Can I be President for One Day?

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Recently, I saw a headline on television, saying that President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who has been in power for 36 years, intends to run again in the 2018 election, by which time he will be 94. The first thought that crossed my mind was “if he’s still alive by then!” (Not that I wish him dead or anything like that). However, it is obvious that Mugabe wants to remain in power ‘until death does him and the Presidency part’ (President for Life). Mugabe has already surpassed Joaquin Balaguer of the Dominican Republic, who had previously broken the world record as the oldest President in the World, leaving office at the age of 89. So if it’s a place in history that Mugabe seeks, he already has one!

Taste of the Presidency

Oh, if only I could be President for a day! Apart from my starting to develop my own blueprint on how to move the country forward (seriously?!), I am certainly curious to know what makes it so difficult for African Presidents to handover the baton of leadership, when the time comes. Is it an insatiable lust for power and control? Or the ill-gotten financial gains and turning their countries into family businesses? Or the attention they get and the luxurious perks of office? Or the ‘Know-it-All, I’m the Only One Who Can Do It Syndrome’(narcissism)? Or all of the above?

I remember vividly though, when I was in my 20’s, I had a little taste of Presidential treatment. I had accompanied my mother to the then Head of State’s birthday party at State House, Marina. We were pampered at the party, and when it was over, the roads were closed for the guests to go home. We got home in record time. It was exhilarating! I remember thinking that I wouldn’t mind being the President, if this is the sort of perks that they enjoy.

African Leaders that have Stepped-Down

Even those African leaders who seemed to have relinquished power without acrimony, did so mostly after doing more than their fair share of ruling, leaving not much of a legacy. Julius Nyerere, ruled Tanzania for 21 years, until he relinquished power to his hand-picked successor, Ali Hassan Mwinyi. In the same vein, Mathieu Kerekou of Benin, ruled for 29 years, before handing over to Siglo in 1991, after losing the election to him.

Others who have conceded defeat in elections, seem to have their own ulterior motives for so-doing. For some, like our own ‘Yours Truly’, conceding victory could have been a “Get Out of Jail Free Card”, while for some others, it is a way to command some form of global respect, while presenting them with opportunities to become International Statesmen of sorts, being called upon to act as observers in elections in other African States, or to give advice to ‘sit-tight’ rulers in other African states, to relinquish power. Very recently, John Mahama of Ghana, who conceded victory to Nana Akufo-Addo in their December 10 polls, was already part of a team of ECOWAS leaders who visited Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia, to convince him to relinquish power to his opponent, Adama Barrow.

Constitutional Amendments

Some African leaders have gone as far as Constitutional amendments, just to be able to extend their rules. This brings back memories of 2006, when the mantra “third term” was as popular in Nigeria, as “change” is today. Former President Obasanjo, has consistently denied his involvement in a failed plot to extend his tenure beyond the two four-year terms provided for in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended)(1999 Constitution), through a constitutional amendment process.

While ‘third term’ failed, others like Mugabe, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Nkurunziza of Burundi, Yuweri Museveni of Uganda and Dennis Sassou of Congo Brazaville, have all been able to pull it off.

In Jammeh’s case, Section 63(1) of the Constitution of the Republic of the Gambia, 1997, provides for a five-year term, with no limit as to how many times a candidate can run! He came to power in 1994 through a military coup. Having rescinded his initial concession to Barrrow, we may have another President for life on our hands.

The story in Democratic Republic of Congo, where Joseph Kabila has ruled since 2001, is no different. The Constitution was amended to provide for two five-year terms. He was elected in 2006 and 2011. His second term expired this month. Kabila, has however, refused to schedule elections till April, 2018. The opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi has referred to Kabila’s extension as a coup d’etat and called on the people of DRC to peacefully resist it.

Constitution Means Nothing in Africa

It appears that the Constitution, which is meant to be the supreme law in all nations, is considered by African Leaders and the Political Class to be a meaningless, irrelevant document, or at best a plaything, to be changed and amended at will, to suit their personal ambitions, especially as they seem to have such a blatant disregard for it. One can only conclude that holding on to power by any means possible is their goal (apart from financial enrichment).

Section 146(1) of the 1999 Constitution provides that, in the event that the office of the President becomes vacant, by reason of death or some other listed reasons, the Vice- President shall assume office. I recall, in amazement, when the late President Umaru Yar’Adua passed away, there was a raging debate within their political party, PDP, that since the Presidency had been zoned to the North by PDP, Vice-President Jonathan (as he then was) should not assume the Presidency (as provided by the 1999 Constitution), and a candidate from the Northern zone should be chosen to replace Yar’Adua. The PDP debate was flashed all over the media. It was ridiculous. I was aghast. It became obvious to me, by that singular debate, that most African Leaders and the Political Class, Nigerians included, actually had no regard for the Constitution, they just saw it as a piece of paper, since they were so easily willing to by-pass it.

Suggestions to Stop Extension of Rule

It is indeed sad, that I a lawyer, a firm believer in the rule of law, should say that the solution to this African leadership problem certainly does not seem to lie in the constitution or law making for now, though it would still be prudent to have sensible constitutional provisions for Presidential terms in place. The case of Nigeria is even worse, because not only the Executive, but the Legislature as well, is full of those that have ruled since I was a child and have still refused to quit the stage.

Should African Leaders be made to swear to Sango or Amadioha (god of Thunder and Lightening) or Sopona (god of Smallpox), or some other deity, that if they do not step down graciously when their terms end, they will be struck dead or afflicted with smallpox or some other deadly disease? We Africans are still rather traditional, superstitious and fetish, and definitely seem to have more fear for that type of thing, than the police or the constitution.

Or maybe a strong and independent electoral body would make a difference? Usually, African Presidents control the electoral commissions in their countries, appointing the heads, who are no more than puppets that do their bidding. Maybe the heads of the electoral bodies should be elected by means of popular vote, so that they are totally independent of and not beholden to any organ of government.

Some have advocated sanctions against countries whose leaders refuse to relinquish power. However, in this situation, it is not the leaders that suffer when sanctions are imposed, but the people. Maybe more personal sanctions against such Presidents who refuse to step down, and their families, can be imposed instead.

Should the Executive be able to appoint the leadership of the armed forces or should ascension to their leadership be by hierarchy, so that issues of loyalty to the Executive do not arise? In the case of Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, who was more than tempted to extend his rule, despite being outvoted by Macky Sall, it was the security forces who stood up to him, and warned that they would only respect the election result. Whether the leadership of the armed forces of Senegal are appointed by the President or by other means, in which case their loyalty may be to their country first, or whether it was just that they were tired of Wade’s rule, I don’t know. However, it is certainly food for thought.

President Obama, in one of his addresses to Leaders and Dignitaries, on his visit to Kenya in July, 2015, informed the gathering that even though he was just 54 years old (at the time), and still had so much to offer his country, the American Constitution provides that a President can only serve in that capacity, for a maximum of two four-year terms. Therefore, having completed two terms, come January 20, 2017 (at 12 noon I think), he would cease to be President of the US. In that situation, the American Constitution prevails. Let us, Africans, take a leaf from Obama’s book.

Seasons Greetings All. I wish you a happy and prosperous 2017. See you in the new year, God willing.