Carry on ruling

Are different standards being applied to rulers of former liberation movements when it comes to staying in office?

IT WAS REFRESHING to read of Thabo Mbeki's firm stance on President Frederick Chiluba's thwarted manoeuvres to secure a third term in office (ANC Today, May 11, His bid for a third term was "a most disturbing development indeed," he writes. "Such proceedings in Zambia would communicate the message that, despite protestations of commitment to democracy, our region was, in fact, intent on acting in unconstitutional ways and was regressing to the situation when there were presidents-for-life" such as the late President Banda of Malawi. He congratulates Chiluba and the Zambian people "for the firm action they have taken not to tamper with their Constitution to the detriment of the quest for democracy in Zambia and Southern Africa."

Mbeki also praises himself for publicly congratulating President Chiluba, during a state banquet, on his decision to step down, to the acclaim of the Zambians who were present. "We had occasion to discuss this matter again with President Chiluba when we met in Namibia during the SADC Summit earlier this year, reiterating positions with which many among the political leaders in our region agreed."

The "many" political leaders can hardly have included the summit's host, President Sam Nujoma, who changed Namibia's Constitution so that he could rule for a third term and who is even demanding a fourth; or Robert Mugabe in power in Zimbabwe since 1980 and intending to run again, aged 78, next year; or President Joaquin Chissano of Mozambique who came to power in 1986 and will only step down in 2004.

So why is Mbeki so adamant when it comes to Chiluba but suffers from selective amnesia in the cases of Nujoma, Mugabe and Chissano? The answer that comes to mind is simple. Like Mbeki and the ANC, all three led liberation movements (Swapo, Zanu-PF and Frelimo) that came to power after lengthy anti-colonial struggles. In their own eyes that gives them the moral right and the duty to govern their respective countries forever.

But Chiluba and his Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) gained power in 1991 after defeating former President Kenneth Kaunda, a staunch ally of the liberation movements, in a free and fair election. However flawed the performance of Chiluba and the MMD, their original motivation looks dangerously close to that of Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement of Democratic Change (MDC) in Zimbabwe: the peaceful replacement of a hero of the liberation struggle through the ballot box.

In Mbeki's view, it seems, changing a country's constitution in order to establish a de facto lifetime presidency has to be judged not on the basis of universal democratic values and principles but on who is the driving force behind such action.