"It's shameful that the UDF party wants to take us back to the dark days,"

Mr Gwanda Chakuamba (2003)

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Africa: Oh No, Not You Again Mr President

Mavis Makuni

When London-based telecommunications tycoon Mo Ibrahim announced plans last year to offer prizes of up to US$5 million as an incentive for African leaders to relinquish power, he overlooked an emerging category -- former leaders who are determined to stage political comebacks.

Ibrahim announced that the awards to be given by his foundation were designed to reward leaders who were not guilty of rigging elections or enriching themselves through corruption and pillaging during their stints as leaders of their countries. The philanthropist believed that the initiative would give African leaders an alternative to poverty, corruption and clinging to power beyond their sell-by date. "Nothing is as important as good governance in ensuring development and reducing poverty. Africa's leaders Face many challenges and this award will help recognise those of them that have done well.

But if Ibrahim's awards are to serve as an incentive to persuade reluctant incumbents to pass on the baton, what is to be done to discourage former presidents who have had their turn at the helm of the ship of state from staging unpopular comebacks? This question has become pertinent in light of moves by at least two former African presidents who tried unsuccessfully to amend the constitutions of their countries to prolong their incumbencies to contest elections once again. These are Malawi's former head of state Bakili Muluzi and Namibia's founding president, Sam Nujoma.

It was reported in the press recently that Muluzi has declared his intention to contest the 2009 presidential elections in Malawi if his party, the United Democratic Front, nominates him. He has previously served two terms of office that ended in 2004. His attempts to amend the constitution to give himself a third term of office were rebuffed by parliament. As a result his former protégé and now arch rival, Bingu wa Mutharika was swept into power albeit in a disputed election. Muluzi is said to be capitalising on a constitutional semantic loophole to revive his dream. He is reported to pin his hopes on a clause in Malawi's republican constitution that limits an incumbent's stint as head of state to "two consecutive terms" He says this can be interpreted to mean that one can make a comeback after a break. It is debatable however, whether this is the understanding of the generality of the people, who regarded constitutional term limits as a means to ensure the injection of new blood through regular changes of guard.

Former Namibian president Sam Nujoma is reported to be working on similar plans. His attempt to amend the constitution to allow himself to prolong his stint when his term of office ended in 2005 met with stiff resistance from Namibia's parliament.

He is reported to be inching his way back through the control he still exerts on the ruling South West Africa Peoples Organisation(SWAPO). The argument often advanced by long-serving African presidents is that they need to stay in office long enough to see their visions come to fruition but "long enough" has come to mean decades or lifetimes. And in the case of Muluzi and Nujoma, their comebacks would present a double standard in that they would condemn their successors, wa Mutharika and Hifikepunye Pohamba to one-term presidencies.

During the World Economic Forum in Cape Town last year, South African president Thabo Mbeki spoke out against unlimited presidential terms, saying it was inconceivable that leaders would "continue to enjoy the support of their people" if they clung to power for the rest of their lives. He said the big challenge in Africa was to ensure that all components of society enjoy access to resources in an equitable way. "That means access to political power and access to resources." Ironically, after taking such a principled stance against Life Presidencies, he has been accused of harbouring ambitions to extend his own incumbency after its expiry in 2009 by amending the constitution.

Another head of state who has tried to tamper with his country's constitution to allow himself to remain at the helm is Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. Last year a bill that would have enabled him to seek a third term of office as leader of Africa's most populous state was thrown out by the senate. Obasanjo had been accused of waging a smear campaign against his deputy, Atiku Abubakar as a way to eliminate him from the presidential race this year. To his credit however, Obasanjo accepted defeat when his attempts to fiddle with the constitution failed, saying: "The constitution must be held hallowed and sacred. And on the basis of the constitution in hand we must start to plan the next election." Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is into his 21st year as head of state this year because he successfully forced an amendment of the constitution to allow himself to remain in control.

The bottom line is that whether it is incumbents amending constitutions to cling to power or ex-presidents exploiting loopholes to stage unpopular comebacks, some African countries look set to be stuck with the same leaders for decades

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