Stick to Your Knitting, Priest

Posted: Nov 16, 2003 12:00 AM

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).

Yoweri Museveni has ruled Uganda since 1986. He seems to have started out as rebel, graduated to reformer, then segued to political monopolist. He's no Idi Amin...but he's no George Washington, either.

In Museveni's Uganda, competing political parties are banned; all citizens are regarded as belonging to a single party, the so-called Movement. "I happen to be one of those people who do not believe in multi-party democracy," as Museveni once put it. On the other hand, he is also credited with market reforms that have been applauded in the west. But even if we accede to the notion that Museveni is somehow an "enlightened" despot, rather than a particularly nasty, cannibalistic type of despot, that is no excuse for removing term limits on the presidency as he is now trying to do.

If Africa is not the continent, Uganda is not the country within that continent which should be making it easier for power-lusters to set up shop permanently. Even if their present leader is a quasi-okay guy, Ugandans can't expect Museveni to live for another 100 years. And what if the next leader is more like Amin than Museveni? In any society supposedly governed by the rule of law, the principles of governance must apply without favor. The goal is to promote the common welfare, not a single career politician's special convenience.

No such considerations burdened the rhetoric of Fox Odoi, the president's lackey and hatchet man, when he recently attacked Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala for venturing into the secular realm by voicing his support of term limits. Odoi told reporters that he has "spent some time now going through the pronouncements of the holy father--the pope--and I have failed to get his stand on this subject [of term limits], so where does the cardinal get his views?"

In other words: stick to your knitting, priest.

Cardinal Wamala has argued that dropping presidential term limits would increase the risk of dictatorship. (Correct. This is Uganda.) Odoi doesn't respond but merely belittles the cardinal for opening his mouth at all. In an opinion piece for the Kampala Monitor, there's more of this from Odoi: "[T]he Roman Catholic Church, in all its divine teachings has no position on presidential term limits. It does not even have a position on the papal term limits." Which also means that it would be wrong for the cardinal to publicly say it looks like rain. After all, the Farmer's Almanac has not yet been incorporated into church doctrine.

My American readers don't need to be told that politicians should not be telling church leaders to stop "frolicking in the realm of politics." But, alas, there is a parallel between Odoi's off-point denigration of term limits and the off-point denigration of term limits we get here in the U.S. For rarely, either, do the stateside critics of term limits directly engage the substantive case for this reform--i.e., the kind of case regularly presented in my Common Sense e-letter, which is read by all well-informed advocates of term limits in the U.S., Uganda, and the world over.

Instead, the career politicians and their allies are always muttering, mantra-like, that "we already have term limits, they're called elections"--as if no evidence had ever been presented to show that incumbents enjoy special advantages over challengers and, to boot, are more likely to be seduced by the trappings of power the longer they're in office.

But the United States isn't some kind of banana republic, where childish fallacy can win the day. Is it?