Presidents for life: Africa’s post-colonial disease

Presidentforlife‘President for life’ is a title that may be assumed or granted to some leaders in their attempts to extend presidential terms, a pattern that has been witnessed on the continent since most African states gained their independence. These self-appointed African ‘presidents for life’ have, in one way or the other, prolonged their stay in office through a variety of means such as amendments to the constitution leading to either extension or removal of terms limits. These manoeuvres have thus prevented any future challenges to their presidential terms and bolstered their authority and legitimacy. However, their self-appointment has not yielded any positive outcomes for the continent but rather has served to derail any growth and prosperity prospects, as Africa continues to struggle with the ‘problem child’ reputation years after colonialism ended.  This post-colonial disease has contributed to the continent’s unenviable record of being home to more than half of the world’s longest-serving leaders resulting in citizens only knowing one president in their lifetime in some of the most impoverished states in the world.

Presidents for life are often prepared to do anything to stay in office; opponents are intimidated, sent to prison and even killed while elections are banned, rigged or simply ignored resulting in the isolation of states from the rest of the world. There are various reasons used to explain the spread of this post-colonial disease, which include the lack of planning by some leaders towards life after presidential terms. Many African leaders believe that their direct or indirect participation in the liberation of their states from colonialism has earned them a right to rule indefinitely while some simply become addicted to power.  There is also the notion that being a president elevates your status and puts you above the law, which is often why many African leaders commit serious crimes against their citizens while in office. Some leaders use their presidencies to accumulate personal wealth and dispense patronage, which makes them reluctant to hand over power to new administrations for fear of being held accountable for their crimes.

African leaders’ addiction to titles is another reason given for their gravitation towards lifelong presidencies.  This addiction to titles can be traced back to African Chiefs who used to be endowed with titles that likened their power and might to Africa’s British colonisers who call themselves Dukes, Sirs, Duchess or Baroness.  This disturbing trend of African leaders is raised in Elizabeth Ohene’s open letter on African Presidents being addicted to tittles and it stems from the founding fathers like Kwame Nkrumah who was referred to as Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah – Life President of the Republic of Ghana.

The president for life disease is proving to be one of the most enduring obstacles to Africa’s democratic governance as well as its growth and prosperity. The appointment of these presidents for life results in gross violations of human rights, the outbreak of civil wars, coup d’états, nationwide protests where dozens of people die. Zimbabwe was once one of the continent’s richest states but tumbled under former President Robert Mugabe’s attempt of being president for life; Zimbabwe became known for its chronic underdevelopment, a collapsed economy and allegations that the former president was misusing federal funds. Zaire, present day Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), suffered from gross corruption, embezzlement, and neglect of public infrastructure under the three-decade-long dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. Today this central African nation continues to suffer under current President Joseph Kabila, and is now a state with a dark reputation for corruption, poor governance and violence.  Sudan has also suffered at the hands of a president for life, Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in 1989 and has remained in office ever since despite allegations by international and domestic observers of widespread electoral irregularities and fraud.  The International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted the president in 2009 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in attacks on civilian groups in Darfur

The extension of presidential terms arguably contributes to the slowing down of the democratisation process that Africa saw in the 1990s and early 2000s; the continued stay in office of these leaders further undermines the intentions of the African Union founders as well as any attempts made to overhaul Africa’s leadership and promote good governance. Each time a leader succeeds in prolonging his stay in power, he inspires other leaders to follow suit; hence spreading this post-colonialism disease.  This rapidly spreading post colonialism disease benefits the individual at the expense of the state and ultimately the continent; it breeds corruption, instability, economic stagnation as well as constitutional violations leading to unconstitutional constitutionalism becoming a trend on the continent. 

The question then becomes why this post-colonialism disease is being left to spread when its consequences are a clear danger not only to the growth and prosperity of the continent but also to the future of governance and good continental leadership?  Where is the African solution to this African problem? Why are presidential term limitation provisions so easily disregarded? And where is the political will and determination that is always expressed in policies, continental agendas and leadership summits?

Ms Remofiloe Lobakeng holds a BA Hons in International Politics from UNISA and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.

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