Algeria, Sudan and the danger of presidents-for-life

Algeria and Sudan are engulfed by protests against leaders who have overstayed their welcome. Their stories are vital and need to be told, but we must also recognise that they are not exceptional and a number of other countries may soon follow suit.

This is because Africa has seen a growing number of leaders establish themselves as “presidents for life” over the last few years. Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, Sudan’s Omar al Bashir, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, and Chad’s Idris Deby are just some of the leaders that have successfully removed presidential term limits. Meanwhile in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, who was scathing about those who failed to relinquish power in his younger days, has been in power so long that he recently had to remove constitutional age limits, having already removed term limits back in 2005.

Despite the fact that term-limits have been respected in many countries, and that occasional transfers of power have led to a number of changes of government in the continent’s more democratic states, this means that a large number of countries are governed by an increasingly entrenched and uncompromising group of old men.

Some commentators have argued that allowing leaders such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame to remain in power is a good thing as it generates political and policy continuity. But any careful analysis of what these presidents have done in office demonstrates that nine times out of ten, the longer a leader remains in office in Africa the worse the consequences are for democracy and inclusive economic growth.

That we see popular uprisings against gerontocratic leaders in both Algeria and Sudan is not a coincidence: it reflects growing frustration with the failure of out of touch despots to provide the basics, such as political stability and affordable food. The great danger moving forwards is that a number of other countries including Cameroon and Uganda are following in their footsteps.

A short history of life presidents

Efforts by leaders to entrench themselves in power are nothing new. The first set of life presidents were the nationalist leaders who took power after the end of colonial rule. While some died in office relatively early, such as Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, and a small number resigned, including Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, many changed the constitution to enable them to rule for decades. Figures such as Malawi’s Hastings Banda and Uganda’s Idi Amin even changed their official titles to reflect their desire for authority.

The onset of the multi-party era was supposed to have changed all this. With a small number of exceptions, the vast majority of countries introduced presidential term-limits that were intended to stop one individual from gaining a monopoly on power. This process was not just driven by the spread of American norm. It also reflected a growing recognition that one of the reasons that many African states had performed poorly during the 1980s was the absence of effective checks and balances against bad leadership. The key lesson that many constitutional experts took from this was that additional measures needed to be employed to re-establish the separation between the ruling party and the state.

In many countries, this was a successful project. Over the last decade, term-limits have become consolidated in a wide range of states including Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zambia. But in the more authoritarian corners of the continent, leaders have found it relatively easy to remove these restrictions. As a result, six of the world’s top 10 longest serving leaders – excluding members of royal families who hold nominal positions – are African presidents. While Cameroon’s Paul Biya currently holds the record for the longest serving leader at 42 years, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is just behind him in second place, having been in power for 38 years.

Despite all the talk of the “youth bulge”, the reality is that Africa still features a remarkable number of political systems designed to protect old men.

The cost of one-man rule

Recent uprisings against long-term leaders in Algeria and Sudan highlight the dangers of life presidents. In both cases, ordinary citizens have taken incredible risks to campaign for change. They have not done this simply because they are bored with seeing the same old faces, but because they understand that that the economic and political challenges they face cannot be separated from the presidents who demand their loyalty. It is precisely the personalization of government and the deep politicization of all aspects of the state which occurs when leaders stay too long that facilitates the abuse of power.

In Algeria, this was exacerbated by the poor health of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who, at 82, was seeking re-election for a fifth term in office. Yet the protests were about much more than his lack of dynamism, channelling widespread anger at the extent of corruption and the failure of the “system”, or “pouvoir”, to deliver for the people. After the Chief of Staff of the army, Lt Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah, intervened to force Bouteflika’s resignation, protestors adopted the slogan “1962: country liberated, 2019: people liberated”.

The rising cost of living is also one of the main drivers of the popular uprising in Sudan. But while inflation of 70% and the doubling of bread prices brought people to the streets, their grievances run much deeper and include the failure of the government to build an inclusive political system that can represent the interests of all citizens. Evidence of growing factionalism within the security forces suggests that many in the police and army also feel the need for change, which in turn increases the risk that the conflict will rapidly escalate into something approaching civil war.

Sudan and Algeria are rightly dominating the headlines right now, but they are not alone. In Cameroon, Paul Biya’s divide-and-rule strategy has led to growing tensions between the Anglophone minority and his government, leading to a series of protests that were brutally put down by the government. According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the violence led to hundreds of civilian deaths and the displacement of over 450,000 people. Similar stories could be told of a number of other states in which life presidents refuse to leave power.

Further progress towards either democratic consolidation or more effective government is unlikely in any of these countries while the current leadership remains in place.

The future threat

The threat posed by life presidents to democracy and development in Africa is real and growing. During the research for our book How to Rig an Election, Brian Klaas and I found that on average the chances of an election being manipulated increased every year a leader was in power.

This is not surprising: none of the countries run by the six longest serving leaders in Africa are democracies. The negative relationship between time in office and authoritarianism is bad news for other countries that have so far received much less attention than Algeria and Sudan but appear to be on the same pathway.

In Uganda, for example, President Museveni’s leadership has run out of steam and looks like it will become increasingly reliant on a combination of electoral manipulation and repression to retain power. The economy continues to grow at a steady rate, but there is growing evidence that the country’s oil wealth risks being wasted. At the same time, younger and more vibrant rivals such as Bobi Wine are harassed, arrested and in some cases tortured. Uganda is unlikely to feature the kind of popular uprising witnessed in Sudan any time soon, but the seeds of a future crisis are currently being sowed.

Changing a leader, of course, does not solve all of a country’s problems like some kind of political silver bullet. One of the most problematic legacies of life presidents is that they leave behind self-serving regimes that quickly regroup in order to re-establish their authority, often resorting to even greater repression in the process.

Those protesting in both Algeria and Sudan know this well, and have demanded not just the removal of individual leaders but the end of the rotten systems that propped them up. The sad reality is that the longer an authoritarian leader has been in power, the harder it is to genuinely reform the broader political system that they put in place. In Algeria, Bouteflika has gone but the army has not. The best way to avoid the rise of authoritarian abuses is therefore to stop leaders from becoming life presidents in the first place.

Nic Cheeseman is the professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of How to Rig an Election

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Nic Cheeseman
Nic Cheeseman

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and was formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. He mainly works on democracy, elections and development and has conducted fieldwork in a range of African countries including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The articles that he has published based on this research have won a number of prizes including the GIGA award for the best article in Comparative Area Studies (2013) and the Frank Cass Award for the best article in Democratization (2015). 

Professor Cheeseman is also the author or editor of ten books, including Democracy in Africa (2015), Institutions and Democracy in Africa (2017), How to Rig an Election (2018), and Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective (2018). In addition, he is the founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of African Politics, a former editor of the journal African Affairs, and an advisor to, and writer for, Kofi Annan's African Progress Panel. A frequent commentator of African and global events, Professor Cheeseman’s analysis has appeared in the Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, Daily Nation and he writes a regular column for the Mail & Guardian. In total, his articles have been read over a million times. Many of his interviews and insights can be found on the website that he founded and co-edits,

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