One of the hallmarks of democracy is the successful transfer of the baton of leadership from one government to the next through the conduct of credible elections and the understanding that the continued survival of a nation is not dependent on any single individual but on the will of the people. Sadly, however, many African leaders have failed to imbibe the democratic culture as they continue to devise means to hold on to power, usually by tweaking their nation’s constitutions through the connivance and acquiescence of weak, rubber stamp parliaments, as well as a docile and complicit judiciary.
This has been the trend in Togo, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Djibouti, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Cameroon and lately, Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire. In Eritrea where no presidential election has taken place since independence in 1993, President Isaias Afwerki has remained the first and only president.
The recent third term bid of Ivorian President, Alassane Ouattara, is therefore not surprising, being a continuation of the odious and dishonourable trend that has characterised Africa’s political landscape and rendered the continent the most corrupt, unstable and underdeveloped globally. However, what makes Ouattara’s misadventure more disappointing is the fact that he came to power only after his sit-tight predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo – who also had refused to accept the outcome of an election he lost – was forcefully removed in the wake of a violent but avoidable crisis that led to 3,000 deaths.
Rather than build a lasting democratic tradition that would discourage leaders refusing to relinquish power and ensure the smooth transfer of power to honour the memory of those who paid the supreme price for democracy in Cote D’Ivoire, Ouattara has announced that he will be running for a third term in next month’s election. The 78-year-old leader disingenuously claims that although he has served two terms in office as permitted by the constitution, the adoption of a new constitution in 2016 also makes him a new candidate in the eyes of the law and thus eligible to run as a first timer.
But Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) has offered a timely warning: “It is important that as leaders of our individual Member-States of ECOWAS, we need to adhere to the constitutional provisions of our countries, particularly on term limits. This is one area that generates crisis and political tension in our sub-region.” According to Amnesty International, police officers in Abidjan, the Ivorian capital, have allowed groups of men, some armed with machetes and heavy sticks, to attack protesters demonstrating against Ouattara’s third term bid reminiscent of the crisis that led to the ouster of his predecessor. Indeed those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
The pathetic situation in Cote D’Ivoire is similar to that of Guinea, where President Alpha Condé, 82, is also seeking a third term in office in next month’s election after a constitution amendment in March 2020. Like Ouattara, Condé came to power in 2010 from the opposition after the death of Lansana Conté who had ruled for 24 years. Ironically, Condé had opposed a 2003 amendment that would have allowed Conté to run for a third term. Having tasted the sweetness of power, Condé now seeks to indulge in the very thing he once described as an aberration.
Indeed, Africa has done well by halting the trend of violent coups, which was rampant between the 1960s and the early 1990s. Coups produced some of the most vicious despots and kleptomaniacs in the world.
However, sadly too, these military dictators have since been replaced by imperial presidents, who practise a perverse and bastardised version of democracy designed to keep them perpetually in power. Unsurprisingly, Africa is home to six of the world’s 10 longest ruling non-royal national leaders with Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, 87, topping the list.
The continent is not bereft of good leaders and role models who have led by example and act what they preach. The late President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who took the mantle of leadership after spending 27 long years in prison for opposing apartheid, resisted the temptation to perpetuate himself in power despite massive local and international support and his iconic status. The Nobel laureate took the less travelled path by leaving office after just one term. Nigeria’s former President, Goodluck Jonathan, also resisted the urge to hold on to power by congratulating his opponent, Buhari, even before the result of the 2015 presidential election was announced. These are examples worth emulating.
The United Nations Development Report 2019 states that there is a nexus between development and political stability. How can Africa get out of this quagmire? The African Union must start by shaming rather than glorifying leaders who seek to perpetuate themselves in power. The AU must stop the practice of appointing sit-tight leaders who violate human rights like President Teodoro Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Chad’s Alpha Condé and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame as its chairman as it has been doing.
The AU must adopt the strict approach of its Western counterpart, the European Union, which is that European countries that wish to join or remain in the EU must have stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities. Such strict conditions have prevented Turkey – with its poor human rights record – from joining the EU since it applied in 1987.
The ECOWAS resolution that member states must not alter electoral laws six months to elections is a right step but is not good enough. Presidents who spearhead constitution amendments that ensure the removal of term limits must not be beneficiaries of such misadventures. This will help reduce the number of sit-tight presidents on the continent. The clichéd claim by these leaders that they must remain in power because they cannot find a worthy successor is nothing but an admission of failure and thus cannot hold water.
Former American president, Barack Obama, was spot on in a powerful speech he delivered to Ghana’s parliament in 2009 when he stated, “Africa does not need strong men, it needs strong institutions.”