Recently, there has been a second political action in favour of extending presidential term limits in the Central African region as President Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo (Brazzaville), who has already served three decades in power, seeks another presidential term. The Congolese constitution currently bars the 72-year-old from running again as there is an age limit of 70 and a maximum of two terms. This seems to be a trend in the region as most presidents of the member states in this region seem to be completely oblivious to or intentionally ignore the limits set by their constitutions. The leaders in this part of the world have all attempted to, or have changed the laws in their various countries. Burundi and Rwanda are worth mentioning in this regard. In Burundi, violent clashes erupted with both human and economic losses registered after President Pierre Nkurunziza pushed ahead with plans of standing for elections even though his presidential term limits, as prescribed by his country’s constitution, had expired. In Rwanda, lawmakers voted 99% in favor of holding a referendum on proposed changes to the constitution that would allow President Paul Kagame to extend his 15 years in power.
The Congolese government has set October 25, 2015 as the date for the referendum on constitutional changes that could include raising the maximum age for presidential candidates and scrapping the two-term limit. This aspect alone has divided the country into two; some Congolese are in favour of the constitutional changes, while others are completely against it. Thousands of people supporting President Nguesso’s move and a constitutional referendum filled the streets of Brazzaville (Congo’s Capital) last week to demonstrate their support. The demonstration was held on the Boulevard Alfred Raoul, the same scene of protest organised by opponents of the referendum sometime earlier. For those demonstrating against the president’s bid for a third term in office, they have experienced clashes with authorities whom have banned all planned protest rallies against the scheduled referendum. Shops, schools and offices have remained closed across most of the city as the situation aggravates. The police have fired tear gas and warning shots as the people protest against the president’s bid to extend his 30-year stay in office. With four people killed and 10 others hurt in the clashes, the toll of casualties may continue to rise.
In reaction to these clashes, The Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union (AU), Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, expressed deep concern towards the prevailing situation. According to the Situation Room of the AU Peace and Security Council, Dr. Zuma deplored the tension generated by the differences among the Congolese political stakeholders on the scheduled constitutional referendum, as well as the violence that has been occurring in Brazzaville and other cities. The Chairperson of the AU Commission has called for all the concerned stakeholders to exercise utmost restraint and to spare no effort to avert any evolution likely to aggravate the current situation which may lead to instability. She urged the people of Congo to seek, through dialogue, a solution to their differences based on the respect of the relevant AU instruments, particularly the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.
Amnesty International has also condemned the use of force and demanded that authorities refrain from using excessive force against protesters. Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International’s Central African researcher said that heavy-handed response by security forces not only violates the protesters’ rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but may enflame an already tense situation. The United States, through the US State Department spokesman John Kirby, called on President Nguesso to postpone the referendum. According to Clement Mierassa of the Republican Front for the Respect of Constitutional Order and Democratic Change (FROCAD), an opposition coalition, what has happened is a constitutional coup decided by President Nguesso.
It can be concluded that some leaders who won’t peacefully transition power aren’t true leaders and run the risk of becoming self-serving, not country serving. With several veteran African leaders approaching term limits in Africa in the coming years, including the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, the push to drop term limits in Congo Republic is being closely watched. As an alternative to military intervention to hold off the demonstrators, the government and the people can utilize dialogue in order to bridge the conflict gap and arrive at a solution that’s beneficial to both sides while inculcating the principles of good governance, the rule of law, and democracy.