The origin of African checks and balances?

As Mugabe and Tsvangirai knock heads in negotiations this week, the New York Times asks who will emerge with the real power?

“Tsvangirai may be lured into accepting a power-sharing arrangement which would lead to Mugabe succeeding himself through puppets from ZANU-PF,” Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister, said in an interview on Thursday. “The best option for Tsvangirai is to insist that Mugabe becomes a ceremonial president with executive powers vested in the prime minister” — a position that would be held by Mr. Tsvangirai.

Mr. Odinga speaks from his own experience with unity talks. Once the Kenyan opposition leader, he became prime minister in February after a deal brokered by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general. It followed a deeply flawed election that some observers believe had been stolen from Mr. Odinga.

The Times is asking the wrong question. How, we should instead ask, can we assure that neither man emerges at the helm?

Checks and balances in democratic systems are sources of stability. No one man or woman can rule the state as a fiefdom, and no succession battle can so destroy a nation country.

Africa’s strong man syndrome has, some argue, been the key to whatever meager development it has achieved. Witness Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda, Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, or Ellen Sirleaf’s Liberia–both men (and the one woman) pulled their countries back from the brink and on the path to health and wealth.

Yet today’s Kagame or Sirleaf may be tomorrow’s Kibaki or Mugabe–entrenched leaders who refuse to go when their time comes, destroying all they have wrought in the process.

The end point is clear: a system of government with power vested in multiple offices–judges, Presidents, prime ministers, district governors and mayors. But how to get there?

The current approach: (1) find an elder African statesman, (2) threaten economic sanctions; (3) force a tenuous power-sharing agreement, and (4) move on and forget about the country.

I am worried such deals live short lives. Lacking pressure from within and without, will we see these temporary measures solidify into real and lasting constitutional changes? I hope so, but I doubt it.

These thoughts linger in my mind as I head to Liberia in the coming week. There an opportunity lies for real decentralization, and real stability. Amos Sawyer is a Liberian political scientist and activist and, as it happens, a former President of the country. He was also my wife’s dissertation adviser at IU, and now a friend.

Amos has thought more and more carefully than any I know about building a lasting, legal decentralization of power. See his excellent articles and recent book. Now head of the nation’s Governance Commission, Amos has his work cut out for him. I’ll be a mere observer, expecting to learn before I can lend a hand. But expect more outsized and ill-formed opinions in the coming weeks.