A wind of democratic claw backs on democratic gains is blowing across East and Central Africa. Presidents are in the process or have already changed constitutions in order to cling to power for life. Some do it without shedding blood, others kill using the army and police.
The presidents of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni; Congo-Brazzaville, Sassou Nguesso; Gabon, Ali Bongo; Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, have already extended their terms beyond the limits established by their respective constitutions. The Rwandan presidential elections are slated for next year but President Paul Kagame has already changed the constitution in such a way that he can remain in power up to 2034. His second and last term under the previous constitution was due to end in 2017. Many believe President Kagame followed in the footsteps of his mentor in neighbouring Uganda. President Museveni is on his fourth term and he has told anyone who cares to listen that presidential term limitations is foreign to his country.
Presidents Museveni and Sassou Nguesso have been able to subdue their people and normalize the situation in their respective countries. The Ugandan army and police had to intervene to make sure there was no opposition to Museveni’s re-election, thus allowing the situation to cool down fast. Museveni, a former rebel leader who came to power in 1986 and scrapped presidential terms limitation in 2005, during the February 2016 polls, deployed the army in the streets in order to “guard peace”. Ugandans who experienced the worst form of dictatorship and killings under President Idi Amin, would prefer Museveni remaining in power instead of going back to war. Despite changing the constitution and barring opponents from standing in the March 2016 presidential polls, Congo-Brazzaville President Sassou Nguesso had to send gunship helicopters to bomb opposition strongholds in order to intimidate them.
The situation is also relatively under control in Gabon after President Ali Bongo who has been in power after the death of his father, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba in 2009. Ali Bongo was accused by the opposition of rigging the elections against opposition leader Jean Ping. The government had to deploy the army in the streets before and after the announcement of poll results, leading to the death of tens of civilians. However, the death toll is still in dispute. Like in neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville, war planes flew in the sky in order to intimidate the opposition. Contrary to what happened in Uganda and Rwanda, the situation is still tense in Burundi, a year after Nkurunziza acquired by force a third term, which has been resisted by the opposition.
Several African media sources say Nkurunziza’s handling of the situation in Burundi through the use of the army, the police, the National Intelligence Service and mostly the dreaded ruling party youths turned militiamen, Imbonerakure, impressed Sassou Nguesso, Ali Bongo and Joseph Kabila. Analysts believe DRC’s Kabila is also following the Burundi example and predict that the consequences may also be similar: the killing of demonstrators and subsequent sanctions from the international community. Kabila’s second and last term ends this year and, according to the constitution, he should vacate power by December 2016. But, there is no plan to hold elections in accordance with the current constitution. The president’s aides argue that in view of the size of the country and lack of transport infrastructure in the country, it is impossible to have a new voter list before the constitutional deadline for presidential elections. Consequently, the president plans to stay in power until new elections are held. However, the opposition is determined to see Kabila’s back by December to pave the way for a new leadership whether elections are held or not.
The media in the DRC, Congo Brazzaville and Gabon accused Burundi of sending militiamen to help their leaders kill the way they did in Burundi. Presidents Kabila and Sassou Nguesso helped Nkurunziza financially and militarily and they in turn received Nkurunziza’s help to crush the opposition. “Pierre Nkurunziza sent to Brazzaville 87 elements of the police and army. This commando in black military uniforms, not sent on a mission by the Burundi armed forces, were given the task of helping the Congolese forces to prevent a popular uprising after the fake referendum organized by Nguesso to justify a third term,”said Brazza News newspaper. The paper added that “many witnesses” had reported the presence of “mercenaries dressed in black who spoke French with a clean Burundian accent” during anti Nguesso demonstrations in the capital, Brazzaville. “Burundians mercenaries remain in Congo-Brazzaville ready to offer their ‘expertise’ in quick and discreet elimination of potential dissidents”, the newspaper also said.
President Nkurunziza has also become a “model and reference” for President Kabila in keeping power through repression. Scores of demonstrators have been killed at every anti-Kabila demonstration especially in the capital Kinshasa. The international community believe the worst is yet to come.
President Nkurunziza is paying back Kabila’s long term support. The latter not only helped him to take over the leadership of the CNDD-FDD when it was in the bush fighting the Burundi government, but also allowed the Burundian army to fight anti-Bujumbura rebel groups based in eastern DRC. President Kabila also allowed the transit of weapons destined for Burundi through its territory. According to Igihe website, the transport of these arms bought from Russia and China took place at night through Lake Tanganyika, which separates part of the border between Burundi and the DRC. Russia and China have opposed all UN resolutions aimed at condemning the violation of human rights in Burundi.
The Gabonese media also says Nkurunziza’s men were also sent to their country to support President Ali Bongo in his effort to keep power after what the opposition called “rigged” elections.
According to afriqueeducation.com, like Sassou Nguesso, Ali Bongo sought the services of mercenaries from several African states, including Burundi, to crush demonstrators.
“In recent days, there have been reports of the presence of Burundian and Chadian mercenaries sent respectively by Pierre Nkurunziza and the current African Union President, Idriss Deby Itno.”
On the flip side of the coin, there are few countries which have become a model for resistance to illegal extension of presidential terms such as Burkina Faso, where mass uprising stopped former President Blaise Compaore from unconstitutionally clinging to power. The Burundian demonstrators enjoyed a lot of support from the Burkina civil society and media. There are also rays of hope in Africa as leaders such as Senegalese President Macky Sall who has suggested to reduce his own presidential term from seven to five years and limit presidential terms to two only. ( J.M.)