Last week’s remarks by Retired President Ali Hassan Mwinyi’s about President John Magufuli were surprising, and that is to put it mildly. At an Idd-ul-Fitr gathering in Dar es Salaam, Mzee Mwinyi (pictured) said he wished Dr Magufuli was not constrained by presidential term limits and could remain president for many years.
Heads of state of Dr Magufuli’s calibre were hard to come by, he added. Mzee Mwinyi’s remarks, which have probably been taken very seriously in some quarters, are very relevant to Tanzania’s constitutional discourse.
Mzee Mwinyi is not some inconsequential mortal whose remarks about the presidency can be dismissed out of hand. The words came out of the mouth of Tanzania’s second president and former commander-in-chief of defence and security forces and chairman of the then omnipotent and all-pervading CCM.
His influence in society means that what he said must have resonated among a significant portion of Tanzania’s population, particularly in rural areas.
However, to have a former custodian of the Constitution speak against its very text should be cause for grave concern. As President of the United Republic of Tanzania, Mzee Mwinyi swore to defend the Constitution, and his retirement cannot be an excuse for his deviation from the solemn oath he took over three decades ago to take over the mantle from Mwalimu Nyerere.
I have been trying to convince myself, with little success, that it was just a slip of the tongue that came at the heat of the moment.
The timing of the remarks is significant and cannot be ignored, coming at a time when Dr Magufuli’s campaign against corruption, outright theft of public funds and indifference in public service is at near-full throttle.
The intent notwithstanding, Mzee Mwinyi’s utterances have also come a time presidents across East Africa are systematically dismantling constitutional terms limits to keep themselves in power longer. Is it a coincidence?
Article 105 of Uganda’s constitution was repealed to give President Yoweri Museveni more time to “spearhead” development in that country.
Granted, Mr Museveni has overseen steady development and pacification of a country that was synonymous with upheaval and political chaos in the 1970s and 80s, but surely 31 years in power should be enough for the septuagenarian former guerrilla commander.
But those hoping to see the back of Mr Museveni, who turns 75 this year, sooner rather than later are bound to be disappointed as he is reportedly toying with the idea of abolishing the age limit for presidential candidates.
According to Article 102 of Uganda’s constitution, a person shall not be qualified for election as President of Uganda unless that person is at least 35 and at most 75. This means that Mr Museveni will be ineligible for the 2021 presidential election if the upper age limit will not be abolished. It remains to be seen if he will abide by the constitution in its current form.
In neighbouring Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has cleared the term limit hurdle through a 2015 referendum following choreographed calls by “elders” that he must stay on if peace and stability are to be guaranteed in the country. Not surprisingly, Rwandans apparently voted overwhelmingly for term limits to be abolished, setting the stage for Mr Kagame to extend his reign by many more years, having been the de facto ruler from 1994 to 2000 when he assumed the presidency.
Similarly, Burundi has just extended President Pierre Nkurunziza’s term in office by imposing a varied interpretation of the start of tenure clause in the constitution. The term limits were part of the agreement reached during the Arusha peace talks, and were included in both the Arusha Accord and the constitution.
After being in power for ten years since 2005, Mr Nkurunziza was supposed to step down in early 2015 to pave the way for succession, but he didn’t, leading to political strife in which dozens of people were killed and tens of thousands displaced, with many of them fleeing to Tanzania.
I keep my fingers crossed that Mzee Mwinyi’s remarks are not a precursor to similar machinations in Tanzania.
Deus Kibamba is trained in Political Science, International Politics and International Law