No society can make it without a constitution -- whether written or unwritten. From time immemorial, well before societies were organised into formal polities like we have today, they all constituted themselves into certain defined systems, which enabled each one of them to survive and have a leadership of its own kind.
Mankind development and governance have a long history and have been modernised every time to fit people’s desire for common good. Even African societies had their own set ups before colonialism. Every ethnic group had its own organised system of getting leaders.
In Tanzania, for instance, each tribe or sub-tribe had leaderships, which were known by different names like Akidas, watemi, Jumbes etc; albeit, such leaderships were dominated by some well known families. But as tribes became larger, societies extended their organisation into wider kingdoms. Thus, ancient societies before modernisation survived without written constitutions unlike many we have today in the modern world.
African states and the challenge of constitutionalism
Since societies are dynamic, mankind has been facing bitter challenges in improving their organisations for better civilisation and development. The incoming of colonial masters, however, changed African social set-ups in which colonialists wanted colonised societies to adopt foreign cultures, including changing of types of leadership and organisation. In 1884-1885, European rulers met at the Berlin conference and partitioned the African continent into small states for better colonialism. All country borders we have today in Africa were not initiated by Africans themselves.
The formation of societies into states has both merits and demerits. Yes, we have bordered states, but governance had been a crucial challenge. Leadership became more crucial in managing bordered states with written constitutions than it was with small societies before colonialism. Why then are modern constitutionalism and democratic governance are still bitter pills to swallow by most of African leaders today after more than 50 years of their independences?
While Africans managed to send back colonial rulers and became independent states, independence did not usher in a golden era. Poor leadership has remained a real challenge, which prohibits and delays African development for the common good. African leaders who led their countries in the fight for independence became either authoritarians or dictators ruling their countries with iron fists. Only very few countries like Tanzania and Zambia, remained relatively stable and free during one- party system. Most African leaders who adopted constitutional rule from their colonial masters quickly modified themselves to fit their long-awaited greed to occupy the very positions once held by colonial rulers.
Most African leaders, who during independence adopted the Westminster system of premiership, quickly changed it into full executive presidential status just to enable them to rule as both heads of state and executive presidents. This by itself revealed a kind of spirit in their minds: greed for power. In early 1960s, coup d’états became common in most of African states. Through the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and then African Union (AU), the problem of coup d’états continued to diminish and eventually became coup de grace. Some African leaders who fought for the independence of their countries became kings in their independent states, crowning themselves with substantial constitutional powers without constitutional term limits.
Why African leaders disapprove constitutional term limits?
The era of multiparty democracy, which has been reluctantly accepted by African leaders has brought in the new challenge of constitutional term limit in almost the whole of Africa, except a few countries like Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, and now Kenya, which bitterly made its modern constitution in 2010 after 20 years of ups and downs. The rest of African countries are either still in dilemma or are caught in the try and error trap, not knowing exactly what kind of constitution can best fit their countries. The incoming of multiparty democracy in Africa was received with mixed feelings; other countries made their constitutions without limited terms for their presidents, while others for a while put term limits and then reversed them. There has been going forward and backwards in constitution making in Africa states. While many African states tried to adopt the US system of two-term presidential limits, including Tanzania, this has been a bitter pill for many leaders.
Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, before his retirement in 1985, made sure the presidential office’s tenure was constitutionally limited to only two terms of five years each. Ironically, his very successor, Ali Hassan Mwinyi unsuccessful tried to change that limit. Mwalimu Nyerere knew how African leaders are power obsessed. Yes, Mwalimu like many African leaders fought for peaceful independence of Tanganyika, but unlike most of his fellow African leaders he didn’t worship power. Mwalimu’s period in power for 23 years was only meant to constitute Tanganyika and then Tanzania as one united country under principles of equality; and that is why he preferred socialism to capitalism.
Mwalimu wanted to retire as earlier as in 1980 but was asked to go for one more term because the country was sailing under economic hardship after coming out of the Uganda war in 1979. Thus, Mwalimu Nyerere knew very well that African leaders are obsessed with power and hence constitutional term limits were the appropriate antidote for them. Again, Benjamin Mkapa was thought by mediocre politicians as a great president who deserved to serve more than two terms. I remember the then presidential appointee, Member of Parliament, Dr Masumbuko Lamwai suggested that Tanzanians would regret if Mkapa served only two terms. Simply, Dr Lamwai wanted constitutional amendment to facilitate Mkapa’s third term in office. Fortunately, both Mkapa and Jakaya Kikwete, unlike Mwinyi didn’t entertain the idea to serve beyond constitutional limit.
Why Tanzanians are still perplexed?
As a bad omen on constitutional limits still pestering Tanzania, recently, once again, retired president Mwinyi rewound his idea of unlimited constitutional term limit to enable incumbent President John Magufuli to rule the country beyond the term limit of 10 years. Yes, Mzee Mwinyi might have been so impressed by Magufuli’s leadership that he doesn’t see any possibility of Tanzania getting a leader like him after his 10-year period. But no matter how good the leader is, that is what Nyerere wisely rejected.
Many puppets tried to convince Mwalimu to continue leading the country because they thought there was no way Tanzania could make it without Nyerere. Last week, another MP, Stephen Ngonyani (Korogwe Rural), joined Mwinyi in wanting President Magufuli to lead the country for 20 years because he thinks, this is the only man who can take Tanzania to the Promised Land. Fortunately, President Magufuli outrightly rejected that foolish idea. We thank President Magufuli for bringing to an end this unhealthy debate.
African leaders must learn from Mwalimu
Mwalimu rejected the suggestion to amend the constitution to enable Mwinyi to go for a third term as nonsense, because Tanzania as independent state, had many citizens who could lead the country, not necessarily like Nyerere, but fairly like him because the country has both a legal system and institutions to guide the leader. Thus, according to Mwalimu, what the country primarily needs is not certain personalities of unique gifts of leadership to continue leading, but strong political and democratic institutions, which can rightly identify persons who are able to lead the country once one has finishing his/her constitutional term. Thus, African leaders must learn from Mwalimu Nyerere’s wisdom that changing their constitutions to retain one person in power is just outrageous. True leaders respect and believe others can lead as well as they do.
While in Tanzania, because of Mwalimu, we have this far managed to retain two term limits in our constitution, despite those bad attempts, many African states are still suffering under one man leadership since their independence. Our neighbours, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe are amongst the countries whose leaders are still obsessed with power, thinking that without them their countries cannot go anywhere.
Worse enough, this is not just a problem with leaders who fought for their countries’ independence like Robert Mugabe, Paul Biya of Cameroon and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, but also those who happened to get to the leadership positions through the same constitutional term limit environment that they now want to overhaul in their bid to remain in power. The late Frederick Chiluba unsuccessfully attempted to go beyond constitutional term limit. Why are African leaders so obsessed with power to such an extent? Is it because we come from societies without integrity? Why are we not learning the necessity of the constitutional term limit and make it a permanent one for our well being?
Africa needs strong democratic institutions for its democracy
Rwanda and Uganda changed their constitutions to allow Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni, respectively to continue leading their countries because they think no-one else can manage their countries better than themselves. This is delusional. Africans must get rid of this shameful attitude. The first president of US, George Washington was a great president, but led US for only eight years even though there was no constitutional term limit during his presidency. He couldn’t remain in power until his death, but he left office and US remained a strong country and later became a super power under other presidents from 1700s to date. Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and South Africa have been respecting their constitutional term limits and their countries are doing well. Africans who are thinking on personalities must change their mind- set.
Nyerere was among the greatest leaders in Africa and world, but peaceful left office voluntarily in 1985 and Tanzania is still politically stable and peaceful after having other four presidents since then. Nelson Mandela though was old just like Museveni and Mugabe in 2000, but he didn’t cling in power until his death; though he had green light to go for another term. He believed ANC and South Africa had many citizens to take the country forward after him.