2011-2020 Africa’s constitutional coups

Haitham Nouri , Friday 25 Dec 2020

African democracy promised positive change for the continent in the first decade of the new millennium, but the second decade dashed the hopes of many African nations, writes Haitham Nouri

Africa’s constitutional coups

Following the collapse of civilian and military dictatorships across Africa three decades ago, the continent adopted a shift towards democracy. Many African countries formed multi-party political systems and drafted constitutions that limited presidential terms.

Many African countries south of the Sahara saw a peaceful transition of power, with presidents leaving office as a result of defeats at the polls.

While North Africa did not share in that democratic wave, the Western media saw a resemblance between the Arab Spring revolutions that started in late 2010 and the European Revolutions of 1848, known as the “Springtime of the Peoples”, despite their radical differences.

In the 1990s and 2000s, people across the African continent became more familiar with concepts of good governance, popular monitoring, and community participation. However, only a minority of countries experienced the African spring.

 More than 40 per cent of African peoples still endured one-party rule, a president who claimed it was necessary for him to remain in power for fear of the disintegration of his country, and referendums the results of which garnered approval ratings of 99 per cent.

US political scientist Samuel Huntington coined the term “the third democratic wave” to describe a movement that engulfed 60 African, Asian, Latin American, and Eastern European countries, or one third of the world’s population, in the 1990s.

These countries, together with the Western democracies, make up half the number of UN members, rendering democracy an idea that had caught the global consensus. However, the democratic wave soon retreated, with observers sometimes mistakenly believing it was only a “temporary retreat” in societies new to democracy.

Even so, many countries increased the distance between them and their new-found democracy.

Zambia rejected then president Frederick Chiluba’s desire to amend the constitution to extend his term in 2001. But Togo amended its constitution in 2002 to allow president Gnassingbé Eyadéma to run again after he had inherited the position from his father, the founder of the state and independence hero.

In 2003, Gabon allowed its president, Omar Bongo, to extend his rule. After his death, his son Ali took over.

There was a ray of hope in 2003 when Malawi rejected constitutional amendments to extend president Bakili Muluzi’s rule. But Uganda and Chad did not walk in Malawi’s footsteps, and they approved constitutional amendments to extend their rulers’ stay at the helm in 2005.

The Nigerian parliament thwarted former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s attempts to extend his rule in 2006. Niger’s lawmakers did the same in 2009. Cameroon complied with its president’s wish in 2008 to stay in office.

Pessimism at the possibility of extending democratic rule in Africa had not set in at this time, however. Four leaders failed and six succeeded in passing constitutional amendments to prolong their stay in office.

In the first decade of the new millennium, 11 presidents and prime ministers in Africa left office swiftly when their term ended: Tanzania in 1995; Ghana and Sao Tome and Principe in 2001; Mali, Mauritius, and Kenya in 2002, Mozambique in 2005; Sierra Leone in 2007; and South Africa and Botswana in 2008.

Until 2010, the majority of African countries moving in the direction of greater democracy tended to respect the articles of their constitutions. However, this was no longer the case in the second decade of the millennium.

Breaking the new-found rules of democracy was initiated by Djibouti in 2010, followed by Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, and the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) in 2015. The Democratic Republic of Congo followed suit in 2016, followed by Comoros in 2018, and Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea in 2020.

All these countries amended their constitutions to extend their rulers’ stay in power.

Only three attempts to amend the constitution in African countries failed. In 2012, Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade did not succeed in being re-elected. Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso also failed when the 2014 popular protests against him erupted. In 2017, Benin’s ruler met a similar failure.

Over the past decade, however, only two African leaders have left office at the end of their terms, being the presidents of Namibia in 2015 and Mauritania in 2019.

African observers are waiting to see how the democratic course will flow in the coming decade in countries due to have elections over the years to come, including Madagascar in 2023, the Central African Republic in 2025, Angola in 2027, Zimbabwe in 2028, Guinea-Bissau in 2029, and Equatorial Guinea and the Seychelles in 2030.

The constitutions of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Somalia, Lesotho, and Eswatini (Swaziland) do not allow for the extension of presidential terms. However, it remains to be seen what will happen in the new decade.

Democracy retreated in Africa south of the Sahara in the 2010s. Leaders justified amending the constitutions of their countries by listing a host of claims, such as combating terrorism or armed rebellions, or the emergence of new realities such as peace deals to end civil wars.

In Sudan, popular protests toppled former president Omar Al-Bashir in 2018, who had earlier amended the constitution to stay in office in 2000 and 2010. Al-Bashir had been expected to repeat the move in 2020.

The third democratic wave had been signaled by the fall of Sudan’s president Jaafar Nimeiry in 1985, when Al-Bashir staged an Islamist-backed coup in 1989. He then led the country’s Revolutionary Salvation Council from 1989 to 1996, when presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections were held and the constitution drafted.

With the elimination of Islamist leader Hassan Al-Turabi, new elections with new presidential terms were held in 1999-2000.

Sudan approved a new constitution, allowing Al-Bashir to run for a new term in 2010. A peace agreement between Al-Bashir’s government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement was signed in 2005, more than two decades after the outbreak of the civil war that killed nearly two million people, according to Western estimates.

The majority of Africa returned to the arms of one-party rule under presidents who had amended their constitutions to remain in office at this time, putting the country back to the situation of many countries after independence from European colonial rule in the 1960s.

Today, countries that had experienced the peaceful rotation of power, such as Mali in 2002, are now governed by a military council that rose to the helm through a coup after the country had spent years fighting terrorism and secessionist tendencies and leading French forces to intervene.

Despite the bleak picture, most African rulers were not able to ignore the constitution, however, unlike those who had earlier disregarded the rule of law. The constitutional amendments the African leaders drafted limited presidential tenure to two terms, but then they sometimes used legal loopholes to present previous terms as “transitional” following peace deals or ethnic massacres, for example.

More than a quarter of the population south of the Sahara is under 25 years of age today, and many more people are educated, meaning it could be more difficult to allow a ruler to spend the entirety of his life in office.

The fragile economic and social conditions of many African states today have given rise to anger among young people suffering from unemployment and other ills.

Africa’s population growth is now higher than in any other continent. Its population is expected to pass the two billion mark by 2050, which constitutes unprecedented pressure on the African countries’ resources and political regimes, no matter how permanent they may seem.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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