Staying Power of African Rulers


Algeria, Djibouti, Gambia, Chad and Uganda are among the few countries where African leaders have served at least 15 years in office. Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore tried to remove the limit on his presidency and that led to his downfall.

At 90 years of age, Robert Mugabe is Africa’s oldest head of state. Mugabe was elected prime minister in 1980 and seven years later became Zimbabwean president. He ruled till he was ousted in November 2017. Mugabe tried to change his term in office so he could be there till he became 97. Early on in his presidency, people saw him as a freedom fighter but due to food woes and financial meltdown, his people began to see him as a renegade.

Cursory look at a few other dictators

Like Mugabe, Theodore Obiang of Equatorial Guinea changed the constitution at least three times to enable him rule forever, if one could say that. No African leader ruled longer than Obiang. He is the second president of the oil-rich country who seized power from his uncle in 1979. According to Wikipedia, Obiang is the second longest-serving non-royal national leader in the world.

Jose Eduardo Dos Santos ruled Angola for more than 35 years. He was elected for the first time after the death of Angola’s first president Agostinho Neto. A new constitution stipulates that the chairman of the party with the most votes in parliament becomes the president automatically. Dos Santos’ MPLA party is the strongest in Angola, and that means the he could remain in power for years to come.

Paul Biya of Cameroon ruled the western central African country since 1982. He would have been barred for re-election, but in 2008, he changed the laws and removed all restrictions on term limits despite massive protests from the population. His re-election in 2011 did not come as a surprise.

Yoweri Museveni of Ugandacame to power in 1986, bringing an end to Idi Amin’s dictatorship in Uganda. But after ruling the east African country for 28 years, Museveni has himself come to be known as a dictator. In 2005, he finally scrapped term limits even though he was the one against it formerly.

Mswati of Swazilandcame to power without a constitutional amendment simply because there is no constitution in Swaziland. Mswati III is the last absolute ruler in Africa. At the age of 18, he ascended the throne in 1986 after the death of his father, King Sobhuza II. Since then he has ruled the country by decree and rejects any form of democracy. His country remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Idriss Deby of Chad was born in 1952, Idriss Deby Itno began his career as a rebel fighter. In 1990 he overthrew the government of his former comrade Hissene Habre and became president one year later. In 2004, he amended the constitution to allow him to remain in office. Rebels tried to overthrow his government in 2006 and 2008 but in vain. In 2011 he was re-elected for a fourth term and is still ruling.

Joseph Kabila of DR Congois, in comparison to his counterparts, still a young head of state and has not held office for a long period of time. The 43 year-old has ruled the conflict-ridden DRC since 2001. After his father, President Laurent Kabila, was assassinated, he was installed as his successor. Kabila was elected in 2006 for the first time but has called for a constitutional amendment in order to run again.

 The urge to cling to power forever

Why do these rulers want to stay in power forever? Prof Amii Omara-Otunnu, the leader of the newly formed Freedom and Unity Front (FUF)in Uganda attributed personal insecurity as one reason why African rulers to do everything they can to stay in power. Accordingly, he says; these men lack a moral compass and are not fit to govern. They feel insecure and power without a moral compass does not give one a moral value.

Prof Amii Omara-Otunnu said the fear exhibited by such rulers has made them think they are semi-gods and that they are using that to instil a sense of fear into those they govern. They believe that their only survival is if they retain power.

Consequently, most of these leaders apart from being corrupt also sponsor illegal warfare in strategic places in Africa.Some parts of Africa are passionate about federalism and are looking for a bigwig to champion their cause and have a new torch bearer. 

How they manage to be on top

“We must have checks and balances of power. We must have a separation of powers. The only way you can have checks and balances of power is devolved power to various regions and leave what I call residual power in the centre. The system of a heavily centralised state has not worked in Uganda, it has not worked in Africa, and it will not work. Another fundamental reason why devolution is the only solution to power is that it allows people from each region to be engaged in affairs that affect them and develop them. Policies must be developed and implemented by people who are affected by those policies,” Professor Omara-Otunnu said.

Africa often sees closely-fought elections whose integrity was far from clear – alongside serious outbreaks of protest and violence in a number of countries.  The continent has also experienced a surge in death and population displacement as civil wars flared up in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, to name but two examples, along with continuing insurgencies in Somalia, Nigeria and Mali.

For all their willingness to use coercion and shameless force, how do these African leaders actually manage to stay in power despite weak state structures and institutions not to mention the distractions caused by seemingly structural factions and in-fighting? Of course, there are common factors that lead to the development, and maintenance, of such autocratic, repressive and unaccountable systems.

Yet despite the patronage or perhaps because of it, African power elites are brazenly distant from their own people. They seek to rule through coercion, such as secret police, and in addition to informal networks of patronage that power and access to rents brings them. In some countries, power networks are based on the military or former military officers, and on the home areas of political leaders. Unless these areas are looked into, the sad stories of African dictators who rule for a lifetime will continue.

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