The last decade has been the most dramatic in African history with a series of political transitions void of the regular ballot box machinations, which ensures that a popular view expressed brings a new leader at the state’s helm. These transitions have been fanned by popular uprisings and, in some cases, military takeovers that contrast regular democratic principles of any nation. However, the underlying factor has been the protracted stay of these Presidents and their capacity to maneuver their country’s constitution to give them unbridled matrimony with power until death do them part. In recent years rather than death doing these Presidents part, their own subordinates in uniforms, with the backing of the population, have forced them to part ways with power. This has complicated the role of the International Community (IC) and especially the African Union (AU), which is out to guarantee democratic practices, peaceful transition, human rights, good governance as enshrined in its constitutive act as well as the AU Charter. On the one hand, the AU and its partners have been quick at criticizing these “unconstitutional takeovers” but remained silent when African Presidents overstay their welcome or violate their own constitution or abuse the rights of their own people. This has unleashed a double face of the IC, notably institutions like the AU, the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU) and great power nations like France, United States etc. which in most cases sanction these countries for chasing away leaders who have chased away democratic practices.
Mediating Presidential Absolutism and Unconstitutional Takeovers
In Africa and the world today, Paul Biya, 87, is one of the oldest Presidents and longest-serving head of state with a carrier at the helm of the Cameroon Republic spanning through the last 38 years. While in power, Paul Biya has witnessed the passage of about eight Presidents in neighbouring Nigeria with at least four of them on the foundation of the ballot box. Three years to the end of his second seven-year mandate in 2008, the President engaged a constitutional reform given himself a life Presidency. This unleashed a wave of bloody protest, which human rights groups said claimed the lives of over 140 persons. In the midst of all this, graveyard calmness reigned within the IC. During the 2011 presidential elections, representatives from the EU, Commonwealth, AU and others gracefully observed the elections producing a favourable report. In Uganda, when Kaguta Yuweri Museveni came to power in 1986, he prided himself as the harbinger of change in the new generational dispensation. He argued emphatically that most African leaders in power overstay their welcome, which accounts for the underdevelopment of their land. However, while the world was still expecting the former guerrilla fighter to teach by example, Museveni argued that he is still in power because he is yet to finish God’s mission in Uganda. And in 2005, Museveni sponsored a constitutional modification, which gave him a third-term ticket. In 2017, a constitutional age-limit was finally scrapped, ensuring that the 78-year-old could seek reelection to his satisfaction. With mild media coverage of these events, they never feature on any real international agenda.
In 2005, and after 15 years in power, Idriss Deby Itno became unpopular in his homeland and was constitutionally barred from seeking reelection. However, he changed the constitution without any rejection from the IC. But when rebels attempted to overthrow him, they were not just condemned but pushed back from N’Djamena, the capital city, by the French Air Force, which flew in from Gabon specifically to protect Deby, who was being suffocated. Deby then consolidated his grip on power, and in the ensuing event, many opposition leaders disappeared with the complete silence of the IC. In 2018, he modified the constitution again to regurgitate the two-term limit, given himself the possibility of staying in power till 2033. And in one of his interviews, he stated that he was contemplating his exit before France asked him to stay on till death do him and the Chadian Presidency apart.
The case of Omer El-Bashir was so particular as the constitutional amendment in 2005 was part of an internationally sponsored deal to appease him as he settled on a peace deal with southern rebels under the banner of Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army – SPLM/SPLA after a 22-year war. This deal ushered Bashir into a new two five-year terms. However, in 2019, his NCP party succeeded in obtaining the favours of 294 parliamentarians out of 581 in the Sudanese legislature to secure another term of office for Bashir in the 2020 elections. In the IC’s complete silence came a popular uprising, which was cemented by a military takeover highly condemned by the IC. However, these visages reflect an international system engineered by interest over the norms of democracy and human rights.
The Double-Sided International Community
While responding to the recent military takeover in Mali, forcing the embattled President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), to resign, Jeune Afrique reported that the President of Guinea Bissau created an unusual atmosphere during the video conference of leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The French magazine said that while ECOWAS leaders were contemplating sanctioning Mali, President Umaro Sissoco Embalo argued that third term bird is also a coup against the people and the nation. His comments evoked an unfriendly response from others, including Ivorian President, Alassane Ouattara, who himself has taken the world aback by running for a third term after previously denouncing it.
The problematic of the Malian polity is enshrined in a situation wherein a regime is “unconstitutionally” forced to abdicate to the joy of the masses but the displeasure of the IC. However, weeks before this unceremonious change, Malians had been taking to the streets, demanding the departure of a leader they claim could not represent and defend them. Despite the noisy atmosphere created, the IC stayed mute, which now raises the question of whose interest the IC is actually protecting. Seeing the chaotic political atmosphere of Mali before the coup, it was incumbent for the IC to weigh in and defend the interests of the constitution and the Malian people. Coming only after IBK is gone and advocating for his return may simply be interpreted as an IC which defends personalities and not the people.
Third term and protracted presidencies are conflicting with the public interest, but serve the interest of the leaders and their cohorts and a few elites who control the country’s wealth and power. But in most cases, the IC had played the role of the spectator and only became the referee when a leader who laid a precedent of constitutional violation is unseated unconstitutionally. The case of Faure Gnassinbge in Togo has worsened the situation of the already impoverished nation. Despite unsuccessful mediations by ECOWAS, neither the sub-regional body nor the AU or UN has pronounced any word condemning his third term bid. But just days after the Malian coup, ECOWAS weighed in, the EU suspended military aid and the AU condemned it. Meanwhile, Guinea’s situation has been lingering on for months with more than 30 killed, and just before the Malian coup, members of Alpha Conde’s party nominated him for a third term in office after a constitutional modification.
All major international instruments, including the UN, EU, AU, La Francophonie, Commonwealth etc. have as their cardinal point the protection of human rights and democratic principles. However, in the midst of these institutions are African leaders toping the chat of violators of the very principles advocated by the institutions. After changing the constitution to give himself another term in office, President Idris Deby Itno was graced with the position of AU Chairman in 2016 by his peers. In 2015, Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo also changed his country’s constitution and few years after he was appointed at the head of the Troika High-Level committee to seek a lasting solution in the Libyan political conflict. In other words, a President unable to solve his country’s worsening political situation is invited by the IC to solve another nation’s political crisis.
However, exceptions do occur especially when it tramples on the interest of the IC; it either stays mute or presents a case reechoing the people’s wish. Late President Robert Gabriel Mugabe found himself in this trap when he was forced out of office in 2017 by the same military that always protected him. Mugabe lamented, but there wasn’t any IC to repeat the lessons of unconstitutionality. Mugabe had previously engaged and sustained a divorce with the IC except for his comrade in the struggle down south, which is why South Africa was one of the rare countries to wipe the tears of the weeping alien.
The politicking in Africa for the past two decades has exposed a lacuna in what the IC says and what it actually executes and the common man in Africa considers such institutions and countries as entities surviving on a royal interest rumble. For close to four years since the arms conflict started in Anglophone Cameroon, the UN, La Francophonie and Commonwealth scribes and AU Chair have visited the country. Despite all these diplomatic travails, there has been no credible international response to the conflict as daily killings continue.
To solve Africa’s problems, the IC must consider a double-edged sword that strikes both protracted stays in power and unconstitutional takeovers. The recent happenings are a test for relevance and survival for the IC, and for its validity to endure, it must do an introspective review of what it says and what it does so that humanity can be convinced.