There’s a new fashion among African presidents bent on clinging to power: the constitutional coup. Military coups are no longer de rigueur, in part because the African Union has said it won’t recognize governments that come to power by means of such blatant tactics. Instead, African leaders who are unwilling to abide by term limits, or unfavorable election results, prefer to simply change the laws and constitutions that stand in their way. All too often, their legal maneuvering is accompanied by human rights abuses and brutal crackdowns on those who object.
Denis Sassou Nguesso, the nearly 72-year-old president of the Republic of Congo, is the latest to go this route. Sassou Nguesso has been in power for 31 years, with a five-year hiatus after losing multiparty elections in 1992. He returned to power in 1997, backed by Angolan troops, after a brief but bloody civil war.
On Oct. 25, his government held a constitutional referendum to change presidential term limits — from two seven-year terms to three five-year terms — and eliminate the current 70-year age limit for presidential candidates. Preceded by a campaign of intimidation and harassment of opposition leaders and activists, the measure officially passed with more than 92 percent of the vote, clearing the way for Sassou Nguesso to serve yet another term. The government claimed that 72.44 percent of voters turned out, but local activists we spoke to put that number at less than 10 percent. They and other witnesses alleged numerous instances of fraud. Names were missing from voting lists, and people were paid to cast “yes” ballots, they said. The referendum process was also criticized by France and the United States.
In the weeks leading up to the referendum, thousands of people took to the streets in the capital, Brazzaville, and the country’s main oil-producing city, Pointe-Noire, to protest. They held signs reading, “Sassou Out,” “Congo Doesn’t Belong to Nguesso,” and “Sassouffit,” a French play on words meaning, “That’s enough.”
Government security forces responded with lethal force, firing on protesters, killing at least five and wounding dozens, according to witnesses we spoke to. Local activists say the actual death toll is much higher. The government also shut down mobile Internet services; text message communications; the signal for Radio France Internationale (RFI), the country’s most important independent media; and banned all demonstrations.
Many of those who dared to speak out against the referendum were arrested. At least seven pro-democracy youth activists and participants in anti-referendum marches were detained prior to the vote, and two opposition leaders, Guy Brice Parfait Kolélas and André Okombi Salissa, were placed under house arrest. Destin Kossaloba, the son of an outspoken opposition leader, and Bertin Inko Ngatsebe, the president of an opposition political association, were also arrested and remain behind bars.
Such tactics have become all too familiar in the region as more and more presidents seek to defy the constitutions they often helped put in place. These leaders aren’t wrong to suggest that the question of term limits is one that ought to be decided by voters. But the referendums they design are anything but democratic. In states where voters often face intimidation and harassment, or where judiciaries are under the sway of the executive, parliaments serve as rubber stamps for ruling parties, and constitutional referendums easily become fig leaves for authoritarian power grabs.
Africa’s longest-serving leaders are prime examples of this trend. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe — all in power for more than 35 years — have altered their constitutions in order to remain in office. In all three countries, there is little or no free press, and opposition parties are routinely prevented from organizing demonstrations. Those who tried to oppose their efforts to stay in power were brutally silenced.
More recently, President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi ran for a third term in July 2015, despite widespread indignation at what many saw as an attempt to defy the spirit of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement that ended years of civil war in that country. (The agreement limits presidents to two terms in office.) Months of public protests and defections from his own ruling party did not change Nkurunziza’s mind. Instead, the government cracked down on protesters, activists, and independent journalists. Scores of demonstrators and suspected opponents of the regime have been killed and hundreds jailed. Roughly 200,000 people have fled the country as a result of the unrest.
Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda are next in line.
Uganda’s 71-year-old president, Yoweri Museveni, already changed his country’s constitution back in 2005 rather than comply with presidential term limits. In February 2016, he will stand for election yet again. With ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly, he is very likely to succeed. Already, opposition candidates have been beaten,detained, and prevented from accessing voters in some parts of the country.
In Congo, President Joseph Kabila’s second term is due to end in December 2016. When his government attempted to change the electoral law earlier this year to extend Kabila’s term in office, there were mass protests. Security forces shot dead at least 38 civilians in the capital, Kinshasa, and another five in the eastern city of Goma. Political party leaders and activists who have spoken out against a possible third term for Kabila have been jailed, harassed, and threatened.
The protests forced Kabila to back down on changing the electoral law, but he now appears to be delaying the organization of elections in order to stretch out his existing term. A spokesman for the country’s ruling coalition announced on Oct. 31 that the country isn’t ready for elections and suggested they be delayed for two to four years. Whatever the outcome of Kabila’s efforts to remain in power, they are likely to come at the expense of brutal repression against an increasingly vocal opposition.
In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame will also run up against term limits in 2017. A “consultation” process to amend the constitution has already begun, however, and given the restrictions on both independent media and opposition parties in the country, it is likely to succeed. As of July, Rwanda’s parliament had received 3.78 million petitions from citizens claiming to support amending the constitution in order to allow Kagame to seek a third term.
Lawmakers have since embarked on nationwide consultations with voters, reporting back that most Rwandans support changing the constitution. Pressure from the ruling party and fear of publicly opposing Kagame have doubtlessly shaped the results of this process. On Oct. 29, Rwanda’s lower house of parliament unanimously adopted constitutional reforms that could allow Kagame to run not just for a third term, but fourth and fifth terms as well. The reforms still need to be approved by the senate and put to a public referendum.
The African Union, European Union, and the United States have all condemned to varying degrees this trend toward “constitutional coups” — though sometimes criticism of leaders with whom they enjoy good relations has been muted. International and regional actors should be more consistent in vigorously denouncing these illegal attempts to stay in power — and the human rights abuses that often go along with them.
Not all African leaders are willing to hold onto power at any cost, as shown by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba’s graceful exits earlier this year. Both leaders left power with respect for basic rights enhanced and their legacies intact. Other African leaders would do well to heed their examples.