A power hungry leader has the capacity to use manipulation and corruption to cut the rope of term limits and extend his continued stay in power
By Denis Birungi
“Four more year” a desperate crowd chanted as President Obama gave his farewell address to Americans. This chanting is a reflection of deeply seated worries in the minds of Americans, fear for an impending crisis that the next presidency might bring.
As they chanted “four more years” to the outgoing president, they were well aware that their constitution limits presidents to only two terms.
This chanting was not because they don’t want constitutional limitation; it is because of what that limitation has led them to; a president elect whose policy no one really understands, a man who has undermined every established practice, who has neither discipline nor self-control, whose integrity has been tainted from almost every angle, from sexual misconduct to tax evasion, to racism and lack of respect for institutions.
This chanting could also have been because of a comparison of the two figures, the outgoing and the incoming president, a rational president, an admired politician, father and husband to be now replaced by a God-knows- what president to be.
Perhaps Americans were wondering what inspiration their children can draw from such a man and what type of America will he deliver after the four years of his leadership.
Maybe the underlying concern that prompted the chanting could have been the system itself: whether it is any longer necessary to limit presidents to only two terms as the status quo shows that such a system can sometimes, as it really did, lead to uncertainty or in the commonly used phrase of Mr. Trump, to a “real disaster”.
This argument has been embraced by African presidents to justify change of their constitutions to remove term-limits. The argument has always been, like in last year’s US election, lack of a credible candidate, a candidate better than the incumbent. This is what the people of Rwanda have based on to push for removal of constitutional term limits.
In my opinion, what we need is not constitutional term limits but an established tradition and commitment to justice, democracy and respect for rule of law, respect for institutions that can truly check the excesses of leaders, transparency and accountability as well as a citizenry that keeps a watch on their government.
But largely, what is required is, in the words of president Obama, a change of hearts.
African countries embedded term limits in their constitutions largely because of the worry for abuse of power by leaders and the need to curb it; that if a person’s leadership is bad, people can be patient well knowing that his period will come to an end in a short while.
Unless there is a change of hearts, an established tradition of respect for law, equality for all, a conscience for justice, a conviction that government truly exists not to serve the desires of the leader but to serve the people that elected the leader, the existence of term limits cannot alone curb abuse of power to serve selfish ends. In short a set of values that a country stands for is the engine of its political progress.
A power hungry leader has the capacity to use manipulation and corruption to cut the rope of term limits and extend his continued stay in power. This has been done in many African countries. So the notion of concentrating on constitutional term limits alone is tantamount to building the hard ware while leaving the software which is the most important component.
Democratic countries such as United Kingdom, Germany and France do not have term limits but that has not hindered their progress. In Germany, Angel Merkel has led for three terms because of her credible leadership.
In a situation where there are limited options, I think a credible leader, as judged by the people based on real performance, should contest for more terms unhindered by constitutional term limits as long as he or she is still physically, intellectually and morally fit.
People can vote him/ her out only where they have a better option. So yes, I agree with the chanting of Americans that had there been no constitutional term limits, Obama should have run for third term. And because of the American lesson, I now believe that constitutional term limits is not the solution to our desired political destiny as Ugandans.
We need a holistic approach that builds a real state with functional institutions, a state set on a path of values and ethics through which real social and economic progress can thrive.
A system that can root out corruption and cronyism and allow every citizen an equal opportunity, a leadership that can unite all of us as Ugandans and end divisions based on tribe and ethnicity, a leadership that can put in place policies that work for everyone and lastly a credible electoral body that can be trusted and through which citizens can express their approval or disapproval of a leader’s performance by either extending their rule regardless of the period or by voting in another leader they think can serve them better.
The writer is a fourth-year law student at Uganda Christian University