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Presidency in Perpetuity

by Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem

In his weekly column, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem tackles three African presidents who appear to have ambitions to rule until they drop dead. Omar Bongo of Gabon, Yoweri Musevini of Uganda and Olushegun Obasanjo of Nigeria are either firmly entrenched as leaders for life or are busy manipulating electoral laws so they can serve beyond their given time. Abdul-Raheem asks why these leaders see it as their god-given right to rule and rule and rule...

The more Africa changes the more it remains the same at the level of leadership. While it is no longer an issue for debate that we should choose our own leaders in a democratic election there are many challenges in the processes that may make cynics proclaim that we are only making a distinction without any fundamental difference.

Our dictators have learnt how to repackage themselves with a veneer of electoral democracy that ensues that we 'vote without choosing' since the outcome often remains the same. In the past few years constitutionalism has also made a come back across Africa but - unwilling democrats that many of the leaders are - they have found ways of constitutionalising their illegitimacy by following a constitutional route to deny their peoples the democratic right to genuine changes and alternatives in public policy.

Take the cases of three presidents from different regions of Africa who have become the symbols of this constitutional gerymandering. The first one holds the dubious title of being Africa's longest –serving (I am not sure what services any more), President, El Hadj Omar Bongo of the oil-rich Central African state of Gabon. He has been in power since 1967 and has just secured for himself another seven-year term at the presidential palace, which will ensure that he remains in power till he is 75 years old (officially). After that term, if both nature and the ancestors have not called him home, we can be sure that there will be no shortage of footloose opportunists to orchestrate 'one more term'. Bongo has ensured that he runs and runs till he drops dead. This is where his presidential run and re-run interfaces with that of the second president, retired general Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda, whose onward march to another term was the subject of this column last week.

I got many responses from both the Museveni camp and even more from the anti-Museveni group on that article. The president's men and women typically become legalistic on the issue, arguing that now that Ugandans have spoken through a referendum and there has been appropriate change to the constitution, the President is not doing anything unconstitutional.

They overstate their democratic credentials by stating the seemingly obvious: Ugandan voters are supreme they say and whatever they decide is sacrosanct. It is a very beguiling democratic case even if democracy is the last thing on the minds of those pushing it. It is always amusing to me why Ugandans are supreme over the issue of Museveni running again but have neither been supreme on the key economic decisions of the government or the various wars the country has been involved in for the past two decades. Not even elected members of Parliament have any influence on the government's neo-liberal policies yet the people are supreme!

On the other side of the debate the anti 'sad term' camp think I have become too complacent about Museveni's self-succession. I had concluded my article last week matter-of-factly that five years will soon come to pass. But the fear of many in the opposition is that it is not just the next five years that Museveni and his cronies want but the next one, and the one after that and probably another one after that until the president gives up the ghost. In a sense self-succession in perpetuity - like Bongo's.

I must confess that I have no answer to that speculation because there is something that happens to our presidents once they enter office that they find ways and means of perpetuating themselves. People often blame opportunists around them but I think that is a lazy approach. There is no adviser that will compel an unwilling president to remain in office for a minute longer if he is not that inclined.

Unfortunately Museveni is not alone in the struggle for presidency in perpetuity. And that leads us to the third president, another retired general, Chief Mathew Aremu Olushegun Obasanjo. I have been in Nigeria for the past three weeks and the big political issue is about the quest for another term by President Obasanjo.

Like Museveni's supporters when his campaign first started to change the constitution, Obasanjo's people are saying the president has not decided either way. Like President Museveni, Obasanjo rarely addresses the issue directly and when he does he says defensively that the constitution does not allow him to go beyond two consecutive terms and he has pledged to uphold the constitution. However, as it happened in Uganda his agents and political contractors are busy pushing for constitutional amendments that will allow him to stand for another term and thereby constitutionalising his self-succession as has happened in Uganda.

It is obvious that the three compare notes on how to deceive their peoples. It is sad that, in spite of the new African Peer Review Mechanism, they do not compare notes on how to improve the lot of their peoples.

Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem is General-Secretary of the Pan African Movement, Kampala (Uganda) and Co-Director of Justice Africa. This essay is herein reprinted with the author's consent.

Posted  December 05, 2005

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