Re-elections and Unlimited Presidential Terms: Trigger of Socio-political Instabilities and Threat to Peace and Security in Africa

By Albert Mbiatem*
Additional or unlimited presidential terms and their actual and potential consequences are still rampant in Africa. With reference to the recent socio-political instabilities in Tunisia, Egypt, and Burkina Faso, there is enough evidence to presume other risks of conflict escalation across the continent when popular demands are undermined by some regimes. The recurrent prevalence of personal interests over national interests is to a large extent portrayed by the attitudes of presidents amending or seeking to amend the constitution in favour of their eligibility for supplementary or unlimited mandates. Thus, I argue that personalised leadership seeking eligibility for additional mandates by barring the way to an opened political emergence is a trigger of socio-political instabilities and an imminent threat to peace and security in Africa. In order to ascertain such eligibility and subsequently twig to power, incumbent presidents with the support of their self-interested collaborators manipulate popular perceptions via referenda or parliamentary votes.
Unpopular political acts and the adoption of paradoxical laws have been at the centre of socio-political instabilities in many African states. Findings reveal that, a considerable number of the post 1990s developing democracies are increasingly taking the shape of de facto monarchies as presidents tend to create smooth platforms for their sons or relatives to take over presidency after their retirement or death. In Gabon for instance, Ali Bongo was elected after the death of his father and in Togo Faure Gnassingbe also took over in similar circumstances. Despite the serious popular contestations, some incumbents succeeded in manipulating their constitutions to become re-elected unlimitedly or for more than two mandates. Some examples of such constitutional amendments are found in Cameroon, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Togo, Algeria and Gambia. Still some serving Heads of state with questionable eligibility for extra mandate(s) are showing interests in prolonging their time in government. There are simmering interests to that effect in countries like Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi and to some extent Rwanda. The act of prioritising personalisation of power to the detriment of institutionalisation thereby emerges as a reversal to sustainable peace and security in Africa.
The amendments or the processes of amending the constitution for additional mandates have triggered popular and violent protestations in some African societies. Burkina Faso is the most recent example where popular manifestations in October 2014 led to the downfall of Blaise Compaoré who was determined to maintain himself in power after 27 years of rule. In Senegal, there were also serious popular contestations condemning the eligibility of President Abdoulaye Wade for a third mandate with regard to the 2012 presidential elections. African rulers who are interested in undermining democratic alternation often do that under the pretext of having received support from the people. President Museveni of Uganda recently said on a radio interview: “Well, I don’t think Ugandans are as obsessed with my retirement…because when I go to ask them at the elections, five million say don’t go, you stay.” In Cameroon, manipulated motions of support from within the ruling party, academic institutions, ethnic groups and some segments of the civil society were enough justification for President Paul Biya to seek unlimited re-elections. The Cameroon constitution was revised in November 2008, barely few months after a popular strike against lack of primary commodities and unprecedented inflation in March 2008. Would people willingly express their support to a government whereby asymmetric distribution of resources is rampant? It is paradoxical to assume that incumbents, whose states are constantly classified as heavily indebted and poor, receive popular supports for unlimited re-elections. Moreover, these states that are generally made up of high youth population are unable to create employment opportunities for the younger generations. The highly unemployed youth would for no reason want to maintain a regime that has repeatedly failed to empower them.
Re-election on the basis of unlimited presidential terms remains a serious blow to the democratisation process and a potential trigger of conflicts. Although some partisans may express their supports of maintaining a specific individual in power, the larger part of the population is manipulated and as a result has little or no say in the process. The genuine prevention of conflicts in Africa can only begin with the establishment and implementation of laws reflecting the needs and wants of the society. To this effect, re-election beyond two democratic mandates should be addressed critically as the increasing disenchantment of populations is underpinned by loss of trust in their governments. This loss of trust which has in the past generated conflicts in many African countries remains a potential conflict trigger. Therefore, African solutions to African problems can be realised with an inclusive leadership that takes into account the needs of all societal strata for the purpose of achieving collective goals.
* Albert Mbiatem (albertmbiatem@yahoo.com) is an African Leadership Center Fellow attached at the African Peace and Security Programme (APSP), a joint programme of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) and the African Union. All views expressed in the AfSol blog are solely the views of the authors and do not in any represent the views of the IPSS or APSP. For more information on AfSol Blog, please contact research@ipss-addis.org.

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3 thoughts on “Re-elections and Unlimited Presidential Terms: Trigger of Socio-political Instabilities and Threat to Peace and Security in Africa

  1. you really have made it clear!! i agree and want our leaders (at all level of governance) have to understand that they are the main actors of triggering instability of their own nation. what i usually find paradoxical is when the AU tries o label the demonstration or any mass protest of concerned citizens regarding this re-elections and unnecessary self-interest driven amendments on constitution as “unconstitutional” when it obviously allow those in power to act unconstitutionally to amend the guiding principles of the same document.

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    • I don’t think that is what the AU is doing, at least, not currently. The coup in Burkina Faso for example was understood by the AU as “the right of people to rise up peacefully against oppressive political systems” (PSC/PR/COMM.(CDLXVIII)). As a result the change of government was not labeled unconstitutional…

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  2. “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” Learnt that during my training in BGS.

    Our leaders are telling us every day that they are not willing to emulate the great MADIBA. They want to stay eternal in power even if they do not add value to the wealth of nations.

    I strongly commend the author’s opinion on the subject matter.

    I buttress the proposition that each and every African youth should remember that he has a leadership responsibility where she/he finds herself/himself (private or public sector). We need to be 360° leaders! We are the change we want to see, so let us start be making the difference in our communities. I encourage youths to come up with innovative and creative leadership initiative.

    Great article, wish we could dive more on the role of youths in Re-elections and Unlimited Presidential Terms.

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