African Political Trends: The Rise In ‘Constitutional Coups’


Comoros president Azali Assoumani is the latest African president to use a constitutional reform to cling to power with an iron fist. The Comoros National Electoral Commission (CENI) announced on 31 July that an overwhelming majority of the country (92.74%) voted for government-backed constitutional reforms that will allow the president to run for a third term. Like the Comorian president, President Kagame of Rwanda, President Museveni of Uganda, President Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and President Nkurunziza of Burundi are among the African leaders who have attempted to use constitutional reform within the last two years to remain in power.

Neoliberalism and Democratization of Post-Independence Africa

To understand the political trend of using constitutional reform to stay in power, it is important to explore the concept of democratic peace theory and the democratization of Africa. After achieving independence, African countries favoured one-party governments, headed mainly by heroic figures who had led the charge against European colonial powers. Since this period of independence coincided with the Cold War, African countries, which were still trying to figure out how to maneuver through international political systems, were quickly forced to choose sides. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the prevailing thought was that “no democracies have ever fought a war against each other.” Therefore, many Western countries placed a political condition of democratization on their aid packages to African countries.

The push for rapid democratization of Africa from the 1990s onward ultimately led to the creation of illiberal democracies. Fareed Zakaria defines illiberal democracies as countries that outwardly present the illusion of a functioning democracy, but in actuality are not democratic at all. Over the years, the requirement of “good governance” – which essentially means democratization – imposed on countries receiving aid from Western nations has continued to erode. While countries such as the UK and US initially had strict conditions for aid, and would use sanctions to punish unsatisfactory progress, today they willingly provide aid to countries that have documented histories of human rights abuses and corruption, like Ethiopia and Cameroon. The erosion of international standards for aid has evolved to mean that African countries are only required to satisfy the bare minimum standard of democracy, which is ‘free and fair’ elections. Unless the elections are considered very fraudulent, as they were in Togo in 2007, the international community continues to support these African countries.

With the understanding that the international community will accept illiberal democracies, African leaders have devised schemes that satisfy donor countries’ ‘democratization standards’ while expanding their political control beyond true democratic standards.

The use of constitutional reforms to stay in power

African leaders have found they can satisfy requirements of democratization while maintaining dictatorial power through constitutional reforms, one of the pillars of democratization. The most common ways constitutional reforms allow presidents to increase the length of their presidency, sometimes referred to as ‘constitutional coups,’ are by changing the term limit or the age limit. Both these efforts either require a national referendum or parliamentary vote, both of which are accepted as key elements of participatory democracies.

Between 2000 and 2015, 15 African leaders have attempted to stay in power by changing the constitutional age limit. Unfortunately, most of these 15 presidents’ attempts have been successful. One of the first examples of a “constitutional coup’ was in 2005, when Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda, successfully changed the constitution to allow him to run for a fifth term. President Paul Biya followed in Museveni’s footsteps in 2008 and changed Cameroon’s two-term limit, making him the second longest-serving African president (1982-present).

Attempts to change the constitution have been met with either violence or complacency. When President Kabila of the DRC and President Compaoré of Burkina Faso announced their intentions to extend their term limit, worried citizens took to the streets to protest. In these cases, the protests turned violent and dozens lost their lives. In countries where the referendum overwhelmingly passed, like in Comoros and Rwanda, violence did not erupt. In the case of Rwanda, the new constitutional reforms will allow President Kagame, who has been in a leadership role since the end of the genocide in 1994, to potentially stay in power until 2034.

African countries should be following the lead of the Algerian parliament, which passed constitutional reforms aimed at remedying the ban on a two-term limit, which was put in place in 2008 to allow President Bouteflika, who is still in power, to run for a third term.

With the alarming rise of these ‘constitutional coups,’ the African Union (AU) has demonstrated that they are ‘all bark and no bite.’ They have issued statements voicing their concerns only when the situation in a country turns violent. Rarely have their press statements translated into action. In places where these controversial policies have passed without any violence the AU has remained silent. Phil Clack, a lecturer at SOAS University of London, maintains that the AU is “easily ignored by the governments in question and one of the reasons for that is that the AU is full of presidents who’ve overstayed their term limits, so theirs is a high degree of hypocrisy. At the AU level, if you’ve got someone like Mugabe [when he was the AU chairperson] telling you that you need to respect the constitution, that tends to ring hollow.”

What next?

The insistence of Western countries such as the US and UK, and institutions like the UN, to define democracy as merely holding elections and encouraging political reform, means that power-hungry African leaders will continue to the play the game.  This neoliberal understanding of democracy has resulted in the cementation of illiberal democracies in Africa. Additionally, Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), claims that the lack of benefits for former presidents (i.e. pensions or security schemes) in every African country further fuels the desire for African leaders to extend their presidential limits. These illiberal democracies have proven time and time again that they are not interested in bettering the conditions of their respective countries, but would rather to stay in power till their deaths while increasing their personal wealth by any means necessary.

This rising trend should be a wake-up call for African youths. On a continent with the most youths in the world, where more than half of each country’s population is under the age of 30, most African presidents are over the age of 70. With many African countries initiating practices that allow youths to participate in politics, it is worth investigating whether those who have been given this opportunity will follow the party lines or become revolutionaries. It is very easy to become complacent with the status quo when we have witnessed potential activists rise to power and then do nothing to fix the system. Additionally, the prevalence of governments abusing their power to shut down opposition, as has occurred recently in Uganda and Comoros, adds to the level of complacency. While the current situation might look bleak, African youths must rise up to make worthwhile contributions in their communities.

Loise Ndegwa

Loise Ndegwa is currently a Masters student at the University of Cape Town studying International Relations. She is also a Mandela-Rhodes scholar 2016 Cohort.

About Loise Ndegwa

Loise Ndegwa is currently a Masters student at the University of Cape Town studying International Relations. She is also a Mandela-Rhodes scholar 2016 Cohort.