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When President Paul Kagame rescued Rwanda in 1986 from the horrific genocide which saw over 800 000 Tutsis and Hutus slaughtered, he was hailed as a hero who rescued the country from an ongoing vicious civil war. He is quoted at the time as saying: “This is not a mere change of guard, it is a fundamental change. The People of Africa, the People of Rwanda are entitled to a democratic government. It is not a favour from any regime. The sovereign people must be the public, not the Government.”
That was decades ago, and although the post genocide Constitution provided for only two terms, Kagame is sill in power, and the freedoms and rights he fought for are being increasingly eroded, with arbitrary arrests, muzzling of the Press, and harassment of opposition political parties.
At first, he was hailed as a hero not only by the People of Rwanda, but also the international community which rushed to provide financial support and investment. Not anymore; as he becomes more and more autocratic, and cronyism takes over the business sector, the hero is becoming the villain.
The same can be said of his neighbour Uganda, where he was instrumental in helping hero turned villain, President Yoweri Museveni topple Uganda’s nightmare Idi Amin and has been president for 22 years.
Closer to home there is Robert Mugabe, another hero of resistance who brought majority rule to Zimbabwe and remained President for nearly 30 years, ruling over a collapsed economy which sent millions of Zimbabweans into economic exile, promoting xenophobic instability throughout the region.
These are not the only countries on the Continent, and indeed the World where term limits – intended as a check and balance to guard against the danger of democracies are being overturned by dictators. Presidents who came to power on a wave of hope for the “sovereignty people” gradually erode the rule of law to become Presidents for life.
However, term limits are not the only checks and balance designed to guard against unbridled power. These include, in addition to free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, respect for human and civil rights, and above, respect for the rule of law.
If these checks and balances are eroded, term limits will not stop the emergence of dictatorial and autocratic leadership, accompanied by systemic corruption. The United States of America is a living example of how this process is playing itself out. President Trump (and it is difficult to use the word President in the context of the obnoxious Tweeter) is managing to subvert the Constitutional protections embedded in the US system of Government. He has attacked the notion of a free press, included cronies in his Cabinet to enrich the business elite and, above all threatened the rule of law. In less than 18 months, Trump has not only divided America with his racist views and polices and attempts to stack the Supreme Court in his favour but has threatened global stability through his tariffs and withdrawal from international treaties such as the Paris Climate accord.
Closer at home, the past eight years have witnessed a gradual erosion of the checks and balances which protect freedom and stability. While the destructive threat of Presidents for life seem to have been averted, the seeds of autocracy have taken root with increasing erosion of the rule of law which has allowed widespread corruption to infect our economy and attempts to subvert the independence of the judiciary with hand-picked candidates. Freedoms are also under attack with raids on the independent newspapers -one editor even being charged with treason. The billions spent of security services poses grim future for individual freedom.
We have a long way to go before yesterday’s heroes become today’s villains, but the signs are there, and we will only have ourselves to blame if the “sovereignty of the people” is eroded.