Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), has added his voice to the calls from different quarters for African leaders to respect their countries’ constitutions and avoid the temptation to extend their mandates in office.
The call is coming against rising apprehension that the recent gains made in democratic governance on the continent could be easily squandered, if genuine stakeholders lose focus. We are in this wise reminded of the intractable situation in Zimbabwe where a nonagenarian, Robert Mugabe, is still in office after ruling the country since its independence in 1980, which is 36 years ago. Also in this clan of sit-tight leaders are Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who recently gained a controversial fourth term in office after forcing a constitutional faux pas on his people. There is also the charismatic Paul Kagame of Rwanda who won a questionable referendum to continue in office beyond the previously stipulated two-term limit.
This is why Annan’s intervention is useful and most appropriate. While we are grateful for the recent little gains in the advancement of democracy on the continent as represented by the smooth transition witnessed in Nigeria in 2015 and the recently peacefully concluded elections in Benin and Niger respectively, all lovers of democracy cannot afford to keep their eyes off the ball. The journey is a long and arduous one. The fuel of sustenance is eternal vigilance.
For democratic culture to grow on the continent, respect for constitutionally stipulated tenure of office for the political leadership is a sine qua non. When elected leaders seek to shortchange their own people and the very constitution which they swore to protect at the commencement of their tenures, they act against good conscience and the sovereignty of their people. This erodes their moral authority to continue in office and results in revolts and resentments, which reduce their effectiveness in office.
It is a major reason for much of the retardation in the development of a number of African countries. If African countries must reverse the course of underdevelopment and truly join the advanced world, their leaders must abandon their unprogressive self-perpetuation schemes.
When leaders genuinely commit to the cause of serving their people and upholding their countries’ fundamental laws, they are usually thoroughly worn-out by the second term and hardly have any reason to extend their tenures. They would have served their people with all their abilities and had enough time to initiate most, if not all, of their grand projects. What is usually left is to ensure a smooth and orderly transition to worthy successors.
Good leaders beget good and worthy successors. But in Africa, worthy successions are few and far between. Mandela achieved immortality for the good leadership legacy he bequeathed to his country. Having sacrificed his most productive years for the struggle to liberate his country from apartheid, he resisted the temptation to prolong his tenure. He, rather, did the unthinkable by propping up his then Vice President, Tambo Mbeki, as successor midway into his first term of five years. Before Mandela, we had the good example of the post-Rawlings era in Ghana, which has witnessed smooth transitions of power between ruling and opposition parties. There are also the good legacies in Mozambique, Botswana, Cape Verde and Namibia, whose past leaders have won the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Good Leadership in Africa.
Sadly, there are hardly any other remarkable examples of strict adherence to constitutionality. The grand unraveling of Nigeria’s former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, in his botched self-succession bid is one sore instance of how leaders easily succumb to the temptation to perpetuate themselves in office.
Many others such as Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Cote d’Ivorie, Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Jean-Bedel Bokassa of Central African Republic, to name a few, failed the test and became demi-gods in their countries.
In the process, they drew their respective countries back and helped sustain the dark stain on the continent’s democracy credentials. This is an outcome which present and future generations of Africans desperately ought to avoid. Annan’s warning is, therefore, welcome. The wisdom of his message is self-evident.
The future of our democracy rests on the strict adherence of our leaders to the term limits stipulated in their national constitutions