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What would Barack Obama be like if he was still president in 2051? We would expect that despite whatever initial good intentions, that four decades in power would inevitably give way to entrenched corruption, mindless sycophancy, and probably destroy our democracy. Such an outcome is not only barred by the U.S. constitution, but sounds like an absurd question today.

Yet Gabon has just lived through one head of state for the past 42 years, Omar Bongo, who died yesterday. While Bongo has arguably been a source of stability (and, inarguably, a source of titillating scandal that includes international oil companies, European supermodels, and Jack Abramoff), such long tenure comes at a huge price for a country’s development. Our colleagues Nic van de Walle and Michael Clemens argue strongly for terms limits as a check on presidential power in Africa. Van de Walle advocates that aid donors discourage heads of state from staying on too long by announcing in advance an end of aid to any country where the ruler stays on for more than, say, a dozen years.

While we are seeing Ghana, Tanzania, and others enforce their term-limits, such restrictions have been rescinded via constitutional amendment in no less than seven different countries, including Gabon. (Niger may be next.) Indeed, there are still a dozen African countries with leaders in place for more than 20 years. Without Bongo, the list is:

  1. Moammar Qadhafi, Libya – in power since 1969
  2. Teodoro Obiang, Equatorial Guinea – 1979
  3. Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Angola – 1979
  4. Denis Sassou Nguesso, Republic of Congo – 1979 (except 1992-1997)
  5. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe – 1980
  6. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt – 1981
  7. Paul Biya, Cameroon – 1982
  8. Yoweri Museveni, Uganda – 1986
  9. King Mswati III, Swaziland – 1986
  10. Blaise Compaore, Burkina Faso – 1987
  11. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia – 1987
  12. Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, Sudan – 1989

And Bongo may be gone, but he’s still represented on the list: Denis Sassou Nguesso (#4) is his father-in-law.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.