Why term-limits proponents are undemocratic

For the past few months, the East Africans have keenly followed a major electoral process in the region’s biggest economy Kenya, which culminated into Tuesday’s inauguration of Uhuru Kenyatta as the country’s fourth head of state.
Felly Kimenyi
Felly Kimenyi

For the past few months, the East Africans have keenly followed a major electoral process in the region’s biggest economy Kenya, which culminated into Tuesday’s inauguration of Uhuru Kenyatta as the country’s fourth head of state.

Many commentators across the region and beyond have written about the implications of that election.

In one of these pages, my colleague in the Fourth Estate, Sunny Ntayombya, through an opinion piece, ‘Is the African Renaissance getting a second wind?’ referred to a crop of African leaders, who championed the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), that raised high expectations for the continent at the beginning of the 21st century.

But what prompted my response is the insinuation in the article that some presidents among a “new generation of African leaders” have since “ended up resembling the very dinosaurs they replaced’’, and cited Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, among them.

No doubt, my friend Sunny has a right to his opinion. But at least he needs to be consistent in his opinion. He normally is but I didn’t see that in the said article.

The author rightly cites Somalia among the success stories unfolding on the continent, following the intervention of an African force – after the country had been messed up and abandoned by the so-called international community.

You cannot cite Somalia as a success story owing to recent developments and then seek to undermine the role or relevance of the person who is a major player in this positive story.

President Museveni remains part of the solution to the problems that dogged the Horn of Africa nation for two decades.

Needless to say, Uganda is the largest contributor of troops for the African Union Mission (Amisom).

Amisom, which also has troops from Burundi, and is lately working closely with Kenyan troops to rout the Al-Shabaab terrorists and Somalia on a path to recovery, is an African initiative run by Africans, and a testament that Africa can find solutions to its own problems.

So to liken a leader, who is championing the process to return peace to Somalia much to the pride of Africa as a whole, to the dictators he opposed and succeeded in power is not being honest.

In short, the basis for Sunny’s conclusion is rooted in the belief that President Museveni has “overstayed in power” since he has led Uganda since 1986.

I find this an affront to the electorate of Uganda who voted in favour of lifting presidential term limits and handed Museveni more time to serve them.

Uganda has held a presidential election every five years, with Museveni emerging the winner (lately his victory margin has been on a steady rise). This is democracy and constitutionalism because that’s what the Ugandan people – who know the life they led under Museveni’s predecessors better than anyone else – have decided.

Ugandans, or Africans for that matter, are not the first people to have handed the incumbent a third term. In 1940, the Americans voted overwhelmingly to give Franklin D. Roosevelt a third term. In fact, by the time Roosevelt died, he was in his fourth term.

The powers of changing the constitution or voting for leaders as many times as possible should remain at the discretion of the electorate. Anyone opposed to that should not consider themselves advocates of democracy.

Yet Sunny cites Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika among the new breed of African leaders, but fails to state that in 2009, the electorate gave Bouteflika a third term, after lifting term limits.

In measuring democracy, we should desist from a one-size-fits-all approach because what the voters in Uganda like, or need for that matter, may not necessarily be the same as what their counterparts in the UK or France want.

If we believe that democracy is the ‘Government of the people, by the people, and for the people’, then any leader voted for into power by his or her people is a legitimate leader.

The question of term limits should not arise at all.

The writer is an editor with The New Times.

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