Africa's longevity curse

Posted in Africa | 01-Mar-06 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni hosts his first news conference after the election at his Rwakitura cattle-ranch in western Uganda, February 26, 2006.
The election won by the Ugandan president last week was apparently conducted fairly on the day of the balloting, but that doesn't make the vote a victory for democracy. Yoweri Museveni has led Uganda for 20 years. Honest, effective governance rarely lasts two decades, and the corruption of his tenure was demonstrated by the tactics of his campaign.

Museveni enjoyed access to government resources, including helicopters and state-owned news media, for electioneering. Kizza Besigye, his main opponent, spent much of the campaign in jail, fighting accusations of treason and rape, which foreign diplomats said were politically motivated.

Museveni came to power via a military revolt in 1986. He was elected president for the first time a decade later and eliminated the two-term limit in the constitution to make sure he could run again this year. His conduct was typical of many African leaders, who, whether they gain power through the ballot or force, strive to keep it as long as possible.

One notable exception is South Africa, where multiracial democracy began in 1994, with the election of Nelson Mandela as president. He set a precedent for constrained government when he retired in 1999 after one term. He was almost 81 at the time.

His successor, Thabo Mbeki, this month affirmed his decision to leave office next year after two terms. Only 64, Mbeki showed great wisdom in resisting the temptation to abolish the term limit in the constitution.

Long tenure in power has often bred corruption in Africa. One only need recall the tenures of Daniel arap Moi in Kenya (24 years), Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo (32 years), and Omar Bongo in Gabon (39 years and counting). Even when the president is honest, his associates will usually avail themselves of the spoils of office. The longer their patron hangs on, the more they will take.

In Chad, President Idriss Deby had the constitution altered last year to allow him to seek a third term. And in Nigeria, President Olusegun Obasanjo has not dispelled rumors that he will try to amend the constitution and do likewise. In a nation riven by ethnic and religious differences, stability is a virtue, but that shouldn't require that individuals rule for decades.

Museveni is best known for bringing improved governance to Uganda after two execrable dictatorships and for acting to contain the AIDS epidemic. But these were achievements of the '80s and '90s. After that, his most notable action was joining in the looting of Congo after Mobutu's ouster in 1996.

No president is irreplaceable, and democracy thrives when the powers of office are freely and regularly transferred.