Algeria and Sudan are engulfed by protests against leaders who have overstayed their welcome. Their stories are vital and need to be told, but we must also recognise that they are not exceptional and a number of other countries may soon follow suit.
This is because Africa has seen a growing number of leaders establish themselves as “presidents for life” over the last few years.
Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, Sudan’s Omar al Bashir, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, and Chad’s Idris Deby are just some of the leaders that have successfully removed presidential term limits. Meanwhile in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, who was scathing about those who failed to relinquish power in his younger days, has been in power so long that he recently had to remove constitutional age limits, having already removed term limits back in 2005.
Despite the fact that term-limits have been respected in many countries, and that occasional transfers of power have led to a number of changes of government in the continent’s more democratic states, this means that a large number of countries are governed by an increasingly entrenched and uncompromising group of old men.
Some commentators have argued that allowing leaders such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame to remain in power is a good thing as it generates political and policy continuity. But any careful analysis of what these presidents have done in office demonstrates that nine times out of ten, the longer a leader remains in office in Africa the worse the consequences are for democracy and inclusive economic growth.
That we see popular uprisings against gerontocratic leaders in both Algeria and Sudan is not a coincidence: it reflects growing frustration with the failure of out of touch despots to provide the basics, such as political stability and affordable food. The great danger moving forwards is that a number of other countries including Cameroon and Uganda are following in their footsteps.
A short history of life presidents
Efforts by leaders to entrench themselves in power are nothing new. The first set of life presidents were the nationalist leaders who took power after the end of colonial rule. While some died in office relatively early, such as Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, and a small number resigned, including Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, many changed the constitution to enable them to rule for decades. Figures such as Malawi’s Hastings Banda and Uganda’s Idi Amin even changed their official titles to reflect their desire for authority.
The onset of the multi-party era was supposed to have changed all this. With a small number of exceptions, the vast majority of countries introduced presidential term-limits that were intended to stop one individual from gaining a monopoly on power. This process was not just driven by the spread of American norm. It also reflected a growing recognition that one of the reasons that many African states had performed poorly during the 1980s was the absence of effective checks and balances against bad leadership. The key lesson that many constitutional experts took from this was that additional measures needed to be employed to re-establish the separation between the ruling party and the state.
In many countries, this was a successful project. Over the last decade, term-limits have become consolidated in a wide range of states including Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zambia. But in the more authoritarian corners of the continent, leaders have found it relatively easy to remove these restrictions. As a result, six of the world’s top 10 longest serving leaders – excluding members of royal families who hold nominal positions – are African presidents. While Cameroon’s Paul Biya currently holds the record for the longest serving leader at 42 years, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is just behind him in second place, having been in power for 38 years.
Despite all the talk of the “youth bulge”, the reality is that Africa still features a remarkable number of political systems designed to protect old men.
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