WHAT IS A CONSTITUTION?
A constitution is a set of principles, values and ideas upon which countries are created and supported in legal form. Constitutions contain many articles relating to different aspects of how a country should be run. The specific feature in many African constitutions that I will be looking at is the maximum number of terms in which a President can serve. Traditionally African presidents have been limited to two terms in office. However, at the time of writing, there are thirteen African Presidents who have been able to remain in office for more than two terms – some have even served for as many as six!
HOW ARE POLITICAL LEADERS IN AFRICA SECURING A THIRD TERM?
It is becoming increasingly common for African leaders to seek third terms in office by making slight changes to their constitution. The president of Rwanda Paul Kagame for example successfully amended the constitution in 2015, allowing him a third presidential term. Despite the fact that such a measure was unconstitutional, Kagame won the election of 2017. Cases where African leaders outstay the usual two terms in office are becoming more and more common – Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been in office in Equatorial Guinea since 1979! Such unconstitutional activity has to be stopped in order for political accountability – the responsibility of politicians for their actions – to grow.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
Not all African leaders seek a third term in office by constitutional change – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia gracefully left office after her second term – an example for all African leaders. Public protests against attempts to change the constitution to afford presidents an extra term have also proved effective. In countries such as Burkina Faso, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo African people have resisted efforts to extend presidential tenure, demonstrating that constitutions are still valued and defended by many Africans. The president of Burkina Faso Blaise Compaoré was even forced to flee the country in 2014 because of public protests at his attempts to extend his 27-year presidency, a clear example of the power that African people can wield against unconstitutional measures.
The example of Burkina Faso is an important one for countries across the African continent. It is important to understand the difference between the instances where governments attempt to change constitutions to serve the interests of the people, and where such amendments serve largely the interests of politicians themselves. If political leaders are allowed to extend their terms of presidency with no consequences, then more unconstitutional measures may follow. It is incredibly important to resist attempts to change the constitution, simply to allow political leaders to keep their grip on power.