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David Soler Crespo, researcher junior at the Navarra Center for International Development (Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra)

Africa facing the coups d'état of the 21st century

Mon, 23 Nov 2020 20:23:00 +0000 Posted in The Conversation

Alassane Ouattara has been proclaimed winner of the Ivorian elections for the third consecutive time. In power since 2011, the president took refuge in the lack of retroactivity to be able to skip the limitation of two presidential mandates introduced in the 2016 constitution.

After learning of his decision, the civil service examination boycotted the holding of elections that they considered illegal and encouraged protests. At least 30 people have died in a tense and violent campaign reminiscent of a time not so long ago, when Côte d'Ivoire descended into civil war in 2010. Ten years later, the status is far from settled. The civil service examination does not recognize Ouattara's victory and has declared a transitional government. The attorney general has denounced this declaration as an act of terrorism and is requesting life imprisonment for the two main leaders of the civil service examination.

The case of Ouattara in Ivory Coast is just the latest example of 21st century coups d'état in Africa. Sheltered by legislative filibustering, since 2015 as many as thirteen African leaders have modified their countries' constitutions in order to be able to continue in power beyond the two-term limit.

Without armed military and the international echo that this entails, constitutional changes erode democracy from Ivory Coast and Guinea in the west to Burundi and Uganda in the east of the continent.

Elderly leaders
Initially introduced in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union and pressure from donors and international organizations, term limits are intended to put an end to elderly presidents. The average age of leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa is 62 years, while that of the population is 20. A generation gap that generates a rift between the people and their rulers and has led to an all-time record number of protests in 2019.

Leaders do their utmost to remain in power despite their longevity because of the uncertainty beyond the presidential chair. Unlike in Western democracies, most African countries do not have retirement pensions for former presidents. In many cases they are brought to justice for their wrongdoings while in office and decide to go into exile to avoid arrest.

Of the ten longest-serving leaders in the world, six are African. Teodoro Obiang, president of Equatorial Guinea, tops the list with 41 years at the helm of the country.

Alternation improves peace and governance
Presidential term limits were introduced with the intention of preventing dictators from perpetuating themselves in power. In elections held between 1992 and 2006 in Sub-Saharan Africa, when a leader faced re-election he won 93% of the time, while his successor won only 60% of the time.

The civil service examination has more possibilities when facing a weaker opponent, with a lack of legitimacy to use institutional force in its favor and with the need to distance itself from its predecessor. The change of power is important because it improves governance, reduces corruption and brings stability. Nine of the ten countries in civil conflict in Africa have no presidential term limits, as do 8 of the 10 countries with the most internally displaced persons.

If a president has been in office for a long time, the line between the State and his patrimony is blurred staff. Thus, he ends up running the country as his business and favoring his hard core.

Those countries that do not respect restrictions are among the countries with the highest incidence of corruption in the world, ranking on average 145th out of 180 in the Corruption Perceptions Index. In contrast, when there is a transition in the ruling party, governance improves by 1.3 points, according to Freedom House.

Limits are not always effective
However, respect for presidential boundaries does not guarantee alternation in power. There are few countries where there has been a peaceful transition between parties, with Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and more recently Malawi as the most relevant cases. However, in other countries such as Tanzania, despite changing the president every two terms, the same party has been in power since the country's independence.

In any case, it is not necessary to have experienced a change of ruling party to be a democracy. South Africa, Botswana and Namibia are three of the countries that are considered democracies and respect term limits, but in all of them the liberation movements that came to power at independence are still ruling decades later.

In addition to the imperfection, there is a current against the implementation of presidential term limits. In their argument, the restriction of two mandates encourages short term policies deadline as leaders seek the greatest impact in the time they are present in order to obtain a return on their actions.

Moreover, in undemocratic nations, holding periodic elections with new candidates increases campaign tension and the likelihood of post-election instability.

Presidential term limits are a measure with good intentions, but ineffective on its own. The recent cases of Ouattara in Ivory Coast or Alpha Condé in Guinea Conakry show that autocratic leaders can amass enough power to change the constitution at will.

To ensure that they relinquish power after two terms, the legal restriction must be accompanied by a strong civil society to push for compliance. In addition, the country must have independent institutions to guarantee the exit of the ruler.

Finally, the leader himself must want to leave. To this end, the introduction of protection mechanisms for former presidents, such as legal guarantees and a retirement salary, may favor a change. Until this happens, presidents will continue to want to die in power.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

The Conversation