By Jean Damascène Hakuzimana
On November 7, Alpha Condé, age 82, was declared the winner of Guinea’s presidential elections, which granted him a controversial third term in office. Ivory Coast, Guinea’s southern neighbor, also recently re-elected their president, Alassane Ouattara, age 78, for a third term. Both men join the growing club of African presidents who have sought additional terms in office at the expiration of their constitutionally allowed two terms. Many members of this “presidential club” have found ways to revise their country’s constitution and remove obstacles that stood in their way to additional terms in office.
The candidates’ playbooks vary, but the result is the same. Alpha Condé, for example, ran on a campaign of “fulfilling what he started in earlier terms.” Alassane Ouattara has characterized his run as “a decision meant to satisfy the desire of the nation” after the sudden death of the candidate he had been grooming for office; he was determined not to see power go to the opposition camp of former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan.
Some presidents have been in power even longer than three terms. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has campaigned to completely remove age limits in the constitution so that he can run again after 34 years in office; according to the Uganda constitution, the president cannot be younger than 35 or older than 75 years old. He previously scrapped term limits. Museveni is among the top five longest-serving African presidents, alongside Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, who has been in power since 1979. Other presidents who have held onto power for decades include Paul Biya of Cameroon, president since 1982; Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) – in office for more than 36 years; Idriss Deby Itno of Chad, president for 29 years.
Extra terms often spark violence, and sometimes lead to jail sentences and deaths. Such is the fate of Pascal N’Guessan, for instance, who was arrested on Saturday, November 7, under charges of terrorism, after government forces clashed with the opposition. The clashes left more than 40 Ivorians dead. Hope for change often fades the longer a president clings to office, the more he consolidates his power, the more thoroughly he suppresses the opposition.
In a July 28, 2015, address to the African Union, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, that risks instability and strife – and is often just a first step down a perilous path.” The African Union has frequently been silent in cases involving constitutional changes to presidential term limits.
The pattern of clinging to power and suppression of the populace has led to the exodus of many Africans, who have fled persecution in their home countries and moved to other places (such as Maine!), continuing the growth of the African Diaspora. In an article in the Daily Maverick, Mmusi Maimane, at one-time leader of South Africa’s Opposition Democratic Alliance, argued, “We have seen, time and time again, the liberators come to power amid fanfares of revolution, only to bow to the temptations of patronage and corruption. We have seen a litany of Big Man presidents amassing wealth on a scale unimaginable to ordinary citizens.” Maimane cautioned that it is time to pass the baton to younger generations. “Africa requires fresh, young, and able leadership, without any ties to the liberation movements of the past.”