Thought and Ideas
Presidential term limits should not be confused with good governance
Posted Sunday, July 22 2012 at 01:00
Drawing a clear line. Term limits and good governance are two separate issues that should not be confused as one does not necessarily influence the other. The trouble with the current debate is that it is acting as a red herring, leading us away from the search for real meaningful political rights and full conscious political participation which would definitely lead to the good governance.
President Museveni is often reminded by his critics of his having said that the problem with African leaders was that they stay too long in power. The argument is that long tenures always degenerate into violent ousters. The examples of what happened in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other troubled countries are quickly trotted out in support of the theory that when a president rules for a long period, such rule inevitably ends in violent regime change.
Not necessarily, says history. For example, in our much admired neighbor, Tanzania, Julius Nyerere was leader for 24 years, from 1961 to 1985; but this did not cause fratricidal wars in Tanzania of the kind Uganda has known. In Malawi, the once “President for life” Kamuzu Banda ruled for more than three decades from 1961 to 1994, and with an iron-fisted dictatorship it is said, but his departure after a referendum, and an election he lost, was peaceful.
In Ghana, in spite of his bloody “house cleaning” in which former leaders were all executed, Jerry Rawlings was head of state for more than 20 years (from 1979 to 2002), yet his departure from power was not marked with a blood bath. In Kenya, Arap Moi ruled from 1978 to 2002, and left when the Kenyans made it very clear he was no longer wanted; but at the time Kenya did not descend into the murderous kind of chaos that claimed thousands of lives later in 2007. Ironically, the 2007 violence came after the constitution had been amended to include a maximum of two presidential five-year terms. President Mwai Kibaki had at the time served just one term but the chaos could not wait!
Meanwhile in Uganda before Museveni, our political convulsions and bouts of blood-letting which haunt us did not ever wait for any long tenures. Mutesa was removed as president in 1966 in just under four years. Obote was toppled off the presidency in 1971 a few months short of his 5th presidential anniversary. Idi Amin lasted eight years from 1971 to 1979. Yusuf Lule was president for only 69 days (April 13 to June 20, 1979), and Binaisa was president for less than eleven months (June 1979 to May 1980). Obote lasted just under five years in his second presidency (December 1980 to July 1985), while Tito Okello Lutwa did not make six months at the helm. None of these periods of rule went beyond the much venerated 10-year maximum length of tenure.
Clearly our history does not demonstrate a direct link between political instability and length of rule. The argument simply fails for lack of consistent evidence, and we must look elsewhere for the cause(s) of our troubles.
The American experience regarding presidential term limits is very interesting. At independence in 1776, presidential term limits were not included in the constitution, and they did not get amended into it until 174 years later, in 1950. Instead, perhaps because of the American aversion to anything reminiscent of monarchy, a tradition developed whereby the American people consistently gave their presidents a maximum of two term limits even though there was no lack of attempts by incumbents to stay on for longer.
Thus in 1880 President Ulysses Grant tried for a third term, but the Americans would have none of it. In 1896 President Grover Cleveland tried for a third term; he did not get it either. In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt was denied a third term, and likewise in 1920 the Americans refused to give Woodrow Wilson a third term.
But then the depression of the 1930s and the Second World War of the 1940s came along. It was a particularly challenging period, and America desperately needed a charismatic leader. So as the saying goes, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) came forth. Referred to by some as the greatest president since Lincoln, FDR proved to be the man of that hour. His leadership style, including his speaking to the American people directly over the radio in what came to be known as “fireside chats”, must have endeared him to them. So much so that, after more than 150 years, and after 31 presidents before him, the American people broke their tradition and gave FDR, their 32nd president, four consecutive terms. He died in office during the fourth term in 1945, so we will never know what would have happened at the end of that term. What did happen after FDR’s death though, is that the American constitution was amended, in the 22nd amendment of 1950, to prescribe a maximum of two four-year presidential terms. America’s real reasons for the change most probably had little to do with lofty democratic ideals and good governance. After all these were well taken care of by the checks and balances which had worked for more than a century and a half.
The real reason that the American people could agree to the curtailing of their democratic power was that the American psyche was at the time filled with fear. The period after the Second World War is the period known as the Second Red Scare during which American fear of communism was whipped up to fever-pitch in people’s minds by the fear mongers of the day, until the American people could no longer trust themselves to resist effectively if a communist managed to come to power.
Likewise in Uganda, the term limits debate is mainly motivated by fear and dread. When it is not fuelled by visions and predictions of the chaos and revenge, it is predicated, even among Museveni’s supporters on the fear of what some other leader who comes after him might be like. John Nagenda perfectly put this fear into words in his weekly column, One Man’s Week of April 21: “The dangers arising in the event of less worthy leaders [than Museveni] kidnapping the country in future for their own purposes now makes it expedient that we should put that out of such people’s grasp.” By way of term limits. And so it would seem that the situation is so grave, our fears so great, that to thwart the potential enemies’ possible intentions we deny ourselves our rights before they are denied us. We give up our own democratic powers, leaving us with fewer rights to defend!
What Americans say
One of the main American arguments against presidential term limits is that they are undemocratic in that they deny the American people the free choice of a particular leader at any time should they want him or her. In this sense the American people suffered a loss of sovereignty. After all, sovereignty, the having of supreme authority and power, means being able to hire whoever they want, whenever they want. The constitution, a tool they fashioned to remind them of what they have agreed upon, has become a god they serve.
Thus in 2001 they missed out on a third term with the popular Bill Clinton, one might argue, and got George Bush, Iraq and all the rest of it. The debate for and against presidential term limits in America still rages on, but the numerous attempts to repeal the 22nd amendment which established them in 1950 have so far been unsuccessful. Perhaps “the hour” and “the man” have not come to America again, yet.
Those who would like to see peace and good governance should apply their efforts in strengthening its major determinant, the people’s awareness of their political rights and how to stand up for them. In other words, take care of the substance of our politics, and the politics will take care of the term limits. Otherwise term limits become a form and a popular fashion without substance, worn simply to “fit in” with the others. There is no guarantee that term limits would not keep bringing corrupt leaders to power, rather like the blades of a fan circulating foul air in a badly ventilated room, as long as the nature of our politics does not change.