By Kola King*
There’s every reason to say democracy has taken firm roots in Africa because most of the countries once ruled by military dictators have embraced democracy. Still, there are pockets of resistance considering the false starts, learning curves, aversion for the opposition, and distractions occasioned by military rule as well as penchant for tinkering with the constitution for purely self-serving reasons.
Democracy may be alien to Africa’s political culture as some African political leaders have shown exceptional disdain for the constitution and all the ingredients that makeup democracy. Some political leaders go so far as to tinker with the constitution which undergirds the whole gamut of democracy. Even though one might argue that democracy is alien to Africa, still African societies have always been run by consensus and cooperation by its kings and chiefs. Yet colonialism had upended the traditional society replacing the rule of kings by imperial colonial rule. After this came democratic rule.
Though African societies lacked the multi-party system of governance as governance devolved from kings to the chiefs and their representatives, hence the idea of opposition was repugnant to African traditional society. And what is democracy other than building consensus and cooperation in order to use political power with the goal of improving the well-being of the society? Yet, democracy is a game meant to be played by the rules but African political leaders having embraced democracy would rather observe its rules by the breach. There’s an obvious gap between practice and praxis.
After colonial rule, most of the countries came into their own setting up democratic governments and imitating the political practice of the metropolis. Although many of the newly emerging countries adopted parliamentary democracy, yet the Magna Carta which is the basis of British democracy seems to have been lost on African leaders. Thus African political leaders seemingly adopted democracy without imbibing the true spirit of participatory democracy.
Little wonder African political leaders have the penchant of making short shrift of the constitution, shifting the goal post of term limits, as it were, and taking steps to perpetuate themselves in office. And the first casualty in this power play is always the constitution. Instead of serving as an instrument that upholds democracy and the rule of law, the constitution becomes the first political fatality since self-serving African leaders in their bid to perpetuate themselves in office tinker with this document with a sole aim to ensure tenure elongation. Thus tenure elongation has become the bane of democracy in Africa.
Most often to ensure tenure elongation, the constitution is torn to shreds, the rule of law is compromised and press freedom is muzzled while the opposition is caged by the ruling party. Political leaders seem to get away with this political oddity because most often there are no strong institutions to checkmate the activities of the executive that’s bent on changing the rules midstream.
This kind of scenario has played out several times in many African countries where the leaders decide to perpetuate themselves in office. Indeed Africa is fast turning democracy on its head due to the shenanigans of political leaders. This is a common thread that binds countries ranging from Egypt, Congo Democratic Republic, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, and Guinea because the story is the same as the leaders of these countries have embraced tenure elongation.
The most recent example is Cote d’Ivoire where President Alassane Ouattara who was first elected in 2010 and reelected in 2015 has decided to run for a third term. This follows the sudden death in July of his prime minister, Amadou Gon Coulibaly who had been due to run as the candidate of the ruling Rassemblement des Houphouetistes pour la Democratie et la Paix (RHDP) party. Ouattara’s decision to run for a second term was anchored by his convictions that the Covid-19 global pandemic and the socio-economic crisis it generated require an experienced leader to steer the country to prosperity.
Apparently, President Ouattara and RHDP view the adoption of a new constitution in 2016 as a reset button, which makes the incumbent eligible to run again. But the opposition counters that he lacks the constitutional backing to run for a third term since the constitution prescribes a two-term-five- year tenure limit. Generally, this has raised the threat of a backlash from the opposition, stoking fears for political instability around the next presidential election which is due 31 October.
Also in Guinea, the governing party has asked President Alpha Conde to seek a controversial third term in office after weeks of speculation. This follows months of protests against extending the 82-year-old’s rule time in office at elections due this year. On his part, President Paul Biya of Cameroon has severally extended his tenure and has served for thirty- eight years in office. Biya came to power in 1982, making him the second longest-ruling president in Africa. The longest-ruling non-royal leader in the world and the oldest head-of-state in Africa, at 87 years of age is President Teodore Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. He has been president since 1979. The constitution grants him sweeping powers, including the right to rule by decree, effectively making his government a legal dictatorship.
At the same time, Rwandan President Paul Kagame who took office in 2000 has ruled Rwanda for twenty years. The constitution was amended and a referendum held in 2015 as voters approved amendments to the constitution that would allow Kagame to serve a third seven-year term; in addition, he would be eligible to serve two five-year terms after that, giving him the potential to hold the office until 2034.
Until he died, the late President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi had also extended his tenure in office, seeking a third term in 2015 after spending two terms between 2005 and 2015. This was a violation of the constitution as well as the 2000 Arusha Agreement that had paved the way to ending Burundi’s civil war. His plan for a third term elicited widespread protest. However, he won a third term bid on July 21, 2015. Nkurunziza was granted the title of “eternal supreme guide” in March 2018 by the ruling party. Again changes were made to the constitution with a change in term length from five to seven years, with a limit of two consecutive terms. Nkurunziza was expected to step down the presidency in August, but he died unexpectedly in June.
As the virus of tenure elongation spreads among African leaders, it’s time to activate the African Peer Review Mechanism which systematically assess and review governance at Head of State peer level in order to promote political stability, economic growth and sustainable development. This will further ensure that African leaders play by the rules of democracy and stick with the two-term constitutional limit. Failure to do this might see Africa relapse into the past errors of military incursion into politics as soldiers could be tempted to seize power once there is instability occasioned by tenure elongation.
*Kola King is a Nigerian journalist and novelist, and currently the Managing Editor of Nigeria Now, a news magazine based in Abuja, Nigeria.