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Is China’s ‘president for life’ plan a knowing wink to Africa’s strongmen?

By Julie Masiga | Published Tue, March 6th 2018 at 00:00, Updated March 5th 2018 at 23:35 GMT +3

China’s Parliament has voted on controversial constitutional amendments. The changes will remove presidential terms limits, effectively allowing President Xi Jinping to rule beyond the end of his term in 2023, and possibly to remain president for life.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise because historically, Chinese rulers have been known to err on the side of autocracy. Even then, the proposed manipulation of the country’s constitution could put China on a regressive path to the bad old days of strongman rule.

But beyond internal Chinese politics, by paving the way for a life presidency, Xi Jinping is giving presidents across the African continent – especially those who have chosen China has their development partner of choice – the proverbial green light to act with similar impunity.

In any event, China engages with Africa on a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ basis, which allows it to trade with any government regardless of its transgressions. This latest move, however, could be interpreted as an implicit go-ahead. A declaration that presidents who want to rule until the grave can do so without judgement. And that cannot be a good thing for African democracy.

Family dynasty

That said, Africans can do bad all on their own. Just recently, Gabon passed ‘controversial constitutional amendments’ to remove their own presidential term limits and allow President Ali Bongo Ondimba to expand the powers of the president exponentially, and to rule for life. Ali Bongo is now empowered to make key policy decisions unilaterally, which combined with a lifetime on the seat, makes him more of a monarch than an elected official. As a matter of fact, the latest amendments now require Gabon’s defence and security heads to pledge their allegiance to the president.

But perhaps we should not judge Ali Bongo too harshly. The president is just taking the cue from his father Omar, who was elected in 1967 and ruled with an iron fist for 42 years. Bongo junior took the oath of office in 2009, just four months after his daddy died. Some might commend him for seeking to extend the family dynasty through ‘constitutional’ means, because after all, constitutionalism is the African buzzword of the 21st Century.

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Unfortunately, many African constitutions are only implementable if they align with the whims of the establishment. We may like to think that we’re above that mess, but East Africa has not been left behind. ‘Controversial constitutional amendments’ in Uganda recently removed the presidential age limit, allowing the 73-year-old Yoweri Museveni to run for a sixth term. Had he not tampered with Uganda’s supreme law, it would have required him to hang up his wide brimmed hat at 75.

Here at home, we have quickly learned to couch our pseudo-constitutionalism in the phrase ‘the law is very clear’. Things is, the law is only clear when it is supports the status quo. If it favours any other position, then there is something wrong with it and it must be “fixed”.

Prime minister position

It shouldn’t shock you then that Tiaty MP Kassait Kamket is proposing amendments to Kenya’s 2010 Constitution that would introduce a slew of governance changes, including a prime minister position. Kamket also wants Kenyans to consider extending the presidential term limit to seven years, and then limiting the president’s tenure to one term. No surprises there.

And yet I find myself agreeing with Kamket’s presidential suggestion. Having a president in power for a longer period of time, but for one term only, might just be the solution for Kenya’s seasonal election problem. Elections are disruptive. They put leaders in perpetual campaign mode and turn voters into mindless party and/or tribal machines.

As a nation, Kenya places too much emphasis on its flawed election process to the determinant of the four years in between. Elections are not the be-all and end-all of the democratic process. They serve one purpose only, and that is to empower voters to hire and fire leaders. It’s in the service delivery period between the point of hiring and firing that true democracy kicks in – the part that requires voters to be vigilant over their taxes and resources, and to hold their elected employees to account. So having a president in office for an extended 7-year term could give both leaders and the electorate enough breathing room to focus their energies on tangible development. The kind that grows economies, creates jobs and lifts citizens out of poverty. Voters are easily manipulated with cash at election time because so many of them are subsisting below the poverty line.

And if I had a choice between a steady but disruptive election cycle, and a better standard of living for every Kenyan, I would choose the latter every time.

Ms. Masiga is Peace and Security Editor, The Conversation Africa


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