Does presidential term limit work in Africa?

Abdulai Mansaray: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 12 May 2018:

Democracy has been seen as the only salvation to the world’s political problems. Saddled with this notion is the prescription that term time limits are vital to ensure that democracy thrives in our communities.

The fact of the matter is that democracy cannot thrive without its attendant need for accountability. Term time limits should go hand in hand with accountability. It stands to reason that democracy without accountability is tantamount to zilch.

If term time limits are to have their intended purposes, then accountability should be a must.

In general, term time limits are promoted to discourage power hugging, and in effect prevent dictatorships; which African nations have a strong penchant for.

It is no secret that the African continent has the highest percentages of the longest serving heads of states.

The tendency for African leaders to treat their nations as personal property is vividly evident. You don’t need to go far to prove this.

A quick roll call will show that Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Denis Sassou N’Guesso of Congo, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda are some of the longest serving heads of state on the planet.

These leaders have been there for ever. Until recently, it took the bravery of military men to get rid of Robert Mugabe, who at the ripe old age of 93 wanted to carry on; when he should have been in a nursing home.

Robert Mugabe epitomised the typical African leaders’ thirst and drunkenness for power. If power was an alcoholic drink, Robert Mugabe would have been a certified alcoholic.

We know that no one takes power with the aim to relinquish it. However, there are constitutional demands to ensure that these dictatorial tendencies are curbed. But in spite of these checks and balances, these leaders have over time, perfected the dark arts of constitutional gymnastics to circumvent these safeguards.

It is an open secret that even our very own Ernest Bai Koroma was rumoured to want a taste of “Mugabeism”. But the people of Sierra Leone were not ready for such a school playground game. And so it came to pass that like many other countries, our leader was restricted to the prescribed two term limit.

But what is the benefit of two term limits when there is absolutely no requirement for ACCOUNTABILITY?

The new government of President Bio has wasted no time to inform the general public that it inherited a bounced cheque; that the coffers were empty.

Reports indicate that when the APC took power in 2007, the SLPP alleged that it had left Le 534 billion in the consolidated fund.

According to reports, this was not even physical cash but “a promissory note” by donors, that would have been translated into actual money had the SLPP government  fulfilled certain benchmarks that would have enabled the Sierra Leone government to access the said money.

But reports have it that the actual amount that was inherited was Le 2.1 billion cash.  After 10 years in the political wilderness, it’s the turn of the SLPP.

We are told that they have inherited bounced cheques; that the country is broke and that we are saddled with foreign debts to a tune of $2 billion; according to the latest tongue wagging contest.

Other reports indicate more, and that our local banks are victims of some reckless financial practices from members of the previous government.  You be the judge.

We have noticed that since the end of the civil war, there have been some political baton changes between the APC and SLPP. But every baton change has been accompanied or ushered in with accusations and counter accusations of inherited empty coffers.

But squeezed among these accusations is the glaring absence of investigations and accountability; that you would expect to follow. So what do these governments aim to achieve by telling us about the missing funds, but not ready to find out where it all went wrong. Where did all the money go?

Don’t answer that. I don’t know the answer, but I know that some people joined politics and had a magical transformation in their lives overnight. Others did not join politics but hey, they can’t recall the number of houses they own today.

No grudge there; but can you just explain how you got there; knowing how broke you were before that?

Whenever there is a change of government the world over, the expectation is that the incoming governments usher in changes. Some can be wholesale, like we are seeing happening in the USA. Donald Trump has left us thinking that his sole purpose of his presidency is to undo everything Obama implemented and stood for.

In Sierra Leone, a change of government is expected to come with changes. With the new broom syndrome, there is a temptation for a root and branch or slash and burn approach. This is more so when you consider that President Bio’s signature promise to the nation was FREE EDUCATION.

Asked about how he will fund this, he stated in an interview that this will be funded by plugging leakages and cutting down on waste. To this end, he has slashed some jobs in the foreign department, and requested that some civil services posts need re-visiting, among others.

The SLPP government has wasted no time to inform the public that as a result of the above steps taken, the government has been able to pay civil servants’ April salary without the need for overdrafts. Bravo. This would be a welcome relief to many, but sadly some have been quick to see this as vengeful towards the old APC regime.

It is this theme of revenge that usually pervades in coming governments that has been my cause for concern. Why is it that whenever there is a change of government, every step taken to address a problem is viewed with the suspicion of vengeance?

Even when such steps are well meaning, the opposition, be it SLPP or APC receives this with suspicion. No well-meaning Sierra Leonean is advocating a slash and burn approach.

However, any change to improve services, the lives of the people and efficiency should be encouraged; irrespective of the collateral damage.

As a matter of fact, isn’t that what the people voted for in the first place? So why is there this latent feeling of reprisal when such are implemented? If we are to move forward as a nation, should we not be trying to avoid such toxic environments?

This is where term time limits and democracy don’t work for me. This is especially so in Africa. The west is not my yardstick, but presidential term time limits are safeguarded by accountability. Just come with me one minute.

Presidential term time limits work well in the Western world; because governments and institutions are held accountable for their actions or inactions. They are required to give accounts of their tenure of office. Unfortunately, this does not work in Africa. Any attempt to do so is seen as vengeful.

Picture it this way. We all saw how messianic the former President Ernest Bai Koroma had become to the nation during his 1st term in office. He could do no wrong and he had the Midas touch.

Things started to take a downward spiral during his 2nd term.  This was not helped by the twin disasters of the Ebola outbreak and the mud slides. But in general, many saw his 2nd term as out of control; as price increases competed with various scandals including the Hajjgate, constitutional gymnastics, etc.

There were many who believed that, because it was his last term in office, Ernest Bai Koroma did not care; as the scandals and hardship competed for people’s attention in the country. You be the judge.

If that was the case, does it mean that because Ernest Koroma needed to be voted the 2nd time, he was therefore on his best behaviour during his 1st term?

Does that mean that Ernest knew that he needed the mandate of the people in order to get a 2nd term; and as such did his utmost to live up to the people’s expectation?

If that is the case, does that mean that he would done more if, the constitution permitting, there was a chance for more terms via FREE and FAIR elections?

Let us assume for a minute that our constitution did not have any Presidential term time limits, and that our presidents could remain in power as long as the people wanted. Would that force or encourage our leaders to do the best for the country, knowing full well that their fate were in the hands of the electorate?  Would they be compelled to behave, to satisfy their thirst for power? Well, possibly so.

This means that our leaders would need the mandate of the people. There can be no better way to do so than by FREE, FAIR & PEACEFUL elections. If elections are free, fair and peaceful, our leaders can be elected by the majority; who by implication would have been satisfied with their performance.

Sounds utopian, I know. But this is where our institutions and instruments of democracy would need to be strengthened and sacrosanct. We have institutions like the National Electoral Commission (NEC) which should be, and be seen as bias free and beyond reproach. They should be seen as near infallible to conduct free and fair elections. Sadly, our NEC did not cover itself in glory during the recent election cycle; and that is where the problem starts.

Some may argue that in countries where their leaders have, by some political and constitutional alchemy ensured that they have had longer or indefinite term times, it has resulted in dictatorships and tyranny.  They have succeeded in giving themselves absolute power; and we all know what absolute power gets you.

It’s difficult to argue with that, but this is because there have been no FREE and FAIR elections either. Where FREE and FAIR elections are guaranteed, the power to extend the term time of our leaders will be solely in the hands of the people. This means that our leaders will reap what they sow.

By implication, the electorate will have the SOLE POWER to approve, disapprove, mandate, extend or cut short the term time of our leaders. But that can only happen within an atmosphere of FREE and FAIR elections; served with a heavy dose of accountability.

It is this fallacy of term time limits that have led many to erroneously conclude during our recent general elections, that there was a prepaid plan for the SLPP to take over after the APC had completed its 10 year tenure.

Conspiracy theorist would want us to believe that a master plan was already agreed between the SLPP and APC for this political baton changing. That may be the reason why some may feel that most governments and their officials would try and secure their futures, especially if they feel that they would not be in power post elections.

Others would spend their last kobo to ensure that their party stays in power. But if they know that their good work would get them further tenure, would that reduce the risk of corruption.

Setting term time limits can be a well-meaning and a well-intentioned political safeguard. But in the absence of any accountability, history has proved that it is a waste of time and recipe for economic stagnation; if not deterioration.

If we don’t have the safeguards of ACCOUNTABILITY implemented, those intended gains would never benefit our nations, especially Africa.

1 Comment

  1. A very thought-provoking piece and I do agree with the writer’s central contention: accountability Is an indispensable precondition for government effectiveness. However, term limits and holding governments accountable must not be mutually exclusive; we must demand both.

    To rid our system of term limits ushers in a situation wherein particular politicians become too powerful, and therefore indispensable. Additionally, sustaining this current system allows discerning and well-meaning politicians to perform within their allotted time so they leave a legacy.

    Finally, limiting tenure in office makes it slightly more difficult for incumbents to cynically manipulate state institutions and other organs of government, to remain in government in perpetuity.

    On a different note, perhaps one thing we could do to ensure governments become truly representative of their electors, and responsive to their electors is this: enshrine in the constitution that political parties can only win national elections if they win a minimum of 20 percent of votes in all districts. This could force both major parties, in my opinion, to pursue policies more in line with the aspirations of the voting public.

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