Third-termism the new African cancer
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Johannesburg - Attempts by African leaders to circumvent constitutional term limits so they could stay in power longer had become a major source of conflict on the continent, analysts said on Tuesday.
These attempts to cling to power – which have been dubbed “third-termism” – had become the “new coups” on the continent, a seminar on the margins of this week’s African Union (AU) summit in Sandton heard.
The summit was expected to address the crisis in Burundi, provoked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement in April that he would run for a third term in office, despite the two-term limit in the country’s constitution. Similar attempts by other leaders were threatening stability in a few other countries.
David Zenmenou, of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said at the seminar that Africa had made significant progress towards stability and democracy since independence.
The high frequency of military coups in the first decades of independence had diminished. “That’s progress.” Democracy had become “the new language in town.”
But most of the continent’s leaders still saw democracy as a threat to their interests and their manoeuvres to stay in power had become a major source of instability and conflict.
This included the collapse of governments into chaos when leaders clung to power until they died, leaving no succession plans.
“African leaders don’t hold elections to lose them,” he said, adding that they used whatever instruments they could to win, including manipulating electoral commissions and voters rolls.
Between 2000 and 2015, 15 African leaders had tried to remain in power by changing their countries’ constitutions to remove presidential term limits. Eleven had succeeded and four had failed.
Stephanie Wolters of the ISS said attempts to bypass constitutional term limits had become the “new coups” in Africa. She noted that the AU had legal instruments to deal with the problem and that it listed both clinging to power by manipulating constitutions and military coups as unconstitutional changes of power which should be sanctioned by suspending the member state.
But Zenmenou said that the AU protocol against manipulating constitutions to cling to power would serve no purpose unless other African leaders spoke out “early and decisively” when they saw leaders preparing to give themselves third terms.
“If they fail, don’t be surprised to see people take the law into their own hands.”
Wolters warned that similar crises to that in Burundi seemed to be looming in the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda because there was evidence that the leaders of those countries were manouevering around two-term limits.
But it remained unclear what the leaders would do about the third term problem at the summit.
Yolande Bouka of the ISS said that AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and some other leaders had spoken out strongly against Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term, saying it was destabilising Burundi and the region because of the huge outflow of refugees.
But since the coup attempt in Burundi last month, regional leaders seemed to have backed off from this tough position.
President Jacob Zuma at first publicly called for Nkurunziza not to stand for a third term, but since then South Africa also seemed to have softened its position. International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told journalists on Monday that her government did not want to pre-empt the outcome of multi-stakeholder negotiations in Burundi to decide on the matter.
A South African official said that the Burundi Constitutional Court had ruled that Nkurunziza’s decision to run again was constitutional because he had been elected for his first term indirectly, by members of Parliament, rather than by “universal franchise” as stipulated in the constitution.
And so the official questioned whether the AU would not be showing disrespect for Burundi’s sovereignty and the rule of law if it opposed Nkurunziza’s candidature.
Nkurunziza agreed to a request from regional leaders to postpone the presidential elections from June 26 to allow the stakeholders to discuss the issue. On Monday the electoral commission announced the elections would be held on July 15.