“I just don’t understand the phenomenon of leaders who refuse to step aside when their terms end. No one should be president for life,” US President Barack Obama said when he visited Africa in July. He did not understand why leaders manipulate their constitution to ensure they remain in power.
The foreign minister of Ethiopia, Tedros Adhanom explained why. “Because they made the law, they can change the law.”
Few African leaders share Obama’s opinion. One of such is South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. In an interview with Bloomberg in October, he said the country should not change its constitution just so he would be able to serve a third term. “I think it is very healthy for us here in South Africa that we don’t stay forever,” he said, although he admitted that some countries may prefer that their leaders who are doing well remain.
But there are others who are changing the law to ensure their continued stay, using every weapon at their disposal to ensure opposition parties do not stop them in their stride.
Here are some of African leaders to have overstayed term limits. For most of them the lives of their citizens have not improved significantly over the last two decades.
José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola
After Angola’s first president, Agostinho Neto died on 10 September 1979, José Eduardo dos Santos was elected as President of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) 10 days later, and he took office as President of Angola, President of the MPLA, and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces on 21 September. He has remained president ever since.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea
He was born in the same year with José Eduardo dos Santos and became president the same year with the Angolan president. Mbasogo ousted his uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, in an August 1979 military coup and has overseen Equatorial Guinea’s emergence as an important oil producer, beginning in the 1990s. The country returned to civilian rule in 1982 when a less authoritarian constitution was enacted. He was elected president on a seven-year term but there were no opponents. The same thing happened in 1989. He was also reelected in 1996, 2002 and 2009. With the country being a one party dominant state, Mbasogo is expected to remain in power as long as he wishes.
Paul Biya of Cameroon
Born in 1933, Biya became president of Cameroon in 1982. He was always going to win elections as the country was running a single-party system until 1990 when opposition parties were legalized. After he was re-elected in 2004, Biya was not eligible to run again due to term limits but Cameroon’s 1996 Constitution was revised to allow the president contest again. Now, Biya can be president for life as term limits have been removed. Even if he loses election before his death, Mr Biya has a plan. According to the revised Constitution, he enjoys immunity from prosecution after leaving office.
Yoweri Museveni of Uganda
We must give it to Museveni. He has brought relative stability and economic growth to Uganda, a country that endured decades of rebel activity and civil war. But he has also stayed in power too long, at least, according to US President Obama’s view on term limits.
Museveni disagrees. “Those who focus on term limits; we don’t think they are correct,” he said.
“Africa is not a back world because of term limits, but because of its lack of federation, common market, infrastructure and security.
“If I am in power because I am voted by the people, then I am there by the will of the people,” he said.
Election holds every five years in Uganda and Museveni has won every election since democratic rule began in 1996. The 1995 Ugandan constitution provided for a two-term limit on the tenure of the president. In other to stay longer, the constitution was changed amid local and international outrage.
Museveni is already preparing for next year’s election as he seeks a fifth term in office.
Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe
He is 91 and has been president since 1987 but as it seems, Robert Gabriel Mugabe intends to stay in power till death calls. Before he became the country’s first executive head of state, Mugabe had been Prime Minister for seven years, following the major role he played in Zimbabwe’s independence. Mr Mugabe is a very powerful man; he is head of state, head of government, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. It is within his purview to dissolve parliament and declare martial law.
Mugabe won his seventh term as president in 2013.
While African leaders have frequently claimed that they remained in power by popular demand, a survey by Afrobarometer, a pan-African, non-partisan research network proves otherwise. Five rounds of surveys were conducted between 1999 and 2013, and Round 6 surveys are currently under way (2014-2015). According to findings, in 34 African countries, about three-quarters of citizens favour limiting presidential mandates to two terms. Also, support for term limits has been consistently high over time and is the majority view even in countries that have never had term limits or that have removed term limits from their constitutions.
But most African presidents are faced with the dilemma; should I stay or should I go? Usually, in making their decisions, self, not the country, comes first.
Also published on Medium.