"There must be a change [in Nigeria] now so someone new can come in and move the anti-corruption program forward," says the US government, as it told President Olusegun Obasanjo he must be ready to leave in 2007 for another President who can fight corruption better.

"There must be a change [in Nigeria] now so someone new can come in and move the anti-corruption program forward"
Former State Department official opposes changes favoring incumbents
By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington File Staff Writer, US State Department

Limiting the time a leader may serve in office -- called term limits -- is a good idea, not only for Africa, but for all democracies because it ensures a fresh approach to problems as well as an antidote to corruption, says former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen.

"Even our own country, the United States, set a limit of two terms, or eight years, for the presidency after FDR (Franklin D. Roosevelt) won his fourth presidential election in 1944," Cohen told Washington File in a December 19 interview.

Despite FDR being a great war-time leader, many people who had known no other president in their adult lives thought 16 years was too much for one political leader to serve in a democracy, Cohen said, adding, "They were probably right."

In emerging regions like Africa, term limits are especially important, the diplomat explained, because "they help consolidate democracy.  It has become a symbol of a successful political transition -- the way to show that you can peacefully move from one democratic administration to another."

Presidential limits also are critical because they "guarantee change" in policy and the people who surround the leader, Cohen said.  Not only are new ideas and reforms brought in by a new administration but a political turnover also makes it more difficult for corruption to become entrenched because officeholders will leave when a new leader is elected.

Noting that countries like Tanzania, Ghana and Benin have shown the way with regular presidential transitions, Cohen said, "It would be a shame if Nigeria and Uganda [where there are movements under way to extend legally presidential terms for incumbents] did not do the same."

Cohen has been an observer of political transformations in Africa for more than four decades.  He capped a 38-year career in the Foreign Service as assistant secretary of state for Africa from 1989-1993. During that time he presided over negotiations that ended conflict in Ethiopia, resulting in the independence of Eritrea.  He also headed the U.S. team that supported negotiations leading to an end to Mozambique's civil war in 1992, among other Africa-related diplomatic assignments.

His remarks on term limits underscored similar comments made by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer at a briefing, December 5 in Washington. (See related article .)

Asked about rumors that Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo wanted to run for a third term, necessitating a change to the constitution, Frazer said, "He hasn't said that he's running for a third term.  But our view is very clear that term limits should be respected."

Frazer added, "It's extremely important in Africa to respect term limits because it allows for the grooming of new leadership, [and] it supports the rule of law."  In contrast, "societies… countries that have had… 20- to 30-year presidents… haven't developed.

"Having a regular turnover of power actually ingrains, it institutionalizes, a democratic process," the official emphasized.  "And so it's extremely important for us, for the United States … to push African heads of state to respect their term limits.  And we certainly would have that message for President Obasanjo should he indicate an interest in running for a third term."

Commenting on reports that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda also is interested in extending his presidency after 19 years in power, Frazer said, "We've stated it very clearly … we have a lot of concerns about the road that Uganda is on."

She said, "We spoke out…very clearly about President Museveni's bid for a third term.  We didn't like it" despite the fact that the Ugandan president is going about it constitutionally.

A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on the strategic importance of Africa to the United States concurred with Frazer's political assessment.  It stated:  "If Museveni supports a change to the constitution in order to continue his presidency for yet another term, after more than 20 years in power, it could indicate a step backward in the development of multiparty democracy, the processes of succession, and strong sustainable democratic institutions." (See related article .)

Cohen also agreed that moves to alter constitutions to allow incumbents [sitting presidents] to extend their terms in office were counterproductive.

"First of all, it's very undemocratic to change the constitution to benefit the person in power," he explained.  "If people want to get rid of the two-term limit, they should do it for the next president.  The same goes for changing presidents' salaries.  Not that long ago our president's salary was increased by Congress but the law went into effect for the next man in office, not the sitting president."

In Nigeria, Cohen said, "President Obasanjo has improved the democratic system, but he still has not done enough to end corruption and if he stays in [for another term] the people around him, who have been benefiting from the continuation of vested interests in corruption, they will just continue.

"There must be a change [in Nigeria] now so someone new can come in and move the anti-corruption program forward" at a swifter pace, Cohen said.

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