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Tuesday, May 5, 2015


Last week Burundi took off where South Africa left off with street protests against plans by incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for another term in office.

The protestors insist his running would a breach of the constitution, which provides for a two-term presidential limit. But Nkurunziza’s supporters say the constitution was enacted during his first term, he has run for one general election since and is therefore entitled to run at least one more time.

The opposition know this.

"They in effect, are trying to deprive Nkurunziza the element of surprise if he is to attempt to amend the constitution to allow for a third term, they are trying to create a public momentum against such plans and make it a campaign issue for Nkurunziza to pronounce on during the campaigns. The presidential elections are for June 26.

Why all this hoolah balooh about term limits?

Presidential term limits as we know them have their origins in the US. In writing their constitution in the 18th century the issue came up and the advocates for term limits argued that the notion of a republic would not stand if the president’s term limits were not predetermined.

However they did not write it into the constitution immediately, but an informal two term limit was established when the first US president George Washington stepped down after he had served two terms.

Term limits were finally written into the constitution in 1951 after Franklin D Roosevelt became the longest serving incumbent, dying during in his fourth term.

In Africa our motives for writing the presidential term limits, beyond wanting to ape the US, comes from our post-colonial history, which shows that once a leader was in place you would have to throw everything including the kitchen sink to dislodge him.

"Caught up in the dynamic of hanging on to power, governments tend to forsake a long term national vision for short term pragmatism aimed at holding on to power, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise...

Politics is about vying for power and once obtained, it’s a bout retaining power. Power, the ability to influence things, starts out not as an end in itself but as an instrument in the service of the people. Somewhere along the way the seduction of power is too much and it becomes an end in itself.
This is not unique to the African situation.

In 1972 agents broke into the Watergate office complex in Washington. This was the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Various sources have it that proof of a deal made by Richard Nixon to stall the Vietnam negotiations, which if successful would have seen Lyndon Johnson back in the White House were supposed to be in that building.

Nixon or his cronies scared the Democrats would hold this over their heads through his first term and also at the next election were keen to get their hands on the nefarious dossier.

But they went too far and the exposure of the plot and the Nixon’s denial it was involved in the break in eventually cost him his presidency.

"Term limits are a mechanical solution to the threat of a return to monarchies...

What Africa really needs is institutions that can hold everybody to accountable, unfortunately for us impatient Africans these cannot reach full maturity in a day or a decade or even a century.

The question is how do you go about building such institutions?

Writing them into law is useful but not sufficient to make them credible and effective. For us who are always lamenting Gavumenti etuyambe. I am sorry to say it starts with us.

My fellow columnist Simon Kaheru last week reported that he went to a place where lining up happens. But beyond the physical presence of a line there is the intuitive, habitual even spiritual sense that there is a line --- even if it is not physically visible.

The institutions we yearn from start at the spiritual level, at the level of our individual consciousness. How can we demand that our leaders be held accountable for their public behaviour, for monies going missing under the watch and for the careless utterances they make that make us reduce our estimation as a nation in the eyes of the world when we in pour personal fiefdoms – be they at home or in the office, behave as if we are above the law?

So back to Burundi. Nkurunzinza should stand despite misplaced call for him to disqualify himself. 

He should stand if only to ingrain the tradition of voting into the people’s psyches. People who say in the context of our countries it is useless to vote because our leaders are prone to steal the polls anyway, are the real enemies of democracy.

In fact if the anti-Nkurunzinza people are convinced he is overstepping his mandate, sue him! Exercise the judiciary!

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