Power & Presidents: know your (term) limits

Esther A. Armah

Term limits. That’s a phrase alien to fifteen out of 54 African heads of state each of whom has held power for more than 20 years. The issue is back on our radar after Gabon’s end of term limits this year effectively allowed President Ali Bongo Ondimba to rule for life.

Africa has the world’s youngest population. The median age is 19.4 years. We are a people who believe in the wisdom of our elders, but we have clearly taken it too far when it comes to African presidents for life – the mantra uttered by those advocating for law change, constitutional change and no ceiling on presidential age – all lengths to go to just to maintain power.

Power is addictive. Absolute power also corrupts. That we know. This is about more than power; we are navigating the future of a Continent within a world of turmoil and tumult.

Africa holds the ingredients to be a super power; an abundance of mineral wealth; rich soil; and our most precious resource – the people of Africa. Such resources created the historical scramble that is euphemistically named colonialism and enslavement. There are multiple arguments for abandoning a Western style democracy – however, those arguments are not resolved by replacing it with lifelong presidents.

We must differentiate between the necessity of term limits to curb presidential power and a limitation of vision that impedes the growth of a Continent.

What happens to policy when presidents rule for life? What happens to the will of a people when lifelong presidency is the order of the nation? Indeed, what is a nation’s fate when its people have no say in who occupies its highest political leadership position?

Gabon, Burundi, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Sudan are just some of the African nations navigating lifelong presidencies, or extension of term limits. Gabon: Ali Bongo replaced his father in 2009, so many Gabonese have only known the family’s 50 year-long father-and-son rule. Burundi: a constitutional referendum allowing President Pierre Nkurunziza to remain in office until 2034 is scheduled for May. Uganda: age limits for presidential candidates have been ended, a move that favors the 73 year old incumbent Yoweri Museveni. Sudan: Omar al-Bashir is reportedly seeking a constitutional amendment to permit a third term.

It is not all bad news regarding term limits.

Within our 54 strong nations’ Continent there are those nations whose presidential limits and whose transition from one democratically elected leader to another, stands. According to surveys carried out by Afrobarometer, during the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, in the 47 countries in Africa that had non-ceremonial heads of state, 40 had term limits.

In Ghana, we are a nation that has exercised and abided by term limits with the peaceful transition of political democracy since 1992.  In Sierra Leone, Julius Maada Bio was sworn in as president, replacing the incumbent Ernest Bai Koroma, who had abided by the country’s two-term limit. In Liberia, this January, the incumbent president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, became the first president in her country’s history to adhere to term limits, also stepping aside after finishing her second term.

Limits and limitations: two interesting words and realities for Africa.

Here in Ghana, the lack of limitation when it comes to Ministerial staffers has once again brought the Akufo-Addo administration into the line of fire. The numbers and the resources those numbers soak up are under scrutiny. We should welcome scrutiny always. We should also contextualize it.

To reckon with a refusal to expand the number of Presidents in some nations in Africa while here in Ghana we are expanding the numbers of Ministerial staffers creates an intriguing conundrum. This is not a numbers game – indeed it is not a game. It is an issue of political efficiency, the public purse and the burden of bureaucracy – all issues already detrimentally impacting government’s effectiveness.

On limitations.

Here is where limitations are necessary.

For Francophone Africa, the work is to set limits on the continuing creeping authority of their former colonial masters, France. France’s economic heft is the direct result of bleeding African coffers dry. This economic colonialism – the legacy of the geographical colonialism – props up France and ensures her economic wealth even as major issues of unemployment, poor healthcare and failing education spiral in those same Francophone nations.

And yet, this talk of needing limits is rarely directed at former colonial masters and the ways that legacy limits the expansion and economic health of some African nations. Nor do enough African leaders require and demand such limitations either. Some will argue that limiting aid – the Akufo-Addo ‘Ghana beyond aid’ – becoming an Africa beyond aid mantra – is what is necessary. But in a global interconnected, interdependent world, all nations are built with the assistance of others. It is how that assistance is acquired and who it serves that requires close scrutiny. Historically, that assistance from Africa has been brutal enslaved free labour and colonialism’s debilitating gaze creating inferiority complexes that linger and manifest to this day.

African presidents’ have turned presidential politics into a family business.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe sought to hand the Presidential mantel to his wife, in Gabon it went to his son – and on and on. However, In America, presidential politics are also a family business: the Bush’s – from George H. W. Bush to his son George W. Bush – and the attempt via The Clintons. Now while there were campaigns for the Presidency, there was also concern that mediocrity and connections – rather than merit and brilliance – claimed the office. Currently, America’s 45th president has been accused of treating the American presidency as an extension of his family business.  He has been accused of unprecedented use – and abuse – of power in installing members of his family into positions of political authority.

All offer examples of the notion of inherited political power.

There are no meritocracies here.  There is a non-existent relationship with struggle. Persuasion via policy or strategy to earn a vote is equally absent.

The lack of term limits erase the necessary sparring, strategy and struggle required in campaigning to earn votes.  So, this abuse of power is not unique to a soil or a single story.

How do such lack of limits manifest within us as a people?

A people who do not have a stake in their society via their ability to choose their political leaders – even within the limitations of choice that our political democracy affords – is one that ignores ‘people power’ and nation building. Such leadership builds dictatorships, horrific corruption and turns leadership into individual whims overriding the consistent mantra that Africa needs strong institutions.

Reform is anathema when you become president for life.

This is also about internal governmental limits. In Ghana, big government, bloated Ministries and presidential staffers is currently the focus of political back and forth. President Nana Akufo-Addo has revealed that he has 998 presidential staffers. As commentators lamented and lambasted, accused and harangued the President, Information Minister Mustapha Hamid followed up, with numbers.  According to the Information Minister, the former government spent GhC3bn on presidential staffers in one year, compared to this government’s GhC1.5bn. The Opposition have – unsurprisingly – denied that claim – and offered their own numbers – considerably lower than those of Hon. Hamid.

Do the numbers matter? They do.

Can they be verified by an independent non-political party source? They cannot.

So, numbers alone cannot be the measure of efficacy.

Instead our measure for value should be much simpler. What is working, how much more quickly are things working? Can we the people get what we need from this working 998 strong presidential organ? If we can and we do, I don’t know that I care that much about the numbers. If we can’t, then I – like thousands of others –  have a problem.

Limits and limitations: term limits matter for presidents to honor a robust, vibrant, creative African people and getting the best out of a nation. We must also place limitations on former colonial powers relationship with African nations’ economy.

Term limits are ultimately about a limitation of vision; that does not serve our Continent’s future. Within those nations where term limits are exercised, we must wrestle with a limitation of vision that hampers our most precious resource – humans – from impactfully engaging with Africa.

Vision is a necessity that should be limitless.



Coalition Against Sexual Abuse (CASA) campaign STOP SEX ABUSE in SCHOOLS! is in partnership with ‘Let’s Talk Consent, ‘OdodowGH’ and EAA Media Productions. CASA seeks to engage additional organizations for partnership and participation. The hash tags across social media for this campaign are:- #SilenceBreakersGH and #TimesUpGH. For more info contact [email protected].

The Coalition Against Sexual Abuse (CASA) is an action and advocacy group of concerned citizens of Ghana committed to ending sexual abuse, sexual violence and sexual harassment in the country. CASA’s focus is impactful campaigns, citizen engagement, media and policy in this work. CASA works to educate Ghanaians about sexual abuse; to advocate for victims; to push for sensible legislation and enforcement against perpetrators; to engage the media in reform, language and their power regarding sexual abuse. CASA collaborates with other groups and individuals committed to ending sexual abuse.

CASA members:-

Eugenia Tachie-Menson
Richard Anim
Sara Asafu-Adjaye
Marcia Ashong
Nana Awere Damoah
Nana Akwasi Awuah
Mawuli Dake
Farida Bedwei
Nana Yaa Ofori Atta
Ama Opoku Agyeman
Elsie Dickson
Amazing Grace Danso
Yemisi Parker-Osei
Esther Armah
Elizabeth Olympio
Prof. Eric Wilson
Nana Ama Adom-Boakye
Abla Dzifa Gomashie
Kathleen Addy
The Ark Foundation
SCORP-FGMSA (Standing Committee On Human Rights and Peace – Federation of Ghana Medical Students)                                                                                          PepperDem Ministries

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