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The ‘Big Man’ Syndrome in Africa 0

Why do so many African leaders overstay their welcome or break electoral rules? In the recent elections in Uganda, 30 year incumbent Yoweri Museveni won a fifth five-year term. Opposition activists are contesting the results. This has raised again that eternal post-independence question. Museveni is seventy-one years old and has governed since he took power in a military coup in 1986; longer than the majority of the country’s population have lived.

Some Ugandans console themselves with the fact that the country’s constitution has an age limit for the presidency of 75 years. But as the South African television anchor Imran Garda joked on Twitter: “Yoweri Museveni declared the winner of Uganda’s election. And the one after this. And the one after that one too.”

Museveni is not alone. More recently Rwanda’s Parliament voted to change electoral rules that would mean Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda since 2000, could govern till 2034. A parliamentary commission that traveled around Rwanda eliciting comment on Kagame’s third term plans, strikingly could only find ten people who disagreed with the proposal. Although questionable, Kagame is genuinely popular, but it is unclear why no one else in Rwanda is qualified to lead.

The Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville) just extended the total 32-year rule of Denis Sassou Nguesso via a referendum marred by irregularities. Elsewhere popular unrest and resistance have followed incumbents’ desire to illegally extend their tenures, as witnessed recently in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

One ready-made explanation usually trotted out to explain this behavior, is that of the so-called “big man” syndrome, which sources it to African “culture.” However, this disease is rather a product of recent African history. Colonial administrators utilized African traditional structures for “indirect rule,” but deformed them by promoting the power of the chief or the traditional leader at the expense of the precolonial checks and balances mechanisms. Post-independence African presidents have just perfected these systems.

So how do these African leaders retain political power?

Continue reading on Africa is a country

By Sean Jacobs and Camilla Houeland

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