Old Habits with un-expected consequences: “Third-termism” and the prospect of civil unrest in Africa

Politics on the African continent has historically been plagued by never ending presidential mandates and bloody coup d’états. These trends have slowly started to subside over the last 10 years. However, the recent re-appearance of heads of states attempting to extend their political mandates has led to the possibility of a new wave of unrest in parts of Africa. The case is most worrisome in Burundi, where an attempted coup in March has re-kindled the country with its dark history of ethnic conflict. However, in countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger, leaders’ antics have backfired, meeting unexpected resistance and facilitating growing demand for political change.

In October 2015, the people of Congo Brazzaville went to the polls in a referendum that would scrap the presidential two term limit. As predicted, the referendum was a success and should allow President Denis Sassou Nguesso, in office continuously since 1997 after a first stint from 1979-1992, to run for a third consecutive mandate. Sassou Nguesso is not the only African head of state attempting to extend his mandate. A number of other leaders, including DRC’s Joseph Kabila, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Cameroon’s Paul Biya have all expressed their intentions to run again. Last month, the Rwandan parliament accepted the constitutional changes which would allow President Paul Kagame to run for third term in 2017. Kagame still faces a referendum on this question, but with an almost non-existent opposition, the odds of the motion failing at the polls are unlikely. The cases are strikingly similar in Cameroon, where President Paul Biya has led the country since 1982, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where Joseph Kabila has hinted an extension of his mandate. This explosion of “Third-termism”, as most of these leaders are hoping to change the constitution in order to run for a consecutive third term, does not bode well for African democracy and represents a credible threat to the stability of parts of the continent.

The case of Burundi gives a dire warning to the dangers of political leaders attempting to extend their mandates with impunity. In May, President Pierre Nkurunziza forced the country’s constitutional court to allow him to run for a third term, arguing that his appointment by the Burundian parliament in 2005 did not amount to an official first term. According to the constitutional court’s Vice President, Sylvere Nimpagaritse, the court’s decision was taken under intense duress and pressure emanating the presidency. President Nkurunziza’s intention to run for a third consecutive mandate sparked nationwide protests in a country troubled by a violent political past.

The situation further deteriorated as elements of the military led by the former intelligence Chief Major General Godefroid Niyombare attempted to depose the president during his absence in Tanzania. The coup failed as most of the state security apparatus remained loyal to the president and regained control of the capital, Bujumbura, even though the coup was met with widespread jubilation in the street. Since the coup, President Nkurunziza has been re-elected for a third term but the nation remains marred in violence, instability and forced migration. Following the coup, the government unleashed a wave of oppression on opposition elements, while certain opponents of the regime have begun an armed campaign. Throughout the last months police patrols have been attacked and high profile figures from both sides, such as the regime’s number two general Adolphe Nshimirimana and opposition leader Zedi Feruzi, have been assassinated. These tit for tat attacks have unleashed a spiral of violence, as reports of political opponents being kidnapped, tortured and assassinated are rampant. According to United Nations figures, over 127,000 Burundians have fled their homes, while 130 killings and 90 cases of torture have been reported since September.

The situation is especially worrying taking into accounts Burundi’s history of civil war and ethnic conflict. With an ethnic composition similar to Rwanda, its northern neighbour, Burundi has been plagued by deadly tensions between the majority Hutu population and Tutsi minority. Since its independence in 1962, it has been marred by assassinations, coups and prolonged conflicts, including a bloody civil war from 1993 to 2005 which claimed the lives of over 300,000 people. The country has been largely peaceful since the Arusha Accords, mediated by President Nelson Mandela and other international actors, took effect in 2005. At the time, the appointment of Pierre Nkurunziza as president seemed to have brought peace in the country. The President is a complex figure, a former Hutu rebel leader who believes he has been ordained by God to rule the country, who has been consistently criticized for his authoritarian tendencies.

While the violence has not yet been divided along ethnic lines, in the words of BBC journalist Alistair Leithead, “here, where ethnic divisions run so deep, there is a real fear – expressed openly on social media, or whispered in the close communities of the capital – of what could happen if this spiral of violence is not stopped”.

The situation remains highly volatile as independent media outlets, closed after the coup attempt, remain off air; moreover, divisions within the military are becoming more engrained. Indeed, the Arusha Accords mandated a 50-50 division of the army on ethnic lines. Even though the coup leaders were Hutu, many of the officer corps of Tutsi origin and former military opponents of President Nkurunziza during the civil war have started absconding. The situation in Burundi has also strained relations with Rwanda and the international community, with Bujumbura has accusing Kigali of arming hostile elements in order to destabilise the country. President Kagame has continuously denied these accusations and has condemned the up-surge of violence. The situation continues to deteriorate as the government has begun to use language reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide and further escalates its repression against the population; the potential of renewed civil war and a catastrophic humanitarian crisis linked to a refugee exodus in the Great Lakes region now looms.

As the situation in Burundi remains dire, an important new element has started to disrupt certain African leaders’ attempt to extend their mandates: extensive pro-democracy street protests. If Burundi is an example of the violence and extent to which leaders will go to remain in power, the cases of countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger highlight the determination of people and their will for accountable government. In 2010, President Mamadou Tandja of Niger attempted to change the constitution in order to run for a third term. His proposal led to mass pro-democracy protests throughout the country and provided the military with a mandate to stage a coup and depose the President. After a brief transition under military rule, the people of Niger elected Mahamadou Issoufou to the presidency. President Issoufou had been one of the main leaders of the opposition during Tandja’s presidency. His administration, to the contrary of his predecessor’s and President Nkurunziza, faces a much more assertive and organized civil society and any attempted extension of mandate would be highly unpopular.

Burkina Faso is another example of the dangers faced by Presidents seeking a further term. In 2014, President Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to extend his 27 year presidency was met with important pro-democracy protests, with the military eventually deposing Compaoré. The will of the people and their will to establish an accountable elected government would be essential again when elements of the presidential guard supporting the deposed Compaoré attempted to overthrow the interim government. The coup failed after only a week, with the leader of the coup General Gilbert Diendere admitted defeat on national television. The coup leaders have since been charged and the presidential guard has been disarmed. The coup plotters failure to overthrow the interim government highlights the steady shift of power from the military towards civilians. These examples are important, as recent trends and the violence in Burundi could appear to show that democracy in Africa is on the wane or fundamentally threatened. However, the successful presidential elections in Nigeria, the peaceful and competitive elections in Tanzania and the refusal of the people of Niger and Burkina Faso to accept endless extension of presidential mandates, amplifies another growing trend: un-accountable and un-democratic governments will no longer be tolerated by the African people.

Author Biography

Alexandre Raymakers is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science holding a degree in International History and International Relations. He has extensive personal experience on the African continent having been born in Zimbabwe and lived in 4 different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. He has previously worked for the Swiss Embassy in Kenya and has been working in Strategic Communications in London for the past year. His interests include International Security, African politics and European Affairs.

Cover image: Brice Blondel under a CC BY-NC 2.0 Creative Commons license

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