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The problem with missionary politics

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why obsession with presidential term limits in Africa is a secular gospel based on faith than historic facts

US President Barack Obama excited a section of Africa’s elite when he denounced African leaders who rule for very long, some even dying in office. This seems common sense. But how long is long? The ancient Romans thought a year was long enough. When in 509 BC they abolished monarchy and established a republic, they created a senate that would elect two councils (later tribunes) who would serve a one-year non-renewable term. When in 132 BC Tiberius Gracchus attempted to violate this rule and run for a second term, senators led by Scipio Nasica accused him of trying to become king. They attacked him wielding clubs in the Forum and killed him. So by the standards of the ancient republican Rome, Obama’s eight years is a very long time for a leader to be in power.


This system had served the republic through external attack and internal rebellion for almost 400 years. But as Rome’s economy transformed from village tillage to urban industry, and as its realm spread from the Italian peninsular to cover most of Southern and Central Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the system began to falter. Beginning with the murder of Tiberius, Rome was consumed by never ending civil wars until the Republic ended when Octavian was declared princeps (effectively emperor) in 27BC.

The founding fathers of America in establishing the republic copied their constitutional design from Republican Rome. Like the ancient Romans, they had overthrown a monarch. In the initial Articles of Confederation, Congress would elect a president who would serve a non-renewable term of one year. But after sevens years, the Americans realized that this formula was not suited to their circumstances. In 1789 they wrote a new constitution creating a president elected by Electoral College to serve four-year terms. It was not until 1951 (162 years later) that America established term limits. Lesson: nations should not be very rigid with their constitutions. Instead they should be open-minded on amending them to fit their circumstances.

Coming to Africa, term limits although echoed by Obama is not a foreign imposition but an endogenous demand. Many Africans believe that leaders should serve two five year terms and retire, giving others a chance at leadership. This demand is both reasonable and self-evident for republican government. Regular change of government gives a country an opportunity to test the different leaders. The problem of course is that all too often, we hold this principle as a religious creed than a political objective.

There is an assumption that longevity of leaders in Africa is a cause of instability. But is this really true? The laboratory of politics is history. If we look the nations of Africa with the most stable democracies, they are the ones that had preceding presidents that ruled for very long: Zambia (Kenneth Kaunda, 27 years), Malawi (Kamuzu Banda, 30), Tanzania (Julius Nyerere, 24), Ghana (Jerry Rawlings, 18), Kenya (Daniel arap Moi, 24), Benin (Mathieu Kerekou, 19 plus 10), Botswana (Katumile Matsire, 17) and Senegal (Abdou Diof, 20).

Even those who ruled till death contradict Obama’s doomsday prediction. The most successful democracy in Africa is Botswana. Its first president, Sir Tseretse Khama, died in office after 14 years in power. Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, ruled for 15 years and died in office. In Mozambique, Samora Machel died in office after 12 years in power, there was a peaceful transition leading to term limits and a stable democracy. Recently in Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi died in office after 23 years in power and left the most successful economy on our continent – and a peaceful transition.

In Ivory Coast, Felix Boigny ruled for 33 years, died in office paving away to a peaceful transition. Under the successor multiparty democratic government the country succumbed to a coup, then civil war and near collapse. In Togo and Gabon, Presidents Nansiggbe Eyadema and Omar Bongo ruled for 38 and 41 years respectively, died in office and bequeathed peaceful transitions to their sons. Ahmed Ahidjo served Cameroun for 22 years and retired peacefully and handed over power to Paul Biya who has ruled for 33 years now.

In Mali, Moussa Traore ruled for 23 years and was overthrown in a military coup. The coup leader, Gen. Amadou Toumani ruled for one year and handed over power, to a democratic government with term limits. But this experiment collapsed in 2012 with a coup. Today, the country is held together by French troops.

Indeed, let us look at presidents in Africa who did “the right thing” i.e. took power and kept their promise to rule for a short time and transfer power to a democratically elected multiparty government. All in cases, the experiment backfired. Brig. Akwasi Afrifa in Ghana ruled for one year in 1968-69 and returned power to civilian rule. Within three years the multiparty democracy succumbed to a coup followed by prolonged instability.

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