Raila Odinga warns Africa over return of era of life presidents

Mr Odinga warned the continent against encouraging a trend where sitting presidents change their country’s constitutions.

Wednesday March 9 2016

Cord leader Raila Odinga addresses a crowd outside the Milimani Law Courts in Nairobi on January 19, 2016. He has sounded the alarm over the return of the era of life presidents in Africa, saying the trend could trigger political coups. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Cord leader Raila Odinga addresses a crowd outside the Milimani Law Courts in Nairobi on January 19, 2016. He has sounded the alarm over the return of the era of life presidents in Africa, saying the trend could trigger political coups. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By PETER LEFTIE
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Cord leader Raila Odinga has sounded the alarm over the return of the era of life presidents in Africa, saying the trend could trigger political coups.

Mr Odinga warned the continent against encouraging sitting presidents to change their country’s constitutions to remove term limits, saying this could lead to political turmoil.

“These quests for extensions are often couched in a language that portrays a leader’s desire for more time in office as a response to popular demands.

"It has already exploded in Burundi. Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to seek a third term in Burkina Faso was stopped by popular protests that forced him not just to back off, but to leave the country,” Mr Odinga warned.

The Cord leader has been a vocal critic of the events in Burundi, which is experiencing deadly violence following a controversial presidential election that saw the incumbent, Pierre Nkurunziza, return to power after ignoring a constitutional provision that would have locked him out of the election.

DARK DAYS

Rwandan leader Paul Kagame has also successfully changed the country’s constitution to remove the presidential term limit, making him eligible to contest the next general election.

Speaking in Israel, where he is attending a peace and democracy forum, Mr Odinga warned that Africa might return to the dark days when violent political coups were the order of the day.

“We have been there before. We must not go there again. Presidents for life must become a thing of the past in Africa,” he said.

He noted that the era of presidents for life produced nothing but stagnation on the continent.

“It is in this period that South Korea, whose gross national product was not very different from Kenya’s in the early 1960s, opened its lead over Kenya, leading to the current situation where South Korea's economy is more than forty times larger than Kenya’s,” he said.

Africa, he said, is beginning to send mixed signals, raising doubts on whether the momentum for change is being sustained.

MANAGE ELECTIONS
Mr Odinga also spoke strongly on the need for Africa to improve how it manages elections and ensure respect for presidential term limits, if it is to sustain the gains made with the coming of competitive politics in the 1990s.

He warned that cases of failure to manage elections and refusal to respect term limits by sitting presidents are becoming rampant on the continent and could be pointers to a slow but steady return to the old order of presidents for life.

Mr Odinga noted that the failure by African governments to ensure free and fair elections is likely to undermine the credibility of future polls.

He said most elections in Africa lead to results that often cause controversy and violence. Mr Odinga appeared to refer to the February 18 election in Uganda whose credibility observers have questioned.

“Unlike Europe or the US, Africa’s elections are increasingly different, mostly in worrying ways, from country to country and election to election in form, content and quality.

"One would have thought that after about a quarter century of conducting competitive elections, Africa’s electoral commissions would be able to deliver better organised, more transparent, verifiable and credible, free and fair polls,” Mr Odinga said.

'FRAGILE' MARCH TO DEMOCRACY

“Our elections are getting more chaotic and more prone to manipulation. They are more likely to produce bitterly contested results that create divisions rather than unite the nation.

"Elections are failing to peacefully aggregate people’s preferences in the choice of political leadership. Incumbents are using them to confirm themselves to power or tear apart their nations,” he said.

He called on the continent to urgently address the question of how to make elections promote social cohesion, create rather than undermine political legitimacy and ensure inclusivity rather than entrenching exclusion.

“Africa must invest in enhancing electoral governance if the march towards democratisation is to be sustained,” said Mr Odinga.

He said the continent’s march to democracy is increasingly getting fragile and contestable, arguing that the few countries making steps forward are being pulled down by others trying to revert to the past.

He singled out Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast as some of the countries putting their acts together but lamented that even as the three West African nations showed positive signs, “some neighbours are embracing old troubles”.

“Even worse, the reversals are aiding the return of big-time corruption. Corruption in turn necessitates and aids the reversals. Corruption is swallowing our potential and financing our failure,” he said.

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