Paul Jacob

If a person wanted to be President For Life--like FDR, say--what's the first institutional restraint he would want to get rid of?

Term limits.

For the first century and a half of our political history, America's presidents more or less honored the tradition of presidential term limits established by the first George W. The presidents respected the principle that this country was not to be a banana republic: that its government was to be limited to certain spelled-out functions, and that the democratic institutions which underlay governance were to be robust in reality, not merely in name.

The Founding Fathers believed that even if the man at the top were popular enough to get reelected to office in perpetuity, he ought not do so. They feared the prospect of too much power accumulating in the hands of a single person.

The Founders should have enshrined term limits in the Constitution (as Thomas Jefferson said at the time). Still, the voluntary tradition inaugurated by George Washington was remarkably durable--until along came a president who, in line with his whole program of hugging ever more power to his bosom in the name of "saving capitalism," also sundered the tradition of presidential term limits. Fortunately, the breach was soon sealed via constitutional amendment, at least with respect to the presidency--saving us, for one thing, from five terms of Bill Clinton.

What was a century-and-a-half process of fraying at the edges in the United States might take just a few years in Uganda, if wannabe president-for-life Yoweri Museveni has his way. In this case, though, we're not talking about voluntary term limits, but a curb that is already a part of Uganda's current constitution.

Africa is not the continent where you want to be removing reasonable restraints on political power.

After the British and the French left Africa in the 1960s, all hell broke loose in their former colonies. It was hardly the case that the evils of colonialism were rejected while the virtues of democracy and freedom were embraced. Instead, the tyrants took over, with many of the nominally liberated populaces even worse off than they had been under Western domination. The cults of personality surrounding thugs like Stalin, Hitler and Mao were now emulated in the cults of personality surrounding thugs like Ghana's Nkruma, the Congo's Lumumba, and Uganda's Obote and Amin. Idi Amin, who held sway from 1971 to 1979, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of "his own" countrymen--basically anyone who looked at him cross-eyed, not excluding a wife (whose body parts he scrupulously refrigerated).

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.