BURUNDI’s president goes to the polls this week to stand for president of his tiny nation for the third time. Pierre Nkurunziza has not been dissuaded by violent protests in which many have died or been displaced. Nor has he been daunted by the African Union’s (AU’s) calls for the vote to be postponed because of the violence.
So, despite improvements in governance in some areas, it is business as usual for sub-Saharan Africa’s third-termers. There was a glimmer of hope late last year that change might be in the air when hundreds of protestors set fire to Burkina Faso’s parliament and forced their president, Blaise Compaore, out of power after 23 years. The president, who tried to try to get himself a third term, is in exile in Cote d’Ivoire.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there were protests in the streets when word got out that the president, Laurent Kabila, was considering running for a third term in next year’s election. He might still run, but the outcry has given him pause for thought.
It is rather different in Rwanda, where President Paul Kagame’s chances of a third term increased after legislators voted overwhelmingly in favour of changing the constitution to allow his extended rule after 2017. More than 3-million people have signed a petition calling for an amendment to the constitution to allow him to stand again.
Kagame is much admired for his achievements both in ending the genocide and his astute and energetic economic leadership. But he has also been criticised for political intolerance. This is a red flag. Even good leaders have become tyrants after staying too long in power.
The institutional term limit embraced by Africa a decade and more ago is a principle that is being violated as much as it is being observed, with governments overturning constitutional provisions they had agreed to themselves. In Burundi’s case, the term limit was part of a hard-fought peace accord.
It is disrespectful for individuals to overturn principles agreed to by nations, and galling that most of those who have done so have unimpressive records of political and economic governance.
Some “third termers” have failed to secure an extended tenure, such as Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, Malawi’s Bakili Muluzi and Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba. But many have succeeded, including Namibia’s Sam Nujoma, Gabon’s Omar Bongo, Guinea’s Lansana Conté, Togo’s Gnassingbé Eyadéma, Chad’s Idriss Deby and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. Some of them no longer have any term limits.
Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has been in power for more than three decades, has suggested a third term may be in the offing.
Cameroon’s Paul Biya, in power since 1982, is still at the helm.
The AU was expected to address the issue of extended presidential terms at the recent Johannesburg summit but did little more than address the problems in Burundi.
AU chairman Robert Mugabe, now in his seventh term, set the tone by denouncing presidential term limits. If people wanted their leaders to stay, he said, they should be allowed to do so.
But he omitted to mention the role that fear, intimidation and even apathy play in this.
In the next few years, the political landscape of Africa should, by rights, be changing, with new — and younger — blood coming to the fore in a modernising continent.
Africa’s youth, mostly neglected by ageing leaders, are becoming more politically aware and less willing to let politicians disregard the law, a trend that is fuelled by the prevalence of social media and increasing access to information.
As Burkina Faso’s uprising shows, angry and mobilised citizens are capable of breaking the power of governing elites. But that is not the norm. Personalised political agendas continue to be bolstered by patronage and weak institutions.
As Burundi and Rwanda show, it looks like it will be business as usual — for now.
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