In Cato’s Letter number 61 Trenchard and Gordon aptly describe the political scenario of many legislators. A gulf separates the rulers from the ruled. Men, when they first enter into magistracy, have often their former condition before their eyes. They remember what they themselves suffered with their fellow subjects from the abuse of power, and how much they blamed it. Their first purposes are to be humble, modest and just; and probably, for some time. But alas! The possession of power soon alters and vitiates their hearts, which are leavened and puffed up to an unnatural size, by the deceitful incense of false friends and prostrate submission of parasites. First, they grow indifferent to all their good designs, then drop them. Next, they lose their moderation. Afterwards, they renounce all measures with their old acquaintances and principles, and seeing themselves in magnifying glasses, grow in conceit, a different species from their fellow subjects. By too sudden degrees, they become insolent, rapacious and tyrannical, ready to catch by all means, often the vilest and most oppressive, to raise their fortunes as high as their imaginary greatness. The only way to put them in their former condition, and consequently of other people, is often to reduce them to it, and to let others of equal capacities share the power in turn.
There is a general sense of frustration with the performance of legislative institutions. The inability of African parliaments to deal with vexing national problems such as the economy and the budget deficit has (somewhat unfairly) tarred state legislatures with the same brush. Secondly, the rate of re-election or recycling of incumbents is so high that it seems impossible to achieve change in regularly scheduled elections.
The issue of term limits crystallizes a divide in society: the divide between ordinary citizens, careerist politicians and bureaucrats. The "culture of spending" that we see in parliament is no coincidence. It is the direct result of an incentive structure that places winning re-election above all else. Some citizens agree that it's time to change this political culture and, ultimately, to take back the government from career politicians. Entrenchment can lead to power polarizations that are not always good for they are most objectionable in positions of absolute authority.
“Although the Constitutional Amendment Bill (No.3) in Uganda touched on a number of issues, the most contentious was the abolition of the term limits. Members of Parliament overwhelmingly voted in favour of the amendment abolishing the presidential term limits. This is a decision the country has to live with. The effect of this decision is that President Yoweri Museveni is now free to seek re-election and remain in office beyond 2006,” says John Kakande of Uganda.
According to him, it is debatable whether parliament took the right decision taking into account the political history of Uganda and Africa in general. It was largely influenced by short-term political calculations. Besides Uganda, another country which has this year abolished limits is Chad.
There have been a lot of arguments for and against scrapping term limits. Notably, the no-term-limits proponents have argued that it is not possible for an unpopular president to stay in power once you have 'free and fair' elections. It has also been argued that majority of the democracies in the world do not impose a limit on presidential terms.
Only one leader was voted out of office between 1960 to 1990 and this happened in Mauritius. A recent report, among other issues, that analyses the governance and political succession in Africa, says "most leaders, who left office (between 1960 and 1990) were overthrown in coups or during wars, and out of the 107 overthrown African leaders so far, more than two thirds were either killed, imprisoned or went into exile."
And between 1990 and 2003, only 19 African leaders lost elections. Between 1960 and 2003, only 19 African leaders retired, 12 died either of natural causes or accidents and five were assassinated. Virtually, none of the African countries had term limits between 1960 and 1980 and most were single-party states. This is partly the reason no African leader was voted out of office, but there were about 60 military coups.
Term limits in most of the African countries were introduced after 1980 during the second wave of liberation that also ushered in multiparty politics. They were introduced because of the life-presidency tendency that was experienced between 1960 and 1980.What safeguards have been put in place to ensure a bad leader doesn't cling on to power?
The disease that term limits is supposed to cure is hardening of the legislative arteries. The remedy is a forced transfusion of fresh blood into the body politic and a return to the ideal of a citizen legislature. The proponents of term limits envision a host of favorable consequences flowing from the change. In general, they argue that professional politicians will be replaced by citizen legislators less concerned with re-election and more able to focus on the problems of governing. They say that term limits will reduce the reliance of legislators on the special interests that finance their election campaigns and will make it easier for non-incumbents to get elected.
Term limit opponents argue that if adopted, politicians will not pursue policies that will bear fruit in the long run for they will not be around to benefit. In order to maximize their revenues, they will grab what they can, and let the devil take the future. Their motto will be "make hay while the sun shines," or "let’s kill the golden goose, now." It will be a pure race to accumulate riches, with very little pretense.
Term limits are to ordinary democracy without them what the latter is to monarchy. An alternative way of putting this is that the system furthest removed from monarchy is democracy with term limits. Democracy with no term limits at all occupies a position in between these other two. The ordinary politician (with no term limit) need not take an extremely short run perspective. He knows, if he can avoid being caught, he’ll be in office for a nice long while. Dr. Block of Loyola University argues that several thieves have been in office for decades. “In the long run they are all dead,” he argues but if the long run takes dozens of years, the incentive to loot and run is somewhat attenuated.
As the battle rages, it is the right ideas, cultivated in the right people that will eventually allow the flourishing of liberty and prosperity once again.
By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer
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