There are currently eight heads of governments in the world, all of them in Africa except two (Cambodia and Kazakhstan), who have been ruling their countries for more than 30 years.
One, Paul Biya of Cameroon, has been in power for over 42 years. They rule countries which are officially democracies and, believe it or not, they do have periodic elections.
What explains the longevity of these dictators who rule in the garb of democracy? Are they really darlings of their people? Are they sustained by manipulation of their constitutions, corruption of the institutions, or both?
Unfortunately there is no single answer to their longevity, as each leader has his unique characteristics and approach to manage his survival. One thing common among them is their desire to retain power at all costs.
All of these pseudo-democratic countries hold elections for the highest office (as well as their so-called legislatures). These elections are officially contested by opponents of the ruling party, but they are routinely trounced by the party of the president in power.
In Cameroon, for example, People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) was the only legal political party until December 1990. Numerous regional political groups have since formed. But Biya and his party have maintained control of the presidency and the National Assembly in national elections, by manipulating elections.
In Equatorial Guinea, President Obiang was elected to a seven-year term as president in 1982 (after securing power in 1979 through a coup); he was the only candidate. He was re-elected in 1989, again as the only candidate.
In subsequent elections, he allowed other parties to nominally contest the elections. Nonetheless, he would be elected president term after term (each for seven years) with votes nearing a 100% for him.
Zimbabwe’s legendary President Mugabe (prime minister from 1979 to 1987, president since 1987) ensured his iron grip over his country through constitutional amendments that combined the roles of head of state, head of government, and commander of armed forces in one.
His party ZANU-PF ensured his election each time through voter intimidation and rampant corruption that Mugabe himself spawned.
Champions of the masses
In all of these countries, including those not cited in the examples, the rulers rule and exercise total control through the political parties they spawned, and legislators who overwhelmingly belong to the government party.
The rulers create a vast network of mutually supportive institutions that range from the army through police, government bureaucracy, and often the judiciary. Yet, the irony is that a majority of the leaders in these countries came to power on the shoulders of the people who once welcomed them as liberators and champion of the masses.
Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was an anti-colonist political activist who first fought for independence of his country (then Rhodesia), and later against the white minority regime of Ian Smith who had declared independence of Rhodesia unilaterally and had formed a white-dominated government.
Mugabe was able to end white minority government of Ian Smith after years of struggle, much of which was through leading guerilla warfare against the regime. In 1979, Mugabe was elected as prime minister with huge popular support when the government of Ian Smith, under pressure from neighbouring South Africa, agreed to the participation of Mugabe’s party to participate in the elections.
In a true democracy, institutions operate as politically neutral entities. They serve people, and not a political leader or party
His party ZANU-PF became the people’s party. But the story of Rhodesia (which he renamed Zimbabwe) would soon be different from then on.
In a few years, Mugabe would use his huge popularity to change the constitution of the country to converge three different offices, prime minister, president, and commander-in-chief of the army into one, and assume those powers.
His party would soon be the only major political power in the country. He and his supporters would hound out any opposition to him or to his government through intimidation, abuse of power, and bribery.
Following the creation of a unitary state in 1972, Paul Biya became prime minister of Cameroon in June 1975. In 1979, a law designated the prime minister as the president’s constitutional successor.
The president that time (Ahidjo) unexpectedly announced his resignation in November 1982, and Biya succeeded him as president of Cameroon. Since then, he has remained president after winning several seven-year terms after forcing an obliging legislature to remove term limits for presidency. He is in his 42nd year as president.
One leader to rule them all
We can go on and on to analyse the causes of longevity in each of the cases of the long lasting heads of states/governments existing in the world today, but the conclusion would be somewhat similar.
Each has used their rise to power on shoulders of popularity and each had succeeded to manipulate both people and their constitution to have an iron grip over their rule.
Some may have begun their career through a military coup, and later legitimised their ascendancy to power through “managed” elections.
But others used their name and fame either as liberators of their countries or over-throwers of unpopular regimes to perpetuate their rules by manipulating the constitution.
A common theme running through these long-lasting regimes is emphasis on their need to lead their country in its fight against perceived “enemies” of the country, domestic and foreign. They also portray themselves as emancipators of their people from poverty, and as leaders of economic progress.
The parties they formed became their cheerleaders and poster bearers of these images. The leaders also ensured that their parliaments are packed with such loyal supporters.
Gradually, they also packed other institutions of the country with acolytes of the leader. When all institutions are populated by loyalists to the regime, common citizens have no recourse but to accept dispensations from the office holders of the regime, whether elected or unelected.
Elections in these regimes become farcical, as a system corrupted by greed and power only lead to further perpetuation of the regime, because the elections are not free and unfettered.
Using democracy to absolute power is not an unknown phenomenon. History is replete with such examples. What is often forgotten, however, is that a leader’s personal desire to hold a permanent grip on power also leads to undesirable or unforeseen consequences.
History is full of such sad consequences. The Paul Biyas or Mugabes of the world may have longevities even they may not have thought of, the likes of them came to horrific ends in their own continent. Democracy may be abused for a short period, but a people cannot be abused ad infinitum.
In our country, we restored democracy after two decades of struggle. We have had five elections since 1990, a few of which, notably the last, could have been managed in a more transparent manner.
But at least we are not abrogating people’s right to choose. We still have officially a multi-party system, and we have hopes that the system will be allowed to operate in an unfettered manner in the next election.
What we do not know however is the extent to which opponents will be allowed to exercise their right to mobilise people to their cause.
What we do not know is the extent of freedom our institutions such as election commission, police force, and bureaucracy will have to operate and exercise their roles in the elections.
In a true democracy, these institutions operate as politically neutral entities. They serve people, and not a political leader or party.
There is a hairline difference between the quasi-democracies of the world and other true democracies. This difference comes from the will and desire of the leaders who lead their countries.
A democracy can be bent only if the leaders are bent. We hope we can avoid this.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.