Weaning African leaders off addiction to power is an ongoing struggle


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The benefits of frequent power transfers are evident in African countries that have them, such as Senegal; Botswana and Mauritius. Incumbents are kept on their toes because there’s a real chance they can be removed from power if they fail to govern properly.

Term limits have recently become controversial and divisive. Some leaders have used dubious constitutional amendments to extend their stay in power. Usually, governing parties and their leaders almost exclusively pass such amendments with minimal or no opposition participation. That’s what happened in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and Congo Republic.

Similarly, despite constitutional provisions and regular elections, countries such as Angola, Togo, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea are virtually de facto one party or one leader repressive states wherein resignation, retirement and term limits are meaningless.

Leaders have different reasons for refusing to leave office. In some countries, the answer lies in a lack of succession planning to transfer power. In others, leaders blatantly refuse to resign because of their despotic and kleptocratic tendencies. They abuse their states’ minerals, oil and money with their families and friends. Stepping aside would cost them these “benefits”.

For instance, the eventual departure of Angola’s Eduardo Dos Santos from office after decades in power has left his family exposed. His children stand accused of amassing billions during their father’s many terms.

Without strong constitutional safeguards and a democratic culture to counter the negative consequences of the “sins of incumbency” – as corruption associated with state power is often described by South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress – can be menacing. It breeds “Big Men, Little People”, to borrow a phrase from the title of a book by journalist Alec Russel.

Perceptive leaders know when to leave office, whether through resignation or retirement. Botswana’s past and current presidents have established this practice despite the country’s continued one-party domination.

With the emergence of a strong democratic culture, South Africa has experienced the opposite of such presidential power mongering. Two presidents were recalled by their political party the ANC, albeit for different reasons.

Thabo Mbeki readily accepted his fate when he was told to pack up and go, although he was not accused of any specific wrong doing. Jacob Zuma remained defiant and only stepped aside when faced with the very real prospect of a vote of no-confidence.

Ghana, Zambia, Namibia, Nigeria, Malawi and Tanzania are other African states where regular transfer of power has occurred.

African voters are not blameless. They habitually relax their vigilance on leaders and fail to hold them to account after elections. This, coupled with winner-take-all election systems, renders some African countries vulnerable to autocratic, despotic and non-accountable leaders who would rather die in office than leave.

What, then, is the solution? It may be time for ordinary voters across the continent to begin to collaborate through non-governmental organisations and other cross-border institutional mechanisms to share experiences and begin to enforce durable continental democracy. Africa needs democracy from below.

By Kealeboga J Maphunye. This article was first published by The Conversation

 

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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