12 June 2019

Constitutional coups and democratic consolidation in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the world’s longest-ruling leaders and continues to witness a number of constitutional amendments aimed at elongating presidential terms. This tendency threatens the already fragile trust in democratic systems of the region, although recent voices from civil society and regional blocs are trying to stall the trend.

By Anna Morin

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the world’s longest-serving heads of state, many of which sought to become “president for life” after leading their countries to independence in the 1960-70s. By the late twentieth century, this form of governing, aided by a wave of coup d’états, had spread across the region, encouraging corruption, developmental and security challenges, societal fractures, economic decline or stagnancy, and most of all, democratic backsliding. Since then, leaders continued to secure longer terms in office by turning to more institutionalised solutions. Political electoral systems and constitutional changes - or “constitutional coups” - surged. Heads of states learned that rather than seeking to take - or retain - power by force, they could hold onto it through legal ways. But legal does not necessarily mean legitimate.

Most constitutional amendments took place prior to elections and usually sought to weaken established, albeit imperfect, democratic systems, political participation, separation of powers and power rotation. Since 2015, Burundi, Chad, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda all revised their constitutions in favour of incumbents through controversial referendums, either to centralise power or extend term limits. While they might have been within the line of genuine legality, such revisions were in some cases somewhat illegitimate ethically speaking, usually associated with allegations of vote-rigging following planned elections or referendums. Furthermore, this lack of regular turnover in leadership cultivates the entrenchment of personalist politics and stunts the process of institutionalisation of politics.

But kleptocratic incumbents can also enjoy sizeable incentives to stay in office - they would likely lose their assets if they were to lose power and potentially face prosecution. Virtually no African country has any kind of protection arrangement for former presidents or heads of state, and more importantly, no security regarding potential prosecution charges in case of alleged malpractice during mandate times; as seen with former President Jacob Zuma in South Africa, now facing investigations over alleged state capture and corruption committed under his leadership. Besides, while numerous countries across sub-Saharan Africa assert themselves as multiparty states, many remain de facto one-party states, with countries lacking effective political opposition being the most vulnerable to constitutional coups.

This tendency was unintentionally abetted by a lack of consensus within the African Union (AU) on the amendments that constitute ‘unconstitutional changes of government’ as defined by the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG), ratified by the majority of African states, or when and how such actions should be sanctioned. Presently, only military coups are condemned in accordance with the provisions of the charter and the Lomé Declaration in 2000. The United Nations (UN) or the international community, on their side, prioritise security interests over concerns about prolonged rule.

More recently in the Comoros, President Azali Assoumani was elected for another term last March following controversial constitutional changes in July 2018, which relaxed presidential term limits and replaced a system of presidential power rotation between the three main islands, potentially allowing him to stay in power until 2029. In Benin, while a proposal pushed by President Patrice Talon for longer terms was blocked by parliament in 2017, administrative changes imposed by the electoral commission in 2018 prevented the opposition to President Talon from participating in the latest legislative elections of April 2019. This current lack of political opposition in parliament could allow Talon to push for constitutional changes once more, and seek a second term as president in 2021. Lastly in May, members of the Togolese parliament approved amendments to the constitution leading to five-year and six-year cap laws on the presidential and legislative mandates, respectively. The existing two-term limit for presidents does not apply retroactively to incumbent President Faure Gnassingbé, already in his third term, and would allow him to rule until 2030. Nonetheless, the outcome was lauded by the regional community as Togo had, until then, no limit for the number of presidential terms.

Undeniably, the lack of leadership turnover weakens elites out of power, discourages trust in democratic institutions and tends to limit economic activity to those close to the incumbent ruler. The level of ethnic fractionalisation in Africa and an indication of ethnic favouritism in public goods provision associated with entrenched rulers puts the region at risk of further political instability. In turn, this contributes to enduring popular discontent and associated unrest, and most of all, a disillusion in democratic systems. However, this tendency has very recently started to wobble as seen in Algeria or Sudan, in part due to a sustained pressure by civil society groups, international media and, to an extent, regional institutions wary of upholding a legitimate and enduring reputation.

Anna Morin is a Paris-based political and security risk analyst covering Sub-Saharan Africa.