korthor Ernest to name but a few, have all used as incumbent presidents an established playbook in Africa, often successfully to remain in power by massaging, bending or outright breaking laws often meant to ensure democratic handovers of power. The threat to TTLs is still there.
This piece is not aimed at suggesting that Presidential Term Time Limits are bad or not required. But in order for this to have any meaningful and intended outcomes; some of which is to prevent autocracy, tyranny, despotism etc, there is a need for strong social and political foundations. What is the point of these limits if leaders are not held accountable? Of what use are these limits if elections are neither free, nor fair? What are the benefits if the organs of governance are compromised to fit the purpose of the sitting governments? What is the essence of TTLs, if leaders know that they have such limited and once in a life time opportunity to change their lives and those of their families and cohorts for good? Of what use are TTLs if there are no checks and balances, no accountability, or even the desire to leave lasting legacies?
In 2006, Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese billionaire businessman and philanthropist, recognised the need for a new perspective in African Leadership. He launched the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Among other goals, the foundation aims to "bring about meaningful change on the continent, by providing tools to support progress in leadership and governance”. The foundation recognises and celebrates African leaders who have developed their countries, lifted people out of poverty and paved the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity. It highlights exceptional role models for the continent. It ensures that Africa continues to benefit from the experience and expertise of exceptional leaders when they leave national office, by enabling them to continue in other public roles on the continent. The foundation offers a prize believed to be the world’s largest; a $ 5 million initial payment, plus $200,000 a year for life, for successful African leaders.
One of the driving forces behind the Mo Ibrahim foundation is not only to reduce the risk of leaders and their administrations dipping their hands in the cookie jar, but to get rid of the Alpha Condes of this world. It was meant to take away any monetary or commercial attractions while in power. The prize is the world’s most generous. Sadly, there have been 6 occasions when the annual prize has gone unclaimed. This just goes to buttress the notion that “ when plunder becomes a way of life for a group men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorises it and a moral code that glorifies it” (Frederic Bastiat). How can Presidential Term Time Limits prevent the above without the safe guards is anyone’s guess.
Politics is too important to take seriously.
Don’t forget to turn the lights off before you leave the room.
Eid Mubarak to all.