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Africa and the burden of sit-tight leaders

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Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame (C) walks with his wife Jeanette (next L), Ethiopia’s President Abiy Ahamed (L) and Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel (2nd L) from the Parliament building to the Amahoro stadium during the “Walk to Remember” as the part of the 25th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide on April 7, 2019 in Kigali, Rwanda. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Yesterday, after a 30-year rule, mostly characterised by government repression, violation of human rights, restrictions of religious freedom and disregard for basic obligations to citizens, the rug was pulled from under Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir’s feet.

In a military take-over, Al-Bashir, 75, was ousted from power and the curtains were drawn on an inglorious spell on the Sudanese people.

In a televised statement, Sudan’s defense minister, Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf, whom al-Bashir had sworn-in as first vice president earlier in February following the dissolution of central and state governments, said the former leader had been arrested and was in a safe place.

He said the military had proclaimed a state of emergency and established a council to run the government for a two-year period. He added that all state and local governments had been dissolved. The development saw tens of thousands of Sudanese pour into the streets of Khartoum to celebrate the president’s ouster.

Al-Bashir, then a Brigadier in the Sudanese army, rose to power in 1989 after leading a group of officers in a coup that ousted the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. He subsequently got re-elected as President thrice in elections that were said to be questionable.

His time in power will be remembered as among the most oppressive in Sudan’s modern history. In the last decade of his rule, for instance, he has been under a cloud of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in the Darfur region. He was accused of allegedly directing a campaign of mass killing, rape and pillage against civilians in Darfur.

With the military take-over, as it has often been witnessed in other climes where such happened, Sudan may have been plunged into a period of fresh uncertainties, what with its constitution suspended, its borders and airspace closed, and its people bound to undergo a three-month state-of-emergency rule.

Already, the atmosphere in Sudan has since turned into that of tempered celebration and cautious optimism about the future following the declaration of the state-of-emergency by the military. Most citizens now perceive that the revolution might have been hijacked by top military brass.

Al-Bashir’s ouster followed a four-month stream of civil protests and demonstration by citizens who accused the government of economic mismanagement that has sparked skyrocketing food prices, and fuel and foreign currency shortages. This culminated in thousands of protesters holding a five-day sit-in outside army headquarters in Khartoum.

Notably, the latest protests, which began on April 6, had gained momentum at the forced resignation earlier in the week by another African leader, who had stayed in power for 20 years – Algeria’s President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika – in response to similar demonstrations.

Bouteflika, 82, who was in his fourth term in office and had rarely been seen in public for nearly six years as a result of a stroke, had plans afoot to seek a fifth term.

The announcement of his plans in February sparked demonstrations with thousands of Algerians vowing to sustain the tempo until the ailing President stepped down.

Bouteflika’s promise not to serve out a fifth term if re-elected, along with a change of prime minister, failed to quell the discontent. His late offer of going by the end of his current term, April 28, was also rebuffed.

Left with no options, the military, led by Lt. Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah, waded in. They called for the 82-year-old to be declared incapable of carrying out his duties. And Bouteflika fell.

This is no happenstance to Africa, however. A deep examination of the history of leadership and governance in Africa is replete with instances of leaders who are sitting tight in office or had perpetuated themselves in office till they were forced out by revolts. It’s an expansive list.

In recent history, from Libya’s Moummar Ghaddfi (assumed power in 1969), Tunisia’s Ben Ali (1988), Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak (1981), Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (1980) to Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh (1994), Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema, it is the same story of rising to power, being seen at a time as a saviour and good leader by the led, before derailing into a bad leader bent on holding to power indefinitely.

Indeed, they did this at the detriment of their respective nations and people. From being reformists or progressives, who want the interest of the people at heart, they mutate into authoritarians, running the most corrupt states ever on earth.

Presidents Nguema Mbasago of Equatorial Guinea (since 1979), Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (since 1986), Blaise Campore of Burkina Faso (since 1987), Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea (since 1993) and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia (since 1995) are some African leaders who have stayed long in office.

Others include Presidents Idrissu Deby of Chad (since 1990), Pakalitha Mosisili of Lesotho (since 1998), Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti (since 1999), Mohammed VI of Morocco (since 1999), Mswati III of Swaziland (since 1986), Paul Biya of Cameroon (since 1982) and Paul Kagame (since 2000).

Even in instances where some of the leaders are elected through the democratic process, they manipulate vital democratic institutions/frameworks such as the judiciary and the legislature and the constitution to enable them suppress opposition to their bids to hang on to power.

The late President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana led his country to independence from Britain in 1957 and contributed immensely to the liberation of other African countries from the colonialists. He was elected Ghana’s President in 1960.

Unfortunately, when he caught the bug in 1964, he declared his party CPP as the only legal party to participate in elections. He was later overthrown in a military coup while on a visit to China in 1966 after ruling for nine years. Thereafter, he lived in Guinea on exile.

In Cote D’ivore, Felix Houphouet-Boigny who was President for 33 years set the ugly precedent. At his death, he was the third longest-serving head-of-state in the world. He was the first President of Cote d’Ivoire, and he died in office.

Laurent Gbagbo took a clue from Houphouet-Boigny. But his quest to hang on to power even when it was acknowledged that he lost his re-election bid in a free and fair election led to his disgraceful removal.

The Arab spring that hit North Africa led to the removal of Tunisia’s Ali, who called the shot for over 20 years, and Egypt’s Mubarak who held sway for 30 years.

Gnassingbe Eyadema was president of Togo for 38 years. He came in through a coup d’état and refused to leave until his death. Eyadema ran Togo as a personal estate. He made his mother the mother of the nation and made her birthday the national day. His son, Faure, became the President in 2005 after his death.

In Angola, freedom-fighter Eduardo dos Santos has been president since 1979. He later changed the constitution to enable him stay in power until 2022 when he will be 80 years old. He, however, voluntarily stepped down recently for Joao Lourenco, ending his 38-year rule.

In Cameroun, Paul Biya has been president for more than 30 years. Biya assumed office on November 6, 1982, following the resignation of President Ahmadou Ahidjo. The country’s parliament in 2008 passed a controversial amendment to the constitution that enabled Biya, 84, to run for a third term and in October 2011, he won another election to remain in power.

The election was largely described by observers as marred by irregularities. Only Biya and Ahidjo have served as Presidents of Cameroon since the country got independence from France in 1960.

It is the same in Rwanda, where Paul Kagame has not only held on to power but also masterminded a constitutional amendment to make remain in office till 2024. A constitutional referendum was held on December 18, 2015 and amendments were made to allow President Kagame run for a third term in office in 2017 as well as shorten presidential terms from seven to five years. The latter change would not come into effect until 2024.

Must African leaders remain in power till they are revolted against? Must the sit-tight syndrome and tenure elongation continue as two strands of the subversion of the constitution, the political process and indeed, the development of Africa and its people? Could the late Nelson Mandela of South Africa not serve a fitting model?

Mandela spent 27 years in prison fighting for democracy in South Africa. He chose to be president of the country for only one-term of five years, after which he toed the path of honour by stepping down.

Former Nigerian leader, Olusegun Obasanjo who, himself was accused of trying to stay beyond his tenure in office, recently told the BBC in an interview that leaders who fail to leave office had fears. He however, said that such leaders were becoming a rare commodity.

“Well, really after 12, 15 years, some of them up to 30, some have fears. I think that now they are becoming a rare commodity. And maybe if you don’t leave office, what happens is that, the office will leave you,” he stressed.

Reacting to the sit-tight syndrome of African leaders, a former Director General, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Prof. Bola Akinterinwa said the leaders’ penchant for remaining in power was an abuse and exploitation of democratic freedom, and a major dynamic of development setback for Africans.

“Sit tight politics must be set aside by all means. Election rigging in all its ramifications, and particularly the issue of ill-defined citizenship, must be resisted by all means. These are three major dynamics of development setbacks that must be removed before a people-driven democracy can be truly established in Africa and before the prevalent democracy of injustice and unfairness, which have come to characterise intra and inter-African politics, can be stopped,” he said.

To make African leaders less power-hungry, self-seeking and corrupt, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile Ife, Olajide Bamisaye, also expressed the view that there ought to be effective checks and balances on leaders.

On his part, a former President of Ghana, Jerry John Rawlings, while addressing a delegation of a civil society group, the African Forum on Religion and Government (AFREG) that visited him, said the continued stay in power of some African leaders is a result of disempowerment of citizens.

Rawlings said leaders who empower their people have no business staying longer in office.

“Some people say I could have abused the constitutional order and stayed on, but I tell them I couldn’t because I had empowered the people. When you empower people you make them positively defiant so they will stand up to you when you try to misbehave.

“But in some parts of Africa, we don’t empower; we disempower, so we can stay as long as we want and they can’t stand up to us,” Rawlings said.


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