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Africa Plagued by Third Term-itis

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s
graceful acceptance of his
loss this year to incoming President
Muhammadu Buhari was a major
advance for African democracy, for setting
peaceful transition precedents, and
for helping to mature political leadership
on the continent. But that easy handover
to an opponent was exceptional. Equally
often, African rulers cling tenaciously
to their hard-won positions, attempt to
evade or thwart popular mandates and
violate constitutional bans against perpetual
presidencies. Democracy still battles
autocracy across Africa.
Although 20 of sub-Saharan Africa’s
49 nations limit their heads of state to
two terms, two states permit three terms,
and three put prime ministers rather
than presidents in charge. Many of the
continent’s political chiefs are still trying
to replicate the “president-for-life” model
that was such a feature of earlier years.
They endorse their own indispensability
and seek to continue to retain the spoils of
office indefinitely. Credible surveys show
that citizens prefer constitutionality, but
several of the “big men,” Africa’s legacy
rulers, persist in employing the mailed fist
to stay ascendant.
What this means, of course, is that
democratic practices are, as yet, not fully
accepted by Africa’s political class. Respect
for constitutions is still not a mature
norm. Nevertheless, widespread civil
society opposition to such manoeuvers,
parliamentary refusals in several cases to
abridge constitutional bans and a number
of effective transitions from president to
president demonstrate that at least a large
swath of Africa is ready to obey the rule of
law. One president, Macky Sall of Senegal,
is even proposing to reduce presidential
terms from seven to five years.
Heavy-handed repression
Pierre Nkurunziza’s “re-election” in July
for a third five-year term as president of
Burundi violated the terms of his country’s
constitution, defied African Union
condemnations, ignored pleas of world
leaders and reneged on the promises that
he had repeatedly made over the past decade.
His re-anointment also frustrated the
fervent protesters who, for months, had
roiled the political waters of Bujumbura,
Burundi’s capital on Lake Tanganyika,
and other towns and villages in the small
Central African nation. Heavy-handed
repression by soldiers and police officers
had checked the opponents in the streets
and had imprisoned 500 reporters, broadcasters
and civil society leaders who had
been fighting to maintain term limits.
A vice-president and other prominent
former supporters fled to neighbouring
Rwanda. About 200,000 Burundians followed
them across the border, and also
into neighbouring Tanzania. Nkurunziza
said that he was “in touch with God, and
does God’s wishes.”
Since 2000, a dozen “big men” have
attempted to circumvent the standard
two-term limit for heads of state that is
embedded in many African constitutions.
Half have failed, most notoriously and
surprisingly, President Blaise Compaoré
in Burkina Faso in 2014. After a successful
coup in 1987 and 27 consecutive years as
the uncontested leader of his West African
country, Compaoré’s attempt to seek
a third term as president (he had been
elected president in 2005 and 2010) was
thwarted when the citizens of Ouagadougou,
Burkina’s expanding capital, rose up
in their thousands for four days to decry
Compaoré’s anti-democratic manoeuvers.
He fled, and young military officers took
over, promising elections in October and respect for the constitution.

Compaoré’s exit was more dramatic
than most. But before he failed to breach
the third-term prohibition, Bakili Muluzi
in Malawi, Sam Nujoma in Namibia,
Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria, Frederick
Chiluba in Zambia, Mamadou Tandja in
Niger and Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal
had all been prevented by civil society
agitation and parliamentary reluctance
from pursuing their third-term dreams. In
each case, the attempt to overturn constitutional
bans was unpopular, believed to
be unnecessarily narcissistic and judged
offensive to prevailing norms.
A further dozen African presidents
have all quietly left office in recent years
after completing two terms. Whether or
not they believed themselves “big men” in
the African political manner, they decided
(in a few cases very reluctantly) not even
to contemplate trying to overturn constitutional
limitations. Their actions reflected
respect for the rule of law.
African “big men”
But not so Nkurunziza, who tossed aside
those profiles in presidential probity.
Equally, what happened to the losing sextet
of third-term wannabes (Muluzi and
the rest) and Compaoré might conceivably
have cautioned Nkurunziza and stilled his
disdain for Burundi’s constitution, popular
and world opinion and democratic
norms. But, either more resolute or more
sure of his own security forces (which
negated a coup attempt in June), Nkurunziza
survived, thus emboldening those
other African “big men” who also seem
anxious in 2015 to override third-term
constitutional prohibitions.
Foremost is President Paul Kagame in
Rwanda, now approaching the end of his
second seven-year term as omnipotent
ruler. Kagame and his insurgent troops
rescued Rwanda from its horrific genocide
in 1994, marching into the country from
neighbouring Uganda. He remained as
minister of defence and the power behind
a president he selected until 2000, when
he himself took unquestioned control.
Under a new constitution, he was elected
president in 2003 and again in 2010 with
93 percent of the vote. Now Kagame, who
says he is “open to going or not going
depending on the interest and future of
this country,” is orchestrating a “popular”
movement to demand that the constitution
be amended so he can continue in
office beyond 2017, when his current term
Kagame, 57, has, in recent years, physically
eliminated, imprisoned or exiled key
critics and opponents. Lawyers are chary
of appearing in court to plead against a
third term. There is little free media or
free expression, many arbitrary arrests,
reported cases of torture and several
documented assassinations. But Kagame
also runs a crime-free, stable and rapidly
developing country. Most Rwandans, if
permitted to vote freely, would probably

choose to keep the Kagame they know.
Nevertheless, democracy in Africa will
suffer considerably if one of the continent’s
sharpest and most successful political
leaders succumbs to third-termitis and
decides to monopolize Rwanda’s presidency.
Unless effective leaders such as
Kagame set positive examples, respect for
the rule of law and constitutionalism will
continue to be honoured only now and
then, when convenient. Stepping down is
the ultimate act of responsible leadership.
Perpetuating corrupt reigns
Joining Kagame as likely breakers of third-term
rules will be President Denis Sassou
Nguesso of the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville),
already in power for 18 years, and
previously for a further 13, and his acrossthe-
river neighbour Joseph Kabila, president
of the Democratic Republic of Congo
(Kinshasa), in command for 14 years. The
constitutions of both Congos ban third
terms, but Kabila, who is only 41, and Sassou
Nguesso, 71, both want to continue
to preside. They seek to perpetuate reigns
that are corrupt, Kabila’s excessively so,
and which have permitted the spoils of
office from petroleum and mineral exports
to flow copiously into elite pockets while
most Congolese remain poor and mired in
conflict. Despite American and European
private and public entreaties to both men
to refrain from pursuing third-term options,
there is every likelihood that Sassou
Nguesso and Kabila will join Kagame in
attempting to break the law and prove
themselves inviolable.
If Kagame and the others persist in believing
in their personal indispensability,
they will join those several additional African
heads of state, most much more despotic,
who in 2015 hold power by virtue of
rigged elections, military intimidation or
both. President Robert G. Mugabe has run
Zimbabwe since 1980 thanks to fake polls
throughout this decade, a successful security
apparatus, major intimidation efforts
and the acquiescence of neighbouring
South Africa. Paul Biya, 82, has remained
president of Cameroon since 1982 because
of similar refusals to permit fair electoral
contests or significant opposition. In 1996,
he ignored Cameroon’s two-term limits
and stayed in office. In 2008, he eliminated
term limits from its constitution. Cameroon’s
next presidential “election” is in
2018. Yoweri K. Museveni, 70, has been
president of Uganda since 1986, overcoming
term limit constraints in 2005. He arrested
two leading opposition presidential
candidates in mid-2015. Museveni is the
man who originally declared that “the
problem of Africa… is not the people, but
leaders who want to overstay in power.”
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, 73,
has been president of oil-rich Equatorial
Guinea since 1979. His rule is arbitrary
and kleptocratic, as is the reign in equally
wealthy petroleum-dependent Angola of
Eduardo dos Santos, 72, also president
since 1979. Both head countries where corrupt
practices run free, thanks to Chinese purchases of oil.

Chad’s Idriss Déby, 63, president since
1990, has defeated Libyan and Sudanese
attempts to oust him; his army is one of
the best-trained and best-equipped in Africa.
It keeps him in office and helped to
ensure his unconstitutional third term in
2005. In tiny Djibouti, on the Red Sea, Ismaïl
Omar Guelleh, 67, backed by a small
army financed by France (which, along
with the United States, has a strategic base
there) overcame third-term prohibitions
in 2010. He has been president since 1999,
succeeding his uncle.
Fleeing Eritreans trying to reach Europe
President Yahya Jammeh, 50, of Gambia, a
tiny West African sliver of a state, has been
a wildly impulsive, cruel military ruler
since taking power in a 1994 coup and getting
himself elected head of state in 1996.
Isaias Afwerki, 69, in Eritrea on the Red
Sea, came to power as an anti-Communist
revolutionary in 1993 and has relentlessly
extirpated all opposition ever since. He
also conscripts anyone he can find, especially
children, into his rag-tag army, has
jailed or killed a dozen journalists, and
has bad relations with the rest of Africa.
Thousands of the migrants trying to cross
today from Libya into Europe are fleeing
conditions in Eritrea.

Bringing respect for democratic procedures
to all of these benighted nations
will not be easy. Mugabe is 91, and still
rules with a consummately strong hand. His handpicked successor is less popular,
but backed by the security forces. Biya
also is apt to remain in office until natural
causes remove him. Afwerki and Jammeh,
and even Mugabe, Biya, dos Santos and
Nguema could easily be overthrown if the
militaries in those places were so-minded
and if those four capricious strong men
lost their canny ability to provide patronage
to politicians and looting opportunities
to soldiers. Civil society in all six
places is weak.
These despots are outliers, especially
when contrasted to the African Union
members such as Botswana, Tanzania and
Senegal that have adhered rigorously to
constitutional prerogatives and prescriptions,
and prospered. If Kagame, Kabila
and the others prone to the third-term
malady can be persuaded to renounce
such pretensions, and instead begin to
burnish their democratic credentials, Africa’s
future will brighten considerably.

This post first appeared, under the same title in The Diplomat, Oct.-Nov. 2015



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