Why term lim­its give African vot­ers vi­tal lever­age over au­to­crats

Daily Trust - - SPORT -

This week, Rwan­dans will go to the polls in a sham elec­tion and al­most cer­tainly re­elect Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame.

Kagame has been in power since 1994, when he be­came vice pres­i­dent in the af­ter­math of the hor­rors of the Rwan­dan geno­cide. In­ter­na­tional donors love him be­cause he has been suc­cess­ful at com­bat­ing cor­rup­tion and pro­mot­ing eco­nomic growth. But he’s also guilty of se­ri­ous abuses. His en­e­mies of­ten die mys­te­ri­ous deaths, some­times with signs of tor­ture. There is strong ev­i­dence that he has dis­patched hit men to kill Rwan­dan dis­si­dents in both South Africa and Bri­tain. More re­cently, Kagame has changed Rwanda’s con­sti­tu­tion, po­ten­tially al­low­ing him to stay in power through 2034 - a grand to­tal of 40 years.

This raises an im­por­tant ques­tion: What can be done to stop African au­to­crats like Kagame from sim­ply re­fus­ing to step down when they are sup­posed to?

In coun­tries where democ­racy hasn’t yet taken root, term lim­its are es­sen­tial. In Africa, the fight over them is in­ten­si­fy­ing. Gray-haired strong­men are crush­ing the demo­cratic as­pi­ra­tions of their peo­ple. But term lim­its can give democ­racy a fight­ing chance against en­trenched au­to­crats.

When re­spected, term lim­its work. Re­search on African elec­tions by Pro­fes­sor Nic Cheese­man at the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham has shown that peace­ful trans­fers of power through the bal­lot box are far more likely when in­cum­bents are not on the bal­lot.

Term lim­its are still im­por­tant even when despots bend or break them. Nor­mally, it’s daunt­ing for cit­i­zens to re­move a ruler who has been in power for decades. But term lim­its pro­vide a pre­cise pres­sure point: When the pres­i­dent tries to change the rules, peo­ple can take to the streets in op­po­si­tion to some­thing spe­cific.

With­out that lever­age, many African lead­ers se­verely over­stay their wel­come. Just take Zim­bab­wean Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe. He has been in power (first as prime min­is­ter, then as pres­i­dent) since 1980 - back when Jimmy Carter was still in the White House. When pressed by a re­porter on whether it might fi­nally be time to say good­bye to the peo­ple of Zim­babwe af­ter more than three decades in power, he re­port­edly replied: “Why? Where are they go­ing?”

Eight of out 10 Zim­bab­weans have never lived un­der the rule of any­one other than Mu­gabe. The pro­por­tion is even higher in An­gola, led by José Ed­uardo dos San­tos since 1979. Teodoro Obiang of Equa­to­rial Guinea took power that same year. But Paul Biya of Cameroon wins the despotic di­nosaur prize, rul­ing Cameroon (first as prime min­is­ter, then as pres­i­dent) since 1975 - back when Ger­ald Ford was in of­fice.

De­spite African po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, seven of the 10 long­est-serv­ing rulers in the world are African. African democ­racy, or the lack of it, has suf­fered ac­cord­ingly.

Over the past sev­eral decades, Western gov­ern­ments have pushed for demo­cratic re­forms in Africa. In re­sponse to that pres­sure and calls from their own cit­i­zens, 18 African coun­tries in­sti­tuted con­sti­tu­tional two-term aimed at stop­ping fu­ture Mu­gabes from hold­ing of­fice as long as they want.

But in Africa, rules are far too eas­ily bent or bro­ken. With alarm­ing fre­quency, African au­to­crats are try­ing a new play­book - sim­ply chang­ing term-limit rules or ig­nor­ing them to stay in power. At least 16 African heads of state have tried to re­main in power by tweak­ing the con­sti­tu­tion. Lead­ers suc­ceeded in do­ing so in the Repub­lic of the Congo, Congo, Rwanda, Bu­rundi, Dji­bouti, Cameroon, Chad, Uganda, Gabon and Togo. As they do so, democ­racy con­tin­ues to re­cede from the con­ti­nent while eco­nomic growth and hu­man rights suf­fer.

Africans are strik­ing back. Across the con­ti­nent, opin­ion sur­veys show that more than two-thirds of cit­i­zens ap­prove of term lim­its for their heads of state. In both Burk­ina Faso and Bu­rundi, pres­i­dents who de­fied term lim­its have trig­gered se­ri­ous pop­u­lar un­rest. Since the rules are al­ready in place, peo­ple can take to the streets when the au­to­crat tries to change them. That’s eas­ier than push­ing for a new rule.

Last year, Joseph Ka­bila, pres­i­dent of Congo, pledged to step down and hold elec­tions af­ter pres­sure from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion com­bined with wide­spread un­rest to make his po­si­tion un­ten­able. It ap­peared, for a time, that the one-two punch of U.S. for­eign pol­icy and lo­cal street protests could make despots think twice about vi­o­lat­ing term lim­its.

That changed on Nov. 8, 2016. Pres­sure from Obama, the lame-duck pres­i­dent, be­came mean­ing­less. Pres­i­dent Trump sig­naled that he wouldn’t lift a fin­ger to deal with prob­lems out­side nar­rowly de­fined in­ter­ests. In his trans­ac­tional view of diplo­macy, term lim­its sim­ply don’t rate.

This is a mo­men­tous lost op­por­tu­nity. Th­ese coun­tries aren’t like North Korea or Kaza­khstan, where term lim­its were never re­al­is­tic. Decades of for­eign pol­icy pres­sure in Africa have paid off. Now the time has come to push gov­ern­ments to obey their own rules. Trump de­rides ca­reer politi­cians and claims he wants to drain the swamp in Wash­ing­ton. But with vir­tu­ally no ef­fort and very lit­tle cost, Wash­ing­ton can do its part to help Africans get rid of their own, much more in­sid­i­ous ca­reer politi­cians. We should help Africa drain their swamps so that democ­racy can grow.

Brian Klaas is a fel­low in com­par­a­tive pol­i­tics at the Lon­don School of Economics and au­thor of “The Despots Ac­com­plice: How the West is Aid­ing and Abet­ting the De­cline of Democ­racy”

But in Africa, rules are far too eas­ily bent or bro­ken. With alarm­ing fre­quency, African au­to­crats are try­ing a new play­book - sim­ply chang­ing term-limit rules or ig­nor­ing them to stay in power. At least 16 African heads of state have tried to re­main in power by tweak­ing the con­sti­tu­tion. Lead­ers suc­ceeded in do­ing so in the Repub­lic of the Congo, Congo, Rwanda, Bu­rundi, Dji­bouti, Cameroon, Chad, Uganda, Gabon and Togo. As they do so, democ­racy con­tin­ues to re­cede from the con­ti­nent while eco­nomic growth and hu­man rights suf­fer

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