When Democracy Fails: What Happens When Rulers Refuse To Step Down?

In 2015, the then United States president, Barack Obama, gave a speech to the African Union at their headquarters in Addis Ababa. Naming and shaming the country of Burundi, whose president had just announced plans to run for a third term in defiance of the constitution, President Obama denounced the practice of supposedly democratic leaders refusing to leave office, and warned that such leaders are ‘not beyond the law’. Is this really true though? What are the repercussions if leaders don’t step down, and is there really any way to force them to do so?


Looking at Obama’s mentioned example of Burundi, it seems there are very limited options when leaders refuse to leave office. In April 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza made a public announcement stating he would run for a third term as president. As the constitution of Burundi only allows a president to have a maximum of two terms in office, this immediately sparked major protests throughout the country. Despite Nkurunziza’s attempts to suppress his political opposition, the protests continued for over two months, and resulted in the death of over one hundred people as government troops violently attempted to shut them down.

In May 2015, the protests culminated in a military coup while President Nkurunziza was out of the country. Godefroid Niyombare, a former military officer, claimed to have ousted the President. However, due to heavy resistance by troops loyal to Nkurunziza, the coup collapsed and the President was back in control just two days later.

According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, 1400 Burundians were killed as a result of both the protests and the coup. Between the time when the President made his announcement and December 2016, over 325,000 people had fled the country for fear of political violence.

In July 2015, Nkurunziza was re-elected for a third term in a highly controversial election which the opposition party boycotted. Political violence didn’t stop with the election though, and Nkurunziza is still in office today, despite the many people who died trying to oppose his breach of the constitution.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo

Such a story is not unique however, and the very next year, the events were very closely mirrored with relation to another president in another country; the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

On December 20th, 2016, Joseph Kabila, President of the DRC, announced that he would not be leaving office despite the end of his second term. In a country that has never seen a peaceful transfer of power since its formation, this was a shocking, but not incredibly surprising announcement. Kabila had already cancelled an election that was planned in November, triggering a number of protests; and many of his critics had been skeptical of whether he would support a democratic process.

Unlike Nkurunziza, Kabila did not state that he wanted to run for a third term, possibly due to the fact that he is highly unpopular and unlikely to win. Instead, he extended the time he is to stay in office, claiming the country is not ready for another election as of yet.

Similarly to Nkurunziza however, Kabila’s announcement of his plan not step down was met with widespread protest. In cities all around the country, people took to the streets to call for an election, but the government responded with force, and at least 40 civilians were killed, and over 107 injured, according to the United Nations.

As was the case in Burundi, attempts by the people to get the leader to step down were ultimately unsuccessful. Kabila is currently still in office, and although he has stated that he will step down sometime before the end of the year, it is highly uncertain whether he will actually follow through.

These two examples of Burundi and the DRC are just two from recent years, but show the turmoil that can arise when a leader ignores the operation of democracy; as well as the helplessness of the general population in such circumstances; the group who, in a democratic country, should be the ones with the power.

Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe

In a different approach to staying in power longer than permitted, presidents Denis Sassou N’Guesso and Paul Kagame; of the Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda respectively; have both held country-wide referendums to change their constitutions in order to allow them to have more than two terms.

Despite the fact that holding a referendum to change the constitution is much more democratic than simply ignoring it like Burundi’s president did,  and the fact that both referendums were greatly successful (Kagame’s referendum was backed by 98% of voters); these actions have not been free of controversy. There were claims that votes were influenced by government suppression of the media and political opponents.

Among the critics of the referendum changes were the United States and the European Union. They claimed that such changes “undermine democratic principles”, and worried about the trend in leaders seeking to extend their terms longer than they are entitled to. Despite Kagame’s approval ratings, the US has released a statement saying it would be best for Rwanda if he were to peacefully step down this year when his second term ends. President Kagame however has responded to criticism of the referendum by saying it is a domestic affair and that other countries should stay out of it.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe also changed his country’s constitution back in 1987 to allow him to have an unlimited number of terms. Thirty years later, after numerous elections that EU observers labelled as “neither free nor fair” due to fear mongering and political violence, Mugabe, now 93, is still in office.

2011 Arab Uprisings

It would be impossible to talk about leaders refusing to step down, and not mention the notorious ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of 2011. Aimed at toppling oppressive regimes, these uprisings were more radical in intention than merely changing the incumbent political party, and so do not directly correlate with the other examples that have been provided. Nevertheless, there are a few important things to note, primarily, that these protests, riots and civil wars all devolved into violence, and that out of the 6 countries that were the centres of violence, (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq) only the uprisings in Tunisia managed to bring about a change to constitutional democratic governance.

The Gambia

A final case to look at, and one which distinguishes itself from the others and offers a small glimmer of hope, is that of Gambia. Despite fears of whether the president would leave, there has now been a peaceful transition of power, and Gambia has a new government.

On the 1st of December 2016, Gambia held an election, in which the former president Yahya Jammeh lost to his opponent Adama Barrow by a four percent margin. In an almost surprising move by the leader, who had been in power for 22 years, Jammeh initially accepted defeat.

Eight days later however, Jammeh changed his mind and took back his acceptance, claiming there had been problems with the election process, and that the result should not be trusted. He declared a state of emergency and demanded that his rule be extended by three months.

What made Gambia’s case different from those of the DRC and Burundi though then came into play. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional leadership body consisting of fifteen West African states, got involved. In lengthy negotiations, ECOWAS made clear that Jammeh would not be able to ignore the election result and that he would have to step down. ECOWAS would be willing to help negotiate the terms of Jammeh’s exit, but also made clear they had a military force that they were prepared to use if necessary.

On the 19th of January, the new president Adama Barrow was sworn in at the Gambian embassy in the neighbouring country of Senegal. Two days later, Jammeh announced that he would be stepping down, and left the country.

Although the transition of power was far from perfect – the new government has claimed that Jammeh stole $11.4 from the treasury during his last week as president – it is still somewhat of an example to other countries in the region, and offers an insight into what sort of things can work.

What works

As seen by many of the previous examples, protests alone do not appear to be extremely effective in ensuring that leaders relinquish their power. Gambia, however, shows the power of negotiation which, according to Aljazeera, was the major deciding factor that led to the successful transition.

Aljazeera claims a major issue which must be addressed is the outgoing president’s fear of reprisals. Jammeh had done many controversial things during his rule, and many of his opponents were keen for payback. Through negotiations with ECOWAS though, Jammeh, among other things, was able to be promised a secure retirement with full benefits of a former head of state. Aljazeera claims that it was these negotiations that ultimately enabled the peaceful transition of power.

It appears that possibly the best way to make a leader accept defeat and step down is to make their exit as easy and safe as possible. Paired with international support and involvement in negotiations, such an approach could be the thing which allows the wishes of the people to be respected, and democracy to be able to be truly effective.


Fraser Lawrance