Africa Watch

Democracy in Africa enters 2016 under pressure

Blaise Campaore started a trend in Africa
Blaise Campaore.jpg

Despite African Union (AU) efforts and strong pro-democracy public opinion, a trend among African heads of state goes in the opposite direction. 

Most African national constitutions limit heads of state to two terms in office. More terms are the exception.

In a disturbing trend, mostly long-serving heads of state are increasingly attempting to buck the norm by changing their countries’ constitution – described by some commentators as a “softer, gentler coup d’état” – to allow longer stays in power.

To give their ‘constitutional reform’ process a veneer of respectability it is accompanied by a national referendum to ‘approve’ the constitutional changes.

This process allows for, and has proven in the past, to be open to manipulation of all kinds.

This trend has already, and will certainly in future, give rise to serious tension and conflict. In Burkina Faso in 2014, when President Blaise Campaore tried to manipulate the constitution to prolong his 27-year rule, he was forced to flee the country in the face of violent protests. It was indicative of the inherent threat to political and socio-economic stability that is locked up in this dangerous new trend.

Importantly, it also revealed an emerging trend, soon afterwards repeated in countries where heads of state harboured similar ideas.

In Africa there is a growing public resentment and rejection of the ‘personalisation of rule’ by leaders unwilling to let go of political power.


This contradiction between political leaders seeking to extend their stay in power on the one hand and citizens opposing such plans on the other, could become one of the more intriguing and controversial issues of 2016.

How will the AU respond? 

How the AU is going to respond to this development will be a character test for the organisation in the coming year and beyond.

The AU has become an outspoken proponent of capping the tenure of heads of state and how it responds will be crucial to the entrenchment of democracy in Africa. 

Firm and supportive action will inspire and encourage the quest for democratic governance. Failure, on the other hand, will reverse gains made towards democratic governance and accentuate conflict. 

Significantly in a 2015 Afrobarometer survey, almost three-quarters of citizens polled in 34 African countries supported restricting heads of state to two terms in office. 

The message to heads of state contemplating plans to extend their time in office is unmistakable: such ideas belong to a bygone era.

Obama’s appeal

Adding his country’s weight, US President Barack Obama during his 2015 Africa visit appealed to Africa’s leaders to respect term limits.

How much effect Obama’s appeal will have is unsure, and it could still cost the US in terms of popularity in circles where it is considered as unwarranted interference in the domestic affairs of Africa. The US’ big rival in Africa, China, is always at pains to avoid any signs of being prescriptive in dealing with Africa.  

Not unexpectedly, Obama’s call was immediately dismissed by Africa’s long-serving leaders.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, for example, characterised term limits as a Western attempt to “place a yoke around the necks of African leaders”. 

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda claimed Ugandans have “rejected this business of term limits … I am there by the will of the people”.

Mugabe’s constitutional tampering is well known. Museveni’s claim also rings somewhat hollow in light of the harassment and incarceration of opposition leaders and their supporters on trumped-up charges to thwart any challenge they might pose to his leadership in next month’s election.

Better positioned

Once the current AU chairman, Robert Mugabe, departs when his term expires later this month, the organisation should be better positioned to champion the two-term concept. For now, Mugabe and his reputation as arch manipulator of his own country’s constitution remains an obstruction to any AU initiative in this regard.     

The biggest challenge will, however, be coming from Africa’s long-term trouble spot, the Great Lakes region in central Africa.

There, as one analyst puts it, “ ...leaders are recklessly pushing their countries down a dangerous path by attempting to cling to power. It will not be the presidents themselves who suffer the consequences of civil conflict – elites rarely do. It will be the people whose interests these leaders claim to represent”.

President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to amend the constitution to allow him a third term has brought Burundi to the brink of civil war. Thus far he has shown little interest in attempts, including by the AU, to solve the crisis – which is already showing dangerous signs of ethnic division.

He fumed at plans by the AU to send 5 000 peacekeepers to Burundi to protect civilians caught up in the on-going violence. According to him it would be interpreted as a violation of Burundi’s sovereignty and the country would take appropriate action to defend itself against “hostile invaders”.

Burundi will be one of the AU’s first tests in 2016 and will present an opportunity to deliver the message that the organisation will champion democracy and will not tolerate the latest tendency to tamper with constitutions by some power-hungry heads of state.  

The same holds true for Congo-Brazzaville where President Sassou-Nguesso also recently changed the constitution allowing him to run for another term.  Similar scenes as in Burkina Faso followed when public protests led to deaths and casualties.

The muted international response and the AU’s seemingly unwillingness to reprimand President Sassou-Nguesso will most likely be repeated in the case of Uganda and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Concern is gaining momentum that DRC President Joseph Kabila is contemplating similar actions.

Almost like falling dominos, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame became the latest head of state in the Great Lakes region to announce in his New Year message that he would seek a third term in the country’s 2017 election. It comes after Rwandans in a questionable referendum approved constitutional changes that would potentially allow Kagame to stay in power until 2034.

A prominent Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was recently quoted, “The older I get, the less interested I am in how the West sees Africa, and the more interested I am in how Africa sees itself.”

How Africa and the AU is going to respond to this new trend might well help to answer her question.

by Garth Cilliers

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