Why Presidents Refuse to Relinquish Power: The African Dilemma.

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September 7, 2015

Why Presidents Refuse to Relinquish Power: The African Dilemma.

Elizabeth Ohene, in her June 2015 open letter on `African Presidents being addicted to tittles` raises the disturbing trend of African presidents – from the founding fathers like Kwame Nkrumah to our present leadership promulgating themselves with absurdly long tittles. Ironically, all the long titles each of these Presidents gave themselves were coupled with the self-proclamation: `president for life`. One of Africa`s most celebrated founding fathers, the first President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah was to be called, Osagyefo, (a chief’s title, said to mean Redeemer) Dr. Kwame Nkrumah – Life President of the Republic of Ghana. The sergeant major turned President of Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Mobutu, took the trend to a scale higher. He became Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Waza Banga, meaning ‘The Warrior who goes from Conquest to Conquest Leaving Fire in his Wake’. Former Malawi President Kamuzu Banda was, President Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda-Life President of the Republic of Malawi. The infamous former Ugandan president Idi Amin was called, Field Marshall Dr Idi Amin Dada MC DSO CBE (Conqueror of the British Empire)-Life President of Uganda.

Presently, the Gambian leader is formally known as “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa”. Babili Mansameans Bridge Builder, or Conqueror of Rivers, in the Mandika language. The Zimbabwean President is His Excellency, the President, Robert Gabriel Mugabe and Commander-in-Chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Patron of War Veterans, First Secretary of the ZANU-PF and Chancellor of all State Universities, first secretary of ZANU PF, and First Citizen of the Nation.

What is about tittles that make these presidents portray some gravitation or rather addiction towards them? Historically, the African Chiefs used to be endowed with tittles, tittles that indicated how great and powerful they were. Is this something these presidents are trying to emulate or as Elizabeth Ohene posits-, are they trying to emulate the British colonialists who call themselves Sirs, Dukes, Duchess, Baroness, Viscounts, OBEs, CBEs etc.?

The real concern however, is the fact that this trend of power obsession is continuing across generations; some African presidents are while others still want to be Presidents for life in this twenty first century. Today, roughly 70 percent of the population in African countries are youths- these young people today in countries like Zimbabwe, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, have seen only one president since their birth. Cameroon`s Pau Biya has been in power for more than 40 years, Mohamed Abdelaziz of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has ruled for 38 years, Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea for 36 years, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe for 35 years and Jose Eduardo dos Santo of Angola has ruled for more than 35 years. Of all African countries, 11 of them have had single Presidents for more than a generation – having ruled for 25 years and more. Whatever diabolic obsession to power this is, the extent at which these leaders go to consolidate power is worrying; from butchering their citizens- in the case of Rwanda, to tribal cleansing- Zimbabwe`s Gukurahundi, to purging opposition party leaders- something President Museveni does well and presiding over economic downturns thereby perpetuating the suffering of their people just so they stay in power..

The grappling of power is Africans oldest enemy. Today in Burundi, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and in Sudan there is tug-of-war on presidential term limits. This paper seeks to analyse the concept of power within an African context; understanding power will help us grasp why some African leaders have a diabolic disposition to power. These conclusions will help us craft practical ways to help these countries rid themselves of self-declared life presidencies at the expense of national good.

Conceptualising power

Most of us have heard the common saying `absolute power corrupts absolutely`; it is one of the key lessons in George Orwell`s popular book Animal Farm. In trying to answer why power corrupts leaders, psychologist Ronald Riggio alludes to two kinds of power: socialised power and personal power. During elections we all hope whomever we chose will possess more of socialised than personal power; socialized power is power used for the benefit of broader society. On the other hand, individual power is used for personal gain, something we loathe in any leader, especially one in the political spectrum. These two forms of power are not mutually exclusive, one can use his/her power for the benefit of society and still benefit personally. The challenge, as we have observed with African presidents refusing to relinquish power- is the abuse of their position for personal gain; it is the focus on consolidating power at all cost- even at the cost of the electorate. Ideally our leaders should be more inclined to social power than individual power; social power can help deter the suffering of citizens, opposition persecution and minimise gross corruption.

Thomas Hobbes, known as the founding father of modern political philosophy, defines power as, “present means, to obtain some future apparent good”. His premise at this point is that those who hold political power intend on wielding it for political good. He divided power into two types: 1. natural – derived from inborn abilities of the body and mind, and instrumental – 2.derived from the acquired faculties and advantages of friends, money, or reputation. Hobbes further asserts that the lifelong “perpetual and restless desire for power” is a fundamental quality shared by all humans. In the context of African presidents, there seems to be an inherent correlation between instrumental power and their rule. The eleven presidents that have ruled for more than a generation, rate as some of Africa`s richest individuals; they use their positional advantage to amass perpetual wealth, power and influence- two facets of instrumental power.

The two positions however, the psychological and philosophical, portray the two possible dispositions of power; one is for the good of many, the other for personal good. Unfortunately, many African countries are at the mercy of leaders who are in pursuit of personal gain.

 Are life Presidents beneficial?

In the top 10 biggest economies in Africa only Angola, from amongst the top five countries with longest serving presidents, is on the list. In 2013, Angola had a GDP of US$5. 783. 37 billion, compared to South Africa which had a GDP of US$ 6.617.91. The Gambia and Zimbabwe are amongst the 20 poorest countries in the continent with Cameroon not far behind. In comparison, Nigeria and South Africa- Africa`s two economic power houses have changed presidents three times in the last 20 years. Is it possible to conclude that democracies are more beneficial? One can observe the trend in dictatorships has produced political uncertainty which makes investors nervous – Zimbabwe and Gambia are classic examples – evidently a respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights relax investor tension while promoting innovation at the individual level. Presidents for life are most often not beneficial to the continent; they stifle growth of the state at the expense of individual benefit.

 Unconstitutional Constitutionalism

African countries mostly start off with independent constitutions that set strict term limits. Today, political pundits agree that it is the manipulation of the constitution that is a problem. In Burundi, the spats of protests and assassinations are all due to the president`s interpretation of the constitution. The Burundian constitution allows two terms, president Nkurunziza has so far occupied office for two terms, the contestation is on the fact that on his first term he was selected by parliament not elected, as such the constitution stipulates two elected terms. According to him, he still can run for one more elected term. It’s a solid legal leg to stand on however; does the constitution of Burundi trump the will of Burundians? Certainly not, after all it is Burundians through referendums that ratify the constitution; it is a supreme document by the people for the people. As argued above, when we speak of power; as a leader president Nkurunziza should submit to the will of the people – socialized power.

This trend of unconstitutional constitutionalism has become common place, in Rwanda; President Kagame is now legible to run for a third term, which a month ago was illegal. He has used constitutional channels- parliament and a referendum- to do something previously unconstitutional. In Zimbabwe and Uganda alike, whenever constitutional stipulations have become inconvenient for the incumbent, parliaments simply amended the rules and the constitutions to allow third, fourth or unlimited terms – something of a ‘President for Life’ complex. Often, these amendments come with the enthusiastic support of academics, local and sometimes foreign, who come with all theories to support dictators’ obsession with power. These theories include one from ‘African Socialism’ known as Nkrumahism; an idea that a particular leader is sacred and without him, the country would disintegrate. Ironically, freedom fighters such as Mugabe marched into the capitals to overthrow colonial powers or indigenous autocrats like in the case of Museveni, all proceeded to turn into worse dictators before our very eyes. Next year, some 30 years after he marched into Kampala to chase out Milton Obote, Museveni is proposing to stand for an extra term as president.4

Building responsive leadership in Africa

The major challenge we have in the specific countries where constitutions are manipulated, is the mere fact that the political parties and ultimately nations are governed by individuals’ not institutional structures. These strong men have replaced institutions and sadly sometimes even laws. They have been allowed to run rampage with agendas that most often trivialise the national agenda for personal agendas. Or maybe Shakespeare`s hero worship might help us draw an explanation. He posits that all man who wish to be feared and revered enjoy the euphoria that comes with the feeling of being in power- giving up power therefore means giving up the euphoria that comes with it.

Africa needs strong institutions with a clear separation of the executive, legislative and judiciary. Without an organ keeping the executive in check or with the executive embodying law, the notion of state itself is lost. These institutions need a free independent environment to exercise their functions. This coupled with an active citizenry that is not only concerned about the governance issues but also actively involved in the country politics whether by criticizing, applauding or even by protest will enhance political and economic freedoms. Deliberate steps should be taken to sensitize the people on the detriments of life presidencies and on the benefits of their involvement in state matters, matters that ultimately affect their livelihoods. Media will play an instrumental role in achieving this, as such judicial institutions should protect media, in turn media should do all it can to sensitize the country towards leadership that benefits the broader nation. An intrusion by the executive in any institution whose effectiveness depends on its independence is a nail in the coffin of real nationhood.