“Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a phrase that has become a famous warning to those who seek power as well as an attempt to answering why power tends to corrupt some leaders. Ronald Riggio alludes to two kinds of power, socialised power, which is power used for the benefit of society and personal power, which is used for individual gain. These two forms of power are not mutually exclusive, a leader can use their power for the benefit of society while still personally benefiting. The challenge regarding Africa’s ‘presidents for life’ is their tendency to abuse their power for their individual gain. ‘Presidents for life’ are focused on legitimising their hold on power at all costs-even at the cost of portraying a total disregard for their countries’ constitutions and laws governing presidential terms. The introduction of constitutional entrenchments of presidential terms was meant to provide a basis for the eradication of individual and authoritarian rule in favour of an open pluralistic governance, which would allow citizens to vote in new leaders. However, term limits have become controversial and fluid with leaders increasingly staging constitutional coups in order to cement their extended presidencies with the appearance of legality.
Constitutional coups gained popularity after 2000 when some of the longstanding postcolonial leaders were nearing the end of their presidential terms as provided for by various constitutions. These types of coups enable the ‘presidents for life’ to rework the constitutional order with subtle changes in order to make themselves difficult to remove while also disempowering the courts and any other democratic institutions that might hold them accountable. Democratic institutions are further weakened by a lack of resources as well as the appointment of people loyal to the ‘president for life’ to key positions in order for them to stop any calls for constitutional reviews. Many of Africa’s aspiring ‘presidents for life’ were able to influence constitutional provisions on term limits resulting in fluid provisions. This was done through their successful participation in their country’s liberation struggle against colonialism or by assuming power through a military coup.
Sub-Saharan Africa has seen at least 30 presidents try to stage constitutional coups in order to extend their terms; with presidents in Congo Brazzaville, Uganda, Sudan and Rwanda succeeding despite allegations of fraud, human rights violations and attempts to prevent these constitutional coups by opposition parties.
A referendum was passed in Rwanda in late 2015 allowing President Paul Kagame to run for a third term, which was previously prohibited by the constitution. The referendum also cut down the duration of a presidential term from seven to five years starting from 2024. President Kagame is currently serving his third term and the constitutional amendments allow him to stand for two more terms under the new five-year presidential terms meaning that Kagame could be in power until 2034. Despite an impressive development and governance record, Kagame’s critics have said that Rwandans vote for him out of fear that any change in power might result in a repeat of the Rwandan genocide, a sense of obligation to him for having brought the genocide to a halt as well as the lack of a visible and credible opposition.
Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza has also successfully staged a ‘constitutional coup’ that could see him remain in office until 2034. His quest for a lifetime presidency began in 2015 when he won a third term in a violent election that saw nearly half a million Burundians flee the country. The constitution previously allowed presidents to serve two five-year terms but has now been amended to seven years. Critics and opposition politicians have cited that this constitutional coup went through due to the arrests of dissidents, death threats issued by the youth wing of the ruling party against anyone attempting to voice a different opinion as well as the breaking up of opposition rallies.
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has staged two constitutional coups in order to pave his way to becoming a ‘president for life’, first in 2005 and again in 2017. The first constitutional amendment removed presidential term limits in order to allow Museveni to continue to stand for elections while the second one removed the presidential age limit of 75, a move opposition parties and rights groups say guarantees Museveni presidency for life. Museveni’s extended presidency has been marred by much public outcry in response to widespread corruption, human rights violations as well as inadequate public services. He had previously said he detested African leaders who want to overstay in power, a statement he has now said was aimed at unelected leaders.
Constitutional provisions on term limits were introduced in order to promote the notion that no leader is indispensable; they can be replaced no matter how popular as well as to promote healthy competition needed to strengthen democracy and democratic institutions. However, some leaders on the continent do not want to limit their options of staying in power for as long as they want hence the disregard of these constitutional provisions or the staging of constitutional coups. These constitutional coups are staged by proposing amendments that require the approval of the judiciary or legislature and since these institutions are already filled with people loyal to the president, they are often approved. National referenda are sometimes used in order to give the impression that the people are in favour of the constitutional amendment while some governments back up these coups with force or the threat of violence. The successful staging of constitutional coups decreases the quality of democracy observed in the countries concerned as it results in a poor system of checks and balances and the ‘president for life’ is free to exercise power arbitrarily without any accountability.
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.