Alas, too many of us discover this truth too late and at great cost. If only we knew how much is enough and when to stop, we wouldn’t need any gurus to keep us happy.
(Published in Daily Times, 16 November 2019)
The first lesson in my first economics class in high school was a basic truth that all adults learn from experience: our wants (and desires) are unlimited but the means (and time) to satisfy them are limited. Since the pursuit of happiness is always our fundamental goal, we have one ear always tuned to listen in to any advice that promises to deliver us happiness. No wonder that happiness gurus make millions from selling their motley mantras to the hundreds of millions of happiness seekers.
But somewhere in the Mahabharata, the supreme deity asks, “What is the hardest thing in life?” His faithful disciple answers, correctly: “To know when to stop”. Alas, too many of us discover this truth too late and at great cost. If only we knew how much is enough and when to stop, we wouldn’t need any gurus to keep us happy.
Evo Morales, president of Bolivia since 2006, has just had to flee into exile in Mexico, over five thousand kilometres away, after failing to win a fourth term. The first indigenous president of the only indigenous-majority country in South America, he did his followers proud and had served his country well. Morales was quite popular but, not knowing when to stop, he did everything, fair and foul, to perpetuate himself in the highest office in the land.
This included a referendum in 2016 to overturn the law preventing him from running again. Having lost the referendum, Morales changed the law anyway, allowing himself an attempt at a fourth term. And keen to avoid a second round (which he probably would have won), he rigged the vote count to give him the required ten percent lead in the first round over his rival. Had he called it a day sooner rather than later, Morales could live happily, in honour and dignity, in his beloved homeland.
He is not the only one at the very top to show a pathetic lack of understanding of how much is enough and when to stop.
A few months ago, Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president since 1989, was overthrown and jailed by fellow generals after mass demonstrations, resulting from a severe economic crisis.
The Russian constitution restricts Vladimir Putin to two presidential terms. But there is no end to his machinations and manipulations to stay in power forever. First elected in the year 2000 for four years, he served two terms until 2008. Then he swapped positions with his underling, Dmitry Medvedev, to become prime minister for one term (2008 to 2012).
Putin then got re-elected as president again in 2012, after he had had the presidential term extended from four to six years. Thus, he is now in the second term of his second incarnation as president, which ends in 2024. Will 24 years be enough for him? Will he stop voluntarily or will he have to be stopped?
In some newly independent countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, in the second half of the last century, a few liberation heroes, petty dictators and autocrats transformed into “presidents for life”, some officially, others effectively so.
The best known among them were Sukarno (Indonesia), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Josip Broz Tito (Yugoslavia), Habib Bourgouiba (Tunisia), Hastings Banda (Malawi), Idi Amin (Uganda), Gamal Nasser (Egypt), Moammar Ghaddafi (Libya), Hafez al-Assad (Syria), Jean Bedel Bokassa (Central African Republic), Francisco Macias Nguema (Equatorial Guinea), Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (Haiti).
Most of them overstayed their people’s hospitality, driving them sick and pushing the country’s economy to ground. A few died in office, but most were deposed, jailed, exiled, killed or executed.
As a consequence, in the last three or four decades, many national parliaments have passed laws to restrict presidents to no more than two terms. But, once ensconced in power, not a few have used their powers of patronage mixed with brute force to amend, bend or flout the law and stay on, by hook or by crook.
Nursultan Nazarbayev called it a day earlier this year, after holding the highest office in Kazakhstan for almost three decades. But Emomali Rohman, president of Tajikistan since 1994, pushes on. Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov died in office in 2016, after 27 years in power. In Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov died in 2006 after 21 years of dictatorial rule.
In Angola, President José Eduardo dos Santos was compelled in 2017 not to run again after 38 years in power. The people of Togo endure the family rule of Faure Gnassingbe, who came to power in 2005 upon the death of his father Gnassingbe Eyadima, who had ruled for 38 years. In Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza has flouted term limits, rigged elections and killed opponents to stay in power since 2005.
President Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years. Last year the army forced him out at the ripe old age of 93. In little Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh fled only after Senegalese troops threatened to invade. Having seized power through a military coup in 1994, he refused to accept his surprise election defeat in 2017.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, in power since 1994, shows no intention to retire. To his credit, he has restored peace, political and economic stability to a country which had witnessed one of the worst recorded ethnic cleansing in history.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila (president since 2001) manoeuvred long and hard to hang on despite a constitutional term limit, finally giving up earlier this year. His father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, had sent President Mobutu Sese Seko into exile in Morocco in 1997, after over thirty years in power.
Thousands of miles and a continent away, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since 1985, is pulling out every trick and all his goons and guns to stay at the top. One would think that Europe has outgrown dictatorships and autocracies but, in Belarus, President Aleksandr Lukashenko has been firmly in control since 1994.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran since 1989, falls in a slightly different category. President of Iran since 1981, he was selected by the Assembly of Experts as Supreme Leader in 1989, following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran’s Supreme Leader has no term limit.
The rulers of Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and Turkmenistan are in a separate class of their own, but they suffer from the same flaw: they know not how much is enough and when to stop.
Power and pelf may have a blinding effect on their holders, but what prevents us lesser mortals from knowing how much is enough? How many houses and businesses, how much bank balance, how many cars, how many celebratory parties, how much food on the table, how many servants and hangers-on do we need? Lucky and happy are the few who know.
by Razi Azmi