Removal of presidential term limits starts with the seemingly lone voice of a sycophant or ruling party hack. This is met with denials from powers that be. Then another voice makes the same call. More denials come from mainstream party officials.
As this back and forth continues, the agenda begins to move from the fringes of party debate to national centre stage. The proposal is then taken to political rallies and media. Then full-blown state-aided mobilisation in support of the proposal begins. By now, removal of term limits is a central agenda of the state and ruling party.
The movement of the proposal from the fringes of party politics to the centre of national debate might look like a haphazard process. But it’s only later that people realise how well choreographed the process was.
In countries in Africa, where unlawful constitutional changes have taken place, the lone voices that began the process sounded like lunatics. Political pundits dismissed them as voices in the wild. For instance, in Zimbabwe, when ZANU-PF sycophants began to propose that Grace Mugabe take over from her husband, people laughed at the absurdity of the notion. But, gradually, party and state organs began to push the agenda. Were it not for the intervention of the army, Grace Mugabe would today be president of Zimbabwe.
A number of African countries like Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Uganda have removed presidential term limits. The result has been developmental stagnation. Attempts in other countries to remove them have led to unrest. Therefore, the call from ruling UDA party MP should be taken very seriously, the denials from mainstream party officials notwithstanding.
There were similar calls during Kibaki’s and Uhuru’s presidencies. But these came late in the day and received no support from major party players. That this call by the UDA MP has come early and received backing from major party players should add to the apprehension.
Term limits important
Presidential term limits are important, especially in countries with weak institutions. What characterises the post-independent history of Africa is the usurpation of power by the executive from institutions constitutionally mandated to act as checks and balances. Men like Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Mobutu Sese Seko, Daniel arap Moi, ruled with absolute power. The legislature and judiciary became mere instruments of executive will.
Because there were no institutions to check the excesses of the executive, theft of public funds became a governing paradigm. And because there were no term limits, when the tyrants left office through death, retirement or a coup, their countries were basket cases. So, term limits ensure that a regime’s excesses do not continue. Kenyans take heed; the lone voice might not be alone.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator