MWANGI: Is East Africa ready for one-term Presidents?

MWANGI: Is East Africa ready for one-term Presidents?

There is good reason for Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to refuse a second term in office, even if he were to be elected in August – quite a tall order given the current political situation in East Africa’s largest economy.

If Uhuru were to do the unexpected and surprise friend and foe by refusing to be on the ballot, history would certainly judge him less harshly regarding the massive corruption and other failures of the Jubillee administration that he has led since 2013. He would, moreover, have helped redeem himself from his government’s rather lacklustre performance.

What’s so special about two terms, anyway? It has become a well-established constitutional requirement in many African countries that presidents should serve a couple of terms only – a tradition copied from the United States. This is in keeping with the uncritical manner that the continent has been pushed – partly through bullying but more often through brainwashing – to think of everything that emanates from the West as superior to ours.

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with copying useful traditions and practices from other countries all over the world, including our former colonial masters and their kith and kin. In an increasingly globalizing world, with fast communication made possible by technology, no country can be an island or fail to be influenced by others.

It’s upon each country or bloc of nations, however, to decide what is in their best interests and worthy of emulation, and what should be discarded or only accepted with modification. Unfortunately, this has not been the case with Africa.

Debate has raged over many practices with roots in Western countries – from music and fashion to history and literature. Increasingly, more Africans are becoming restless as they question their leaders’ acquiescence to interests that are inimical to those of local populations. This disquiet is gradually finding expression in armed conflict – as in the case of the land invasions in Kenya’s Laikipia County.

In the political sphere, too, people in East Africa and beyond are showing signs of exasperation by political elites. After serving the first term, re-election to a second or any further terms is a controversial matter that attracts violence and accusations of electoral fraud. This is a problem that has raised its head throughout the region – in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and recently Burundi.

Kenya experienced unprecedented violence in the aftermath of the December 2007 presidential contest, in which Kibaki’s re-election was tainted with accusations of fraud. The country escaped civil war through the mediation efforts of leaders from the region and beyond.   

Burundi, too, experienced a surge of violence when President Pierre Nkurunziza ignored the Arusha Accords and ran for a second term. The country has never quite recovered, and regional leaders continue to promote peace talks between the warring factions.

Uganda and Rwanda, of course, have been led by leaders who have reigned for multiple terms. President Yoweri Museveni has led the former for 31 years, while his counterpart Paul Kagame of Rwanda ascended to power following the genocide in 1994.

Even in Tanzania, where every president after Mwalimu Julius Nyerere has peacefully handed over power after completing two terms, it cannot be said that elections are always a calm affair. Accusations of rigging abound but also with regard to incumbents seeking out a second term in office. And while the current President John Magufuli remains popular owing to his anti-graft reforms, voices are already being raised about his perceived iron-hand tendencies.

Given the foregoing scenario in the region, it is obvious that the American constitution cannot be successfully replicated wholesale in Africa’s situation. The democratic culture and tradition in America is different from our own context; the challenges of deep ethnic and religious division in Africa are pronounced; financial resources are limited; and the continent is yet to extricate itself from its colonial past and the neo-colonial manoeuvres of our former colonial masters.

By rejecting a second term, Uhuru would be showing the way out of the current quagmire and potential turmoil that our countries face whenever an incumbent is seeking re-election. The polarisation in Kenya would suddenly evaporate – and Kenyans can then trust a different team with resolving the graft, escalating national debt, ineptitude, nepotism, and other vices that have been the hallmark of the current government.

If Uhuru fails to read the writing on the wall and make the right move, then voters will have their say, of course, at the polls in August. The fatigue by the electorate is palpable. Kenyans will likely be setting a new trend – that of one-term presidents.

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Story By Isaac Mwangi
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