Africa’s Constitution manipulators

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Last year’s putsch in Mauritania and Guinea whipped up a wave of protests from the international community. But there is another form of coup d’etat in Africa that is yet to face criticism, notwithstanding the danger it poses to democracy: constitutional manipulations by heads of states to eternalise their hold on power. This practice is fast becoming fashionable on the continent.

It is an exploit in Africa. John A. Kuffour, the former Ghanaian president, handed over power peacefully without trying to manipulate the constitution to remain in power. Before handing over, Jonh Kufour also apologised to Ghanaians he may have offended during his two terms in office. Now, this is a wise decision, a fundamental respect of his country’s laws and people. It is a lesson most African leaders must take to heart.

One example of those presidents is Mamadou Tandja, Niger. Elected in 1999, the seventy year old president’s second term ends in 2009, but strings are being pulled to allow Mamadou Tandja continue his ‘reign’ unabated. During the latter part of last year, demonstrating members of his party in Niamey, the country’s capital, asked parliament to prolong his term by three more years. The people of Niger have apparently been begging Mamadou Tandja to hold on to power longer than the dictates of the constitution. This scenario, which displays the ostensible trappings of a déjà vu (Togo 2002), is nothing but a gimmick to prepare public opinion for an eventual presidential custom-fitted constitution. But the people of Niger have come to understand that it is all a staged performance to prolong the president’s term in office. Last Tuesday, about twenty NGO’s and civil organisations created a union (Fusad: united front to safeguard democracy) to fight this possibility.

Bouteflika’s third term

What is presumed as Mamadou Tandja’s intention has been skilfully achieved by his Algerian counterpart, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 71, who has succeeded in giving the legal presidential term the boot. According to him, “it is to permit Algerians to exercise their constitutional rights in choosing their government… in all sovereignty”. To achieve this constitutional hold-up, last November, Mr. Bouteflika had to win over his country’s Parliament and Senate, a fairly easy task. Task well done, he thanked the lawmakers for their “patriotism and sense of responsibility”. President since 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika can now positively hope for a third term in office. Analysis by the journal chretien indicate that, before announcing his candidacy for the next presidential elections in 2009, the ailing president wants to assemble five conditions: to garner both international and national support, reassure NGO’s and international Journalists, gain the support of Algerians, know his challengers and finally wait for the right moment.

An artful Biya

Cameroonian president, Paul Barthelemy Biya’s temptation was monumental. Holding on to the title “President” is too hard to resist. In his end of year speech in 2007, Paul Biya, president since 1982, made it clear to Cameroonians that he intended to erase limitations on presidential terms imposed by the country’s constitution. Mr. Biya who replaced Ahmadou Ahidjo, after the latter voluntarily left office – after a 22 years in power – due to ill health, argued that section 2 of article 6 of the constitution – which limited the presidential term to two – was contrary to the people’s will and therefore in “discordance with democratic principles…” “We are therefore going to re-examine our constitution to harmonise it with recent developments in our democratic system in order to satisfy the demands of the majority of our population” he declared. In the first months of 2008, frustrated by the high cost of living, Cameroonians took to the streets. Paul Biya then made a series of promises including a 15% salary hike and later took advantage of the general disorder to put his plan into action. This was only a formality given the fact that parliament is dominated by his political party, RDPC (Rassemblement démocratique du peuple camerounais). The fundamental law of Cameroon now reads “The President of the country, elected for a seven year term, may be re-elected”. So declared, Paul Biya, 75, whose second term ends in 2011 could hand-over power to himself as many times as he wishes. That’s not all. The visionary president has anticipated judicial difficulties the day he finally decides to retire. The constitution now provides total immunity for him after his rule.

Paul Biya has now joined a growing list of African heads of states who have modified their country’s constitution (Idriss Déby, Omar Bongo Ondimba, Zine Abidine Ben Ali…) to stay in power. The Constitution in Africa has become nothing but a judicial tool for presidents to satisfy their whims. The Constitution has become the proverbial coat that everyone cuts according to his size.

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