20 Sep 2015

Africa can't afford third-termism

Written by  Paul Mulindwa

No. 344: Africa can't afford third-termism / Paul Mulindwa / The Sunday Independent
20 September 2015

The continent must not allow presidents to outstay their time in political office by changing their countries' constitutions at whim, says Paul Mulindwa

While a regular change of leadership through credible elections helps build a strong democracy, a number of critics have argued that term limits are not necessarily good for governance and the development of countries.

Various constitutions and other national laws of all the Great Lakes region countries — Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda — impose term limits.

Despite this, the trend of presidents seeking to change constitutions to allow themselves to stand for a third term — or seeking to remove the term limit altogether — is posing serious challenges to good governance, peace and security in the region.

It all started in Uganda with President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986, allegedly "buying" legislators to change the constitution in 2005 to remove the presidential term limit and thus allow himself to contest for a third term.

The constitutional change, a means to monopolise political power, has resulted in political manoeuvres to exclude opposition, and in the destruction of the peaceful democratic process that Museveni was building.

Removal of the term limit resulted in political tensions and demonstrations in the country, leading to the deaths of about 17 people in 2013 and the destruction of property.

Museveni is now eyeing removing the constitutional age limit of 75 years as a requirement for the presidential bid.

The DRC followed a similar trend last year, when Joseph Kabila, president since 2001 and backed by majority numbers in parliament, sought to remove the constitutional term limit on the presidency.

In response to the resulting nationwide unrest, the police and military are said to have killed at least 42 people.

But Kabila's move for a third term was thwarted by the masses, including church leaders and civil society organisations, and the suggested change to the constitution has been shelved for now.

Burundi joined the league of third-term seekers when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to change the constitution to run for a third time.

Though the parliament voted against the move in March last year, Nkurunziza went ahead with seeking a third term by utilising alleged loopholes in the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi.

Again, this caused nationwide unrest, leaving 77 people dead on the streets of Bujumbura, including Zedi Feruzi, one of the leaders of the opposition political parties, and triggering fears of a civil war which drove about 170 000 Burundians to flee the country.

In July, as Burundi was battling with the unrest, Rwandan's parliament moved to amend the country's constitution to allow a third term for President Paul Kagame, which now awaits a confirmatory national referendum.

In one of Museveni's first speeches after the 1986 war that brought him to power, while addressing the then Organisation of African Unity summit in Addis Ababa, he castigated African leaders who overstay in power and accused the organisation of having ignored the slaughter of Ugandans by autocrats Idi Amin and Milton Obote.

He called on African leaders not to support the presence of such dictatorial regimes in future.

But despite his castigations on leaders who overstay in power — under his slogan of ushering in "fundamental change" — Museveni has now been in power for 28 years, and is vying for another term of five years, come 2016.

In May this year, an attempted coup was foiled in Burundi, forcing Nkurunziza, at the time attending a summit of East African Community (EAC) leaders, which had been convened to discuss the situation in Burundi, to remain in Tanzania until the next day.

The question here is why intervention is focused solely on Burundi while Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC are also at various stages of manipulating their constitutions to change or remove presidential term limits.

Despite the unrest and public outcry of Burundians as well as the international community against Nkurunziza's bid for a third presidential term, and their pleas to halt the election process, he ignored such calls and continued to hold the local, parliamentary, and presidential elections, which he "won" with 69 percent of the vote.

Burundi's flawed election should serve as a litmus test for constitutionalism, democratisation, and good governance as pillars of peace and security in the region, and also sets a precedent on incumbents' will to give up power and whether elections should proceed amid instability and violence.

Many African countries continue to face a lack of constitutionalism as well as difficulty in transferring power peacefully.

The controversy surrounding Burundi's recent presidential elections highlights the ongoing challenge of peaceful leadership changes on the continent.

There is also not enough support or pressure from regional bodies to uphold the commitments of the AU's Constitutive Act of 2000 and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance of 2007.

If left unchecked, this "third termism" may be the next cause of war not only in the Great Lakes region but also in other regions of the continent. Africans must resolve not to tolerate any bids by presidents to manipulate constitutions to seek a third term or to remove terms limit altogether.

Mulindwa is a senior project officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town.

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