Continental Issue

Africa’s long-serving leaders undermine development

Curiously, Africa, the world’s second largest and second most-populous continent, only behind Asia, now features prominently as home of some of the world’s longest-serving political leaders. For decades, some of these so-called leaders have evolved as despots after flouting election laws in most cases and sometimes veiling legitimacy to their stay in power with very draconian decrees and laws to cling desperately onto power. It is commonplace in many countries on the continent seeing leaders some of whom just occupy the highest offices in their domains and waste resources without delivering value continue to brazenly disregard their countries’ constitutions and laws governing tenures, while citizens watch helplessly.

Term tenures As term limits meant to counter the temptation of leaders to overstay their welcome are flagrantly breached, African watchers continue to strive without success to get the concept of democracy ingrained in the body politic. But of course, these efforts continue to fall short of what is required to realistically deal with the abuse of office – certainly not enough. Regular transfer of power as seen in countries like Mauritius, Ghana, Botswana and Zambia, and the like cannot guarantee political and socio-economic stability. Accountable leadership is also very key. Despite constitutional provisions and regular elections and power transfers, countries such as Angola, Togo, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea are virtually de facto one party or one leader suppressive states; term limits, resignation and sometimes retirement mean nothing.

In many of these countries, some of the leaders stay in power all these years, for lack of a succession plan – that’s giving them the benefit of the doubt. Others refuse to leave because of the benefits from the state’s rich resources; largely mineral deposits and oil.

Leaving office voluntarily, they seem to believe, will deprive them of all of these and even more. The eventual departure of Angola’s Eduardo Dos Santos from office after decades in power, for example has beamed the suspicion of corruption on his family. His children stand accused of amassing billions during their father’s rule.

It is, however, not only doom. Senegal, Botswana and Mauritius, for example, vividly demonstrate the benefits of frequent power transfers that are evident in their countries. Incumbents fear a real chance of getting removed from office exists, if they fail to lead and manage country’s resources properly. Term limits have recently become controversial and divisive. Some leaders have used dubious constitutional amendments to extend their stay in power.

What happened in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and Congo Republic are very clear and recent examples that speak to this! Below are some of the longest-serving leaders.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Equatorial Guinea

Teodoro Obiang has been president of the oil-rich African country, Equatorial Guinea since 1979 when he took power in a coup. He turns 76 on June 5. He has been in charge of the Central African country for 38 years and remains leader of the country. In April 2016 he won the election with a landslide to extend
his mandate for a further seven years till the next elections in 2022.

Provisional results showed Teodoro won with 93.7 per cent of the votes on a turnout of 92.9 per cent. In July 2017, he was also elected life president of the ruling party. He has now led the country for forty years; and became the longest-serving president in the world in 2011, following the death of Libya’s leader of 42 years, Moammar Gaddafi , and ranks as the world’s second longest-serving non-royal national leader. He ousted his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, in an August 1979 coup and has overseen Equatorial Guinea’s emergence as an important oil producer, beginning in the 1990s.

Obiang appears unfazed even as he has been widely accused of massive corruption and abuse of power. Human Rights Watch in a study revealed roughly half the population in the oil-rich country lacks access to potable water, while life expectancy and infant mortality rates remain below the sub-Saharan average. Meanwhile, Mr Obiang and his family have amassed considerable personal wealth. His son, who serves as vice president, was sentenced to a three-year suspended jail term for corruption by a French court in 2017, after a landmark graft trial that lifted the lid on his playboy lifestyle. The 48-year-old, was also given a suspended fine of €30 million ($35 million) by the Paris judges who found him guilty of embezzlement, money laundering, corruption and abuse of trust. It is on record that it took Lee Kuan Yew a period of 35 years to turn Singpore to the status of fi rst world country from the backwater of underdevelopment.

It seems long-serving African leaders would rather become despots and behemoths than replicate or improve on this feat. Leaders in the United Arab Emirates have demonstrated with the Dubai experience that it could still be done. Paul Biya, Cameroon Paul Biya has been in power for thirty six years as leader of Cameroon.

Thirty seven years in November, 1982, he has been nicknamed an “absentee landlord” and “lion man” (which I will tell you about later in this piece), because of his frequent holidays abroad. Mr Biya’s repeated absence from the country has been a talk of the country with critics descending hard on the eighty-six year old. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which calculated the amount of time the president spent abroad using reports from the daily newspaper, estimates that the president spent nearly 60 days out of the country in 2018, on private visits.

It is widely known that Mr. Biya rarely calls cabinet meetings or summons as a result. The ‘’absentee landlord’’ has been accused of rigging elections in his favour and allowing the constitution to be changed to continue to cling to  power. He’s survived several coup attempts and adopted the nickname “lion man” in 1990 after Cameroon’s national football team, the Indomitable Lions, reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup. One of the senior military offi cers who helped abort the 1984 coup d’état in Cameroon, passed away on January 18, 2018 in Yaoundé. General Benoit Asso’o Emane, 82, had been one of Biya’s closest confidants, according to many reports – and that was why he helped abort the 1984 coup, which would have seen Mr. Biya ousted.

Under his rule, Cameroon has survived an economic crisis and moved from being a one-party state to multi-party politics; the same period has also been characterized by endemic corruption and the abolition of term limits in 2008, which allowed the octogenarian to run for re-election in 2011. President Paul Biya won a seventh term in office in 2018, in polls marred by low turnout and voter intimidation and other forms of electoral malpractices, as the opposition parties and observers alleged. Sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest leader, took 71.3 per cent of the vote, according to official results, with the opposition calling for a re-run of the presidential election. Two days before results were announced, however, Africa’s longest-serving President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of neighbouring Equatorial Guinea congratulated Mr Biya on his win, in a gesture widely interpreted as one of collusion and some hint of conspiracy between the two leaders.

With 2018’s election, the absentee landlord is set to be in office for at least seven more years; by which time he could have hit ninety three…and he sure could still seek re-election, just how some of these leaders do.

Denis Sassou Nguesso – Republic of Congo

The Republic of Congo is home to another of Africa’s long-serving leaders. In all, Denis Sassou Nguesso has been president of the Central African country, for thirty five years. His two stints as leader of the country were from 1979 to 1992 before returning to power in 1997 during the country’s second civil war. As if infected with a cancer eating through the flesh of many African leaders, Denis Sassou Nguesso was embroiled in a bribery scandal together with his wife and his son.

They were accused by a former employee of the Nguessos who claims to have made payments through an aide and some Belgian firm, to win oil contracts – a SWISS prosecution document revealed. French investigators charged his daughter and son-inlaw with corruption. Julienne Sassou Nguesso, 50, and her 53-year-old husband Guy Johnson were placed under investigation for “money laundering and misuse of public funds”. In March that same year, Mr. Nguesso’s nephew Wilfred Nguesso, was placed under investigation on the same counts.

The development is part of a series of inquiries by the French authorities into the assets of three African presidential families that began in 2010. Denis Sassou Nguesso was allowed to run again due to the adoption of the new constitution and won re-election receiving 60 per cent of the vote. Another African head – who is ageing yet still at it. At seventy five; seventy six in November this year, Denis Sassou Nguesso, the former military colonel, will still be accorded the presidential courtesies, military adornment and the respects of the people, as long as the controversies surrounding his presidency wane. Or maybe not!

Yoweri Museveni – Uganda

Thirty three years – and counting, this political leader in Uganda is still grinding hard. President since 1986, the towering fi gure who turns seventy-five in September, has been credited with establishment of peace and political stability in the country, promotion of industrialization, organizing for the people to work out their own Constitution in 1995. Critics have come hard on the thirty three year ‘rule’ of Mr. Museveni.

For many of these critics corruption, plain stealing and thuggery have been commonplace under the Ugandan leader. The most recent marquee development in Uganda, which has riled some democracy enthusiasts, has to be the lifting of age limits for the president, despite massive opposition by Ugandans. Uganda’s Parliament in 2017 voted to lift the age limit for the presidency, setting the stage for President Yoweri Museveni to rule the country indefinitely. Mr. Museveni is in his fifth presidential term, which expires in 2021, by which time he will be 77 — two years past the age limit for a president set by Uganda’s 1995 Constitution.

The dictator is exactly the problem he once talked elegantly against in his younger days, due to that singular act to maintain power. Museveni has been described by many as extremely nepotic and chauvinistic. There are reports his close family members have been appointed to key positions in government, especially in the security sector. His wife, Janet Museveni, is currently the cabinet Minister for Education and Sports – a position she’s occupied since 2016. Their son, Maj Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, was the head of the elite presidential Special Forces Command until January 2017 when he was moved to an advisory role within the presidency.

His younger brother, Salim Saleh, was appointed commander of the Uganda Army following his victory over Tito Okello in 1986, but sacked him in 1989 following claims of corruption.

Omar al-Bashir – Sudan

October 16 marks exactly twenty six years since Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir became leader of the Arabic country. At seventy five years, Omar al-Bashir was elected president (with a five-year term) in the 1996 national election. Omar al-Bashir is reported to have exploited Sudan’s ethnic division for decades, but it appears Sudan is united against him now.

Bashir’s reign has been punctuated by brutal crackdowns against perceived uprisings in the country’s west and south, areas where darker-skinned Sudanese people are a majority. In the early 2000s, he recruited ethnic Arab militias known as the Janjaweed to Darfur where they committed mass killings and rape, and drove the entire region into hiding and hunger.

Bashir remains under indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, and some allege he directed a genocide in Darfur. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2008, charged Mr. Bashir with genocide and crimes against humanity.

The first warrant for arrest for Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir was issued on 4 March 2009, the second on 12 July 2010. With the issuance of two ICC arrest warrants in 2009 and 2010, al-Bashir became the first ever sitting head of state to be wanted by an international court, according to The Coalition for the ICC. This was also the first genocide charge ever brought by the ICC.

While several ICC member states have since hosted al-Bashir contrary to their obligations to arrest ICC fugitives, his international travel has been greatly curtailed by the threat of legal action, often instigated by national civil society groups. The UN Security Council, having referred the situation to the ICC, has consistently failed to ensure al-Bashir’s arrest.

Idriss Deby – Chad

The Chadian politician, who has been president since 1990, wrestled power in the rebellion against then president Hissene Habre. The sixty-six year old has since survived multiple uprisings and won elections six years after he became president and also in 2001. After term limits were controversially abolished in
Chad, he won the three elections – including the most recent in 2016.

Chad began oil export somewhere in 2013 with a little over 160,000 barrels in exports, daily. Despite these, public goods and services are limited or absent; with Chad having one of the lowest GDP per capita at PPP in the world. Education and electricity supply two of the major issues, and of course corruption is eating out all of the resources and the revenues they are worth. International watchdog Transparency International one time, named Chad as the most corrupt country in Africa.

In November 2017, Chad was forced to reject bribery allegations made in the US that President Iddris Deby was paid $2m in bribes in exchange for providing a Chinese Energy firm with Oil rights without due process.

In most of the other African countries, democracy is the new order – one that is expected to allow for communal growth, discipline and maintain a good level of law and order while preserving the rights of citizens. The counter arguments for some, is that democracy retards growth; as many decisions which hitherto could be taken without any drag, now takes nearly a lifetime to pass.

The legal channels can sometimes be long and winding, they argue. But there is too much evidence from the above to show some of our longest – serving leaders have used their grip on power to among other – amass wealth for themselves, enrich their families and generations, perpetuate crimes against humanity and the like.

International bodies have failed to intervene in dealing with the outspread of some of the decisions of these leaders. And for many more years to come, this continent, Africa, will continue to be home to some of the world’s longest-serving presidents. And there appears very little anyone can do about it.

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