Letter from Africa: The Mobutu and Gaddafi effect

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In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene - a former government minister and member of the opposition - asks why some leaders refuse to leave office.

President Barack Obama managed, during his recent African Union speech, to use almost 400 words to tell us that it is a good thing to have limits on presidential terms.

The truth is many people on this continent do know this, despite President Pierre Nkurunziza's recent re-election in Burundi.

African countries started independent and constitutional life with term limits clearly spelled out.

But whenever they became inconvenient, parliaments simply amended the rules and the constitutions to allow third or fourth terms or declared Presidents for Life.

Justifying longevity

Often, these amendments came with the enthusiastic support of academics, local and foreign, who found theories to support whatever changes the leader wanted.

The theories ranged from African Socialism to Nkrumahism - the ideology based on the philosophy of Ghana's first President, Kwame Nkrumah.

At the heart of it all was the idea that a particular leader was special and without him, the country would disintegrate.

Or, as Louis XV, who reigned France for almost 60 years, reportedly said "apres lui, le deluge" (after me, the flood).

This was said about all the first presidents and even if they didn't start like this, they came to believe it themselves.

The soldiers who staged the coups and ruled much of Africa in the 70s and 80s said it about themselves and sycophantic followers and academics for hire endorsed them.

The freedom fighters who marched into the capitals and overthrew colonial powers or indigenous autocrats said so about themselves and proceeded to turn into worse dictators before our very eyes.

Obscene opulence

Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire used to say it and so did Brother Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.

Any criticism about having been in power for too long was answered with: They held their countries together.

You had to wonder if it was possible that Mobutu's Zaire could possibly get any worse than it was under his corrupt rule.

In the event, after he was ousted from power, we looked back with nostalgia.

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image captionMobutu Sese Seko's opulent palace in Gbadolite is now disintergrating

Much better to have the obscene opulence of Gbadolite, the city in the middle of nowhere, than the disaster that has been the Democratic Republic of Congo that followed the ousting of Mobutu.

Likewise in Libya, better to have Muammar Gaddafi's Green Book of political pronouncements.

Much better to have him crowned the King of Kings of Africa by traditional leaders and let him fund the African Union.

And better surely to put up with his air-conditioned tents and long rambling speeches at the United Nations than the chaos that is today's Libya after he was overthrown.

Mentioning Mobutu

And if Obama had looked up the files just a few years back he would have found another US President, Bill Clinton, saying during his time that there was a "new Africa".

Two leaders who were part of the new Africa of the Clinton years are now refusing to leave office in the Obama years.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni used to be openly contemptuous of African leaders who cling to office.

Next year, some 30 years after he marched into Kampala to chase out Milton Obote, he is proposing to stand for another term as president.

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image captionBill Clinton praised both Rwanda and Uganda as examples of the new Africa - but their leaders are trying to stay in power

Next door, an enthusiastic parliament has opened the path for Paul Kagame to stand for another term as president of Rwanda in case the great successes he has achieved are jeopardized by someone else taking his place.

The West African leaders under the auspices of the regional body Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States), tried to make a two-term limit for presidents binding on their members.

They retreated quietly once Togo and The Gambia protested.

I am told the unspoken answer these days to presidents not wanting to leave office in Africa is: "DRC and Libya, or Mobutu and Gaddafi".

More from Elizabeth Ohene:

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