Saturday,24 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)
Saturday,24 February, 2018
Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Presidents for life?

Just as the quest for lifetime presidencies brought the Arab world to what turned out to be a much-contested Arab Spring, now it seems to be Africa’s turn, writes Haytham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

In one country after another, long-serving African presidents are busy changing their countries’ constitutions, seeking to remove barriers to the two-term rule.

In the Republic of Congo, also known as Congo Brazzaville, the opposition called for a peaceful uprising after four demonstrators were shot dead by police. They were killed during protests against the incumbent president, Denis Sassou Nguesso, who plans to amend the constitution to sit for a third term in power.

Sassou Nguesso, 72, has ruled the country off and on for a total of 31 years. His second successive term in office is due to end in 2016.

To avoid the perceived indignity of being a former president, Sassou Nguesso called for a referendum to amend the constitution. If he gets his way, the constitution will be altered to give him not only a third shot at the presidency, but also to remove the current age limit of 70 years for all presidential candidates.

For the past few months, he’s been holding a “national dialogue” with interlocutors who have backed his bid for an open-ended presidency. But when, on 22 September, he announced his intention to hold a referendum on the constitution, thousands of outraged protestors took to the streets, chanting “Sassoufit”, a pun on the president’s name that sounds like the French expression meaning “that’s enough” — a slogan borrowed from Arab Spring protestors.

Bloody confrontations with the police followed in major cities. The government has since banned demonstrations, or said it did. In reality, it allowed its supporters to wage a counter wave of protests, calling for the president to stay in power as long as he wishes.

On 20 October, police fired bullets and teargas at the regime’s opponents, killing three protestors in the capital Brazzaville and one in the seaport of Pointe-Noire. Ten policemen were injured as well, said Interior Minister Raymond Mboulou.

The government reacted by disrupting Internet and telephone services and blocking the signal of the French television channel RFI. The US and the UN called for a dialogue between the government and the opposition.

Mboulou described the unrest as an “organised and co-ordinated insurrection,” bemoaning the fact that “symbols of the republic, such as the headquarters of the police . . . were targeted.”

Pascal Tsaty Mabiala, a leader of the main opposition Pan-African Union for Social Democracy, called for “a peaceful popular insurrection” to prevent the referendum from taking place.

Minister of Public Works Emile Ouosso, who heads a “yes to the referendum” campaign, told reporters that “opposition activists” abducted him for a few hours. There has been no independent confirmation of his claim.

Other African countries seem to be going through the same soul-searching process that often degenerates into insurgency and bloodshed. In the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, President Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001, is seeking to abolish the two-term restriction.

The same situation is seen in Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza just won a controversial third term in office with 70 percent of the vote.

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame, a man who claims to be a champion of stability for helping end the 1994 civil war, is also seeking a constitutional amendment to run again for office.

In June, Benin President Boni Yayi announced that he is not going to run for a third term. Speaking in Paris after a meeting with French President Francois Hollande, Boni Yahi said, “My name will not appear in any ballot anymore.”

Despite the assurance, the opposition is still wary that the president may try to change the constitution to run in the 2016 elections. With his country involved in the war against Boko Haram, the president may use this as an excuse to prolong his years in power, opponents say.

Zein Al-Abidine Al-Tayyeb, professor of political science at the Institute of African Studies in Khartoum, said that many African leaders are trying to stifle opposition to their continued rule, using the infusion of Chinese development aid to strenthen their positions. The confrontation between Sahel countries and Boko Haram is also impeding democratisation by boosting the role of the military, he added.

In his speech to the African Union in Addis Ababa in July, US President Barack Obama called on African leaders to honour the rule of two terms in office. But most African leaders conveniently ignored his advice.

Zimbabwe’s 90-year old president, Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, says that limiting presidential terms is merely a “Western attempt” to keep Africa down.

But most Africans, according to a recent poll, prefer a regular rotation of power in their countries. A recent opinion poll by Afrobarometer, including 51,600 people in 34 nations, showed clear opposition to the president-for-life phenomenon.

In Benin, 90 per cent of respondents said they are in favour of a two-term cap on the presidency. In Tanzania, nearly 87 per cent shared this view, just as 86 per cent did in Cote d’Ivoire.

In some countries, the public seems to be more divided. In Burundi, 51 per cent said they support a two-term cap. In Algeria, only 44 per cent said the same.

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