As someone not born and raised in the United States, I’ve sometimes been asked who I think was the greatest American president.
My answer has always been George Washington.
The answer often surprises people since Washington led the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War against the British—and I was born and grew up in Great Britain.
But Washington was great for a different reason. The man who became the country’s first president set an incredible example for his successors.
At a time when the world was governed mostly by monarchs who ruled for life, Washington retired after two four-year terms in office, thereby setting a precedent for other presidents. Only Franklin Roosevelt broke tradition by standing for election (and winning) four times. After that, the U.S. Constitution was amended to prevent anyone from being elected president more than twice (or once if the person finished out another president’s term for two years), limiting the number of years anyone can hold that office.
With America’s preeminence in the world during most of the last century, many countries have tried to copy the American system of government. While the United States was the first country to have a presidential form of government, today most countries have a president as head of state. But few have successfully adopted the U.S. system, and none has been able to copy it successfully for very long. The reason for this goes right back to George Washington.
Whereas Washington retired to his farm after eight years, few presidents around the world seem capable of letting go of the reins of power. Inevitably this leads to dictatorship, frequently accompanied by the title “president for life.” Even if there is no such official title, it is at least understood that the man at the top is there until he dies.
These “presidents for life” surround themselves with sycophants and grow increasingly out of touch with reality. With those close to them constantly praising them, the presidents come to think the people love them—so when opposition arises, they mistakenly assume it’s only a minority and use massive force to crush all dissent.
All of this could be avoided if only they would follow Washington’s example and retire after eight years!
Arab revolts and dynastic leaders
We’ve seen a number of these dictator-presidents in the news recently. Demonstrations precipitated by food inflation, high unemployment and corruption have spread across North Africa and the Middle East as people have demanded that their leaders go. Whether these uprisings, dubbed the “Arab Spring,” will result in greater democracy is still a question. Too often, culture limits the potential for a truly democratic system, which requires tolerance and respect for the rule of law.
The first leader to fall in the Arab Spring was Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who held his position for 23 years, followed by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, overthrown after 30 years in power.
It remains to be seen what will happen to leaders of other countries confronted by revolutionary fervor. One conclusion drawn from the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak is that they reacted to demonstrations with weakness—so the others are doing everything possible to suppress all dissent.
The others include three more beleaguered Arab leaders: Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi (42 years), Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh (33 years) and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad (11 years). Assad succeeded his father, the two of them having ruled the country for 40 years. Although a republic like all other nations with a president, the country has a de facto dynasty. Mubarak and Gaddafi were also grooming their sons for succession.
Many expressed confidence in Syria’s president after he succeeded his father in 2000. The son had spent many years in England studying optometry and then working as an optometrist. He even married an English woman of Syrian descent. Many hoped that those years in a liberal democracy like England would have changed him, turning him into a typical, tolerant Englishman. However, once back in his native culture, he reverted to type and has turned out to be every bit as ruthless as his father.
Dynastic successions are not confined to Middle Eastern leaders. North Korea (a self-proclaimed “Peoples’ Republic”) is expected to soon get its third hereditary leader. The only other country still espousing traditional communism is Cuba, where founder Fidel Castro’s brother Raul has recently been put in charge. These countries should more accurately be called “communist monarchies,” with their very own hereditary family dynasties.
Romania was another communist country set on establishing a ruling dynasty—until the people overthrew and executed their communist monarch, President Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1989.
Corruption a major factor
All of these men have made a fortune out of governing their countries. Dictators of poverty-plagued Third World nations often rank among the wealthiest people in the world—not legally, of course, but through bribes and corruption. This is one reason why so many dictators cannot hand power over to somebody else—they are afraid that the next man in charge might prosecute them on charges of corruption.
This happened in Zambia in 2009 when former president Frederick Chiluba was tried on corruption charges. A common joke in Africa is that, whatever country you’re in, you don’t ask if the president is corrupt. Instead you ask: How corrupt is he? It’s commonly believed that all presidents on the African continent are corrupt. The lesson that many of them will have learned from Zambia is to never surrender power!
Many such leaders will do anything to retain their office. In one African nation there are 2.5 million dead voters. These dead people naturally all “vote” for the president whenever there’s an election, thereby giving the incumbent a built-in majority!
This prompts the question: Why bother with elections?
Some presidents like to keep up a level of respectability and acceptance if only to get foreign aid (which often goes straight into their pockets). Membership in multinational organizations like the (British) Commonwealth requires at least the appearance of a democratic system, even though some Commonwealth members have often had periods of military rule.
Ghana, where I once lived, set the pattern. When the British gave the country independence in 1957, it had a system of government modeled on Britain’s. Two years after independence, the prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, called for a change to a presidential system. It wasn’t long after that he was proclaimed “president for life.” Then he abolished the parliament, making himself an absolute dictator.
Ghana’s early post-colonial experience also showed that the only way to remove a president for life is to forcibly overthrow him, which the military did in 1966. In 1979, a later military government was overthrown by another branch of the military, and all former heads of state were sentenced to death for corruption—for effectively stealing the country blind.
Corruption is a way of life throughout Africa. A recent article in The Economist highlighted corruption in Africa, showing that so many people have a vested interest in corruption that it’s doubtful any progress can be made in dealing with it.
Titled “Briefing: Nigeria’s Prospects,” the article states: “To change the system, [Nigerian President Goodluck] Jonathan would have to break with his backers. That is difficult, perhaps even dangerous. For instance, a mafia that embezzles vast fuel subsidies is said to be a big contributor to his campaign. The government spends more than $4 billion a year to sell fuel at less than half the already low American price.
“The president’s backers routinely falsify bills of lading, inflating the amount of fuel imported fivefold, then collect the government subsidy on all of it, and finally smuggle the fuel to a neighboring country to sell at double or triple the price. Mr. Jonathan, of course, did not personally take their money. But if he goes after them their cronies may stop cooperating” (May 28, 2011).
Even in India, the world’s biggest democracy, corruption is endemic and threatens the stability of the country. One of the inevitable consequences of corruption is the growing gap between the rich (often corrupt) and the poor. And as the gap widens there is an increased likelihood of civil disturbance or even revolution. That’s what’s happened across the Arab world.
But, knowing this, leaders all over the world line their own pockets while the people go hungry!
The example of Equatorial Guinea
One of the worst examples of corruption in Africa is Equatorial Guinea, whose dictatorial president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power in 1979 from his uncle, Macias Nguema, who had murdered an estimated one third of his own people. His nephew has been less bloodthirsty but has pocketed much of the nation’s oil wealth during his 32-year rule. The country has a population of only 650,000. With oil, every single citizen should have a high standard of living—but that is not the reality.
“Energy revenues have flowed into the pockets of the country’s elite, but virtually none has trickled down to the poor majority; since the oil boom began, the country has rocketed to one of the world’s highest per capita incomes—and one of its lowest standards of living. Nearly four-fifths of its people live in abject poverty; child mortality has increased to the point that today some 15 percent of Equatorial Guinea’s children die before reaching age 5, making it one of the deadliest places on the planet to be young” (“Teodorin’s World,” Foreign Policy, March/April 2011).
Ironically, many of the leaders mentioned in these articles claim to be religious men. It would appear that none has read what Jesus Christ had to say on governance.
Jesus Christ’s example of governance
Jesus told His disciples that they must be different from the rulers of this world. At the time, the Jews in the land of Israel were living under Roman rule. Rome’s leaders in Christ’s time were despotic and cruel, lording it over the people, wielding their authority.
What did Christ tell His followers? “Jesus called them [His disciples] together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28 Matthew 20:25-28 25 But Jesus called them to him, and said, You know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority on them.
26 But it shall not be so among you: but whoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;
27 And whoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:
28 Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
American King James Version×, New International Version).
Most people in the world live in difficult or even depressing circumstances, under governments that are dictatorial and exploitative. But the good news is that these worldly systems of government and dictatorial styles of leadership will come to an end when Jesus Christ returns to the earth to establish the Kingdom of God over all nations. He will then rule the world with righteousness.
As Isaiah’s famous prophecy foretells: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:6-7 Isaiah 9:6-7 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given: and the government shall be on his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David, and on his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from now on even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
American King James Version×, NIV).
Another of Isaiah’s prophecies reads: “He will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4 Isaiah 11:3-4 3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
4 But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
American King James Version×).
With the Kingdom of God, government will finally truly be for the people. With Jesus Christ as the chief public servant, Christlike service will prevail right on down through every level of administration. Righteousness will govern the land—all lands, all nations around the world!