The ‘Big Man’ Syndrome in Africa

Why do so many African leaders overstay their welcome or break electoral rules? In the recent elections in Uganda, 30 year incumbent Yoweri Museveni won a fifth five-year term. Opposition activists are contesting the results. This has raised again that eternal post-independence question. Museveni is seventy-one years old and has governed since he took power in a military coup in 1986; longer than the majority of the country’s population have lived. Some Ugandans console themselves with the fact that the country’s constitution has an age limit for the presidency of 75 years. But as the South African television anchor Imran Garda joked on Twitter: “Yoweri Museveni declared the winner of Uganda’s election. And the one after this. And the one after that one too.”

Museveni is not alone. More recently Rwanda’s Parliament voted to change electoral rules that would mean Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda since 2000, could govern till 2034. A parliamentary commission that traveled around Rwanda eliciting comment on Kagame’s third term plans, strikingly could only find ten people who disagreed with the proposal. Although questionable, Kagame seems genuinely popular, but it is unclear why no one else in Rwanda is qualified to lead.

The Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville) just extended the total 32-year rule of Denis Sassou Nguesso via a referendum marred by irregularities. Elsewhere popular unrest and resistance have followed incumbents’ desire to illegally extend their tenures, as witnessed recently in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

One ready-made explanation usually trotted out to explain this behavior, is that of the so-called “big man” syndrome, which sources it to African “culture.” However, this disease is rather a product of recent African history. Colonial administrators utilized African traditional structures for “indirect rule,” but deformed them by promoting the power of the chief or the traditional leader at the expense of the precolonial checks and balances mechanisms. Post-independence African presidents have just perfected these systems.

So how do these African leaders retain political power?

The short answer is: Because they can. Electoral systems operate at the discretion of the President. In practice, the President make the rules, breaks them and changes when he wants to (yes, it is normally a he). Museveni, for example, effectively controls the electoral commission and the coercive apparatus of the state: Who controls the count, wins the election and in the lead-up, the police and the army harass and intimidate the opposition, while the president campaigns uninterrupted.

Furthermore, equating popular will with the president’s person is key. The President is always patriotic, and it is only the President who is willing and able to do what is needed. Paul Kagame’s defense was that it was not that he wanted to extend his rule: “It’s the people, you see, they want me to stay on.” And the President always needs more time to fulfill his agenda.

Museveni needs five more years to do something he could not accomplish in the previous thirty.

Furthermore, the Presidency is a family business and there is no future or monetary gain outside politics. Accumulating wealth and business opportunities are tied to controlling the state. So, are the economic fortunes of your allies, party officials and, crucially, the President’s family. Once you are out of office, you lose your ability to steer contracts or get a cut from profits. After tenure, the then former President—or, even more so, his allies—also risk prosecution either for embezzlement or human rights abuses.

Also key is the role of outside forces. The African Union (AU) rarely sanctions leaders who break electoral laws. It is striking that the current AU chairperson (a rotating one-year symbolic post among African presidents) is Idriss Deby of Chad (in power since 1990), that his predecessor was Robert Mugabe (in power in Zimbabwe since 1980) and before that Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who came to power in a coup in Mauritania in 2005, filled the seat.

Don’t expect the African Union to expel or sanction Museveni. Four hours after Museveni’s victory, neighboring Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta posted on Facebook: “The people of Uganda have spoken, and they have spoken very clearly.” The rest, even those elected in open, free elections–like Jacob Zuma of South Africa–fell in line.

As for the United States and the European Union, criticism of electoral processes sounds hollow if you keep investing in extractive industries that fund illegitimate rules of Presidents of resource rich countries (as in Angola) or let “War on Terror” considerations (in Uganda, for example), trump democracy. Although the fall in the oil price has dramatically reduced the Angolan state’s income, the revenues from oil still accounts for close to half of the state budget. Which is the source of President Eduardo dos Santos and his family’s personal wealth. There is a joke about Angola: “Who is the public in Angola?” “The President.” “Where does all the money go?” “To the public.”

Just as outside forces do, the political class and the military and police guarantee the president’s rule. But they can also precipitate the president’s downfall. In the DRC, Joseph Kabila is frustrated by members of the political class who are deadlocked over whether to legitimize his illegal efforts to prolong his rule. Even more dramatic were recent events in Burkina Faso and Senegal. There the police and army were used to harass the opposition, yet proved crucial to ending impunity. In 2012 when Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade, was outvoted two to one by his opponent Macky Sall, he considered declaring himself winner up until the point when emissaries from the security forces—mindful of the popular opposition against Wade—came to warn him that he would not have their support and that they would respect the election result.

In this context, it is significant that Senegal’s current president, Macky Sall, recently announced a referendum to reduce his mandate by two years. “Have you ever seen presidents reduce their mandate?,” Sall is reported as saying. “Well I’m going to do it. We have to understand, in Africa too, that we are able to offer an example, and that power is not an end in itself.” The actual truth, as Sall (who is facing criticism with the slow pace of change in Senegal) himself when he was running for office told Yen a Marre, the Senegalese youth movement that played a key role in Wade’s exit, was that he, Sall, didn’t want to face the kind of revolt Wade faced.

Sean Jacobs and Camilla Houeland

Sean Jacobs, a native of South Africa, is on the international affairs faculty of The New School in New York. Camilla Houeland, a PhD Fellow at NORGRIC in Norway, works on Nigerian trade unions.

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