Obama to AU: speak up in defense of constitutions and term limits, but can it? And has Obama’s America led by example?

President Obama speaking at the African Union

President Obama speaking at the African Union

In his recent speech at the African Union (AU) Headquarters in Addis Ababa, US President Barack Obama didn’t mince words. He challenged the continental body to use its authority and voice to speak out and up against leaders changing constitutions willy-nilly to extend their stay in power.

“And just as the African Union has condemned coups and illegitimate transfers of power, the AU’s authority and strong voice can also help the people of Africa to ensure their leaders abide by term limits and their constitutions, nobody should be president for life,” Obama implored African Union leaders.

Obama rightly pointed out to these leaders that African countries would benefit from the infusion of new blood, energy, and insight that comes with new leaders. All this would make perfect sense in a different platform but sadly, not the African Union.

Pro-term limits message within the AU does not fly, unless they miraculously decide to take heed of President Obama message this time around, the African people will continue to suffer at the hands of our so called ‘life presidents’ for some time to come.

For starters, besides being dominated by the very “life presidents’ Obama was chiding, it is actually led by one.

Earlier this year, leaders of the African Union elected Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, 91, their chairman. Mugabe, a fierce critic of term limits, has been in power ever since grey-haired Barack Obama was 19 years old.

Mugabe also was largely elected to head the AU because he is renowned for opposing the West and its leaders especially Obama’s United States, and the United Kingdom.

Like Mugabe, the African Union Obama was talking to, detests the West and precisely because of what Obama was doing; speaking to African leaders and Africans about promotion of democracy (including term limits and peaceful transfer of power, respect for human rights, women empowerment, fighting corruption et cetera.

Instead of embracing the positive criticism, African leaders like Mugabe take it personal, they perceive Obama, and the West’s honest and well-intentioned critique as “lecturing” and condescending.

“How dare lecture us about…?, this is African leaders’ favourite line as they seek to deflate the US or Western criticism on thorny issues of democracy, human rights, corruption you name it.

On top of handing the chairmanship of their organisation to Africa’s third longest serving president, the African Union, has always stood idly by as the Mugabes of Africa employ all tricks in the book to hold on to power.

Just this May, as the leaders of Togo and The Gambia thwarted the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) attempt to institute a two-term limit within the bloc, African Union “authority and strong voice” was Missing In Action.

Faure Gnassingbe and Yahya Jammeh, both in their third terms (and having been in power for more than 18 years), led the strong opposition against the two term limit proposition and in the end as Ghana’s Foreign Minister Hannah Tetteh told Reuters after the May 19, Third Term ECOWAS meeting in Accra, “this dissenting view (from Togo and The Gambia) became the majority view at the end of the day.”

Contrary to what Obama thinks of the AU, the institution is rather toothless and weak, individual “life presidents” are more influential and stronger.

Just in AU’s backyard the East African Community (EAC) has been grappling with bringing the Burundi conflict to an end in vain; as a last ditch effort, the EAC has appointed Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni the new mediator in the on and off talks to end the turmoil that began in April when the ruling party CNDD-FDD nominated President Pierre Nkurunziza for the controversial third term.

Since most leaders in the EAC including Museveni have no moral standing to speak up on the third term issue or mediate third term-related matters, AU’s voice and authority would have helped but save for not sending electoral observers and condemning the violence, the African Union hasn’t done much to influence the proceedings on the ground in Burundi.

Burundi, Togo, and The Gambia aside, the AU’s lack of clout and say hasn’t helped the people of Uganda, DRC, Rwanda, Cameroon, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and in many other African states where leaders; rich strong men, a good number of them with military background, have become stronger than their respective countries’ constitutions.

To the leaders of these countries, constitutions are just a bunch of documents that can be edited at any given time to facilitate their stay in power.

These leaders have become incredibly stronger than the laws and institutions in their countries and given the amount of wealth they have amassed thanks to the unlimited opportunities and influence and riches that come with the title of “President” in Africa, they can actually lobby or ‘buy’ AU’s support or silence.

Many of the leaders especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, started off promising a different kind of leadership approach, a new kind of democratic leadership that actually instituted and respected term limits, but after tasting the ever-flowing juices of power, they renege on their promises and tinker constitutions thereby allowing themselves to rule indefinitely.

Who among the African Union leaders is brave enough to advise President Museveni to abandon his fifth term bid?

Museveni, who has been in power for 29 years has long forgotten the on point observation he made not long after assuming power in 1986 , “the problem of Africa in general, and Uganda in particular, is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power, ” Museveni, wrote in his book “What is Africa’s problem?.”

In 2011, former Ugandan minister, Attorney General and Supreme Court Judge Prof. George Kanyeihamba said, “Some Ugandans have said that if the Yoweri Museveni of 1986 were to meet the Museveni of today (2011) they would fight on sight – they would shoot each other” because power-hungry Museveni of today is totally different from the ‘anti-life-presidency’ Museveni of 29 years ago.

Museveni, once the Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now African Union, has completely stifled efforts by opposition in Uganda to compete for political power, and as things stand, Museveni is not about to relinquish power, at least not in the near future, and Obama’s appeals to the African Union cannot and will not make him budge, and none in the AU can dare say anything about the Ugandan leader.

The African Union also is yet to say anything about Museveni’s counterpart and close ally in Rwanda, the AU’s “authority and strong voice” has not counseled President Paul Kagame to respect Rwanda’s constitution and the two seven-year term limit provision and step aside in 2017 when his second term ends.

No leader in the continental body that has the nerve to ask Kagame to keep his word and retire after leading Rwanda for more than 14 years.

Like Museveni, Kagame in the past has castigated African leaders who cling on to power.

Also, on many occasions, President Kagame has said “I will have failed” if 2017 comes and there is no Rwandan who can succeed him.

In a 2009 interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Kagame emphatically said “No” to the notion that he might still be president after the two constitutional terms.

“I think the constitution is not there by accident. It is there for a purpose, and I am there to serve that purpose,” Kagame told Zakaria adding “So, I respect our constitution, and, in fact, maybe would wish to give — or to leave a gift with my people. And that gift would be to leave a legacy behind where people can leave power, and pass it on for others to run and lead the country, and it happens in a stable environment, and it becomes a culture and a norm that it will go on like that. I want to leave that.”

Will the AU keep Kagame honest and remind him of this categorical statement?

“I cannot be here and say I must be President for life,” Kagame told Johns Hopkins University’s International Reporting Project fellows in 2012.

In that same interview the Rwandan leader laughed off questions about him changing the constitution overstaying in power.

“I will not be around as president come 2017, I don’t know how many times I will have to stress this,” he said.

Despite the fact that President Kagame has since repeated that same denial several times, the country’s legislators are due to amend the constitution, lift the term limit provision and facilitate his third term run. And our ‘mighty’ AU isn’t so concerned.

Has Obama’s America fueled Africa’s ‘life-presidency’ scourge?

It is true, the Obama administration has threatened cut aid to Burundi because President Pierre Nkurunziza has “violated” his country’s constitution and the Arusha Peace Accord to run and win the third controversial term.

But hasn’t the American government been working with a host of Africa’s “strong men” that overstay in power?

How many times has Obama’s United States threatened to suspend cooperation with Museveni’s Uganda or Kagame’s Rwanda?

Has the United States ever suspended aid to Paul Biya’s Cameroon? And hadn’t the United States worked with, and funded Hosni Mubarak, former Egyptian dictator, to the tune of $1.5 billion a year for more than three decades before he was ousted in the 2011 Arab Spring by his people?

Because of a range of interests especially security and terrorism, the United States has allied with several African leaders including dictators and kept a blind eye on their insatiable love of power. This same United States has often isolated a few African countries and leaders who don’t toe Washington’s line.

It’s this kind of hypocritical attitude towards Africa’s leadership that undercuts Obama’s criticism of African Union leaders, and countries that choose to stay quiet when leaders disregard their respective countries’ constitution and overstay in power.

Obama and America can still lead by example and practice what they preach maybe the underdogs within the AU can borrow a leaf.